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The City's long-awaited proposal for rooming houses

Nowadays, I don’t come across many Torontonians who aren’t fully aware of our crisis in housing affordability. Since the dawn of this millennium, it has been clear that this city is fully built out, more or less.


This means as we grow in population, the short supply is driving prices up for both rental and ownership of all types of housing. This is driving some people out of the legal housing market altogether and into illegal accommodation.



Background


Don Valley North is an area that started this millennium offering a wide range of legitimate housing options. From the late Fifties onwards, we have become host to almost every new housing approach; from post-war single family subdivisions to semi-detached second-suite homes, both rental and condominium townhomes, government rent-geared-to-income homes and, of course, our tower block villages that have provided first homes to so many in Toronto.


All these housing types face challenges during this extreme affordability crisis. Pre-COVID, rental apartments had vacancy rates of less than one per cent, and some landlords took advantage by charging as much as the market could bear, feeling no pressure to maintain their buildings properly. (NB: In recent months, vacancy rates in Toronto have risen above two per cent for the first time in 10 years. Whether this trend remains in a post-COVID world remains to be seen.) Council has struggled with enforcing standards in our apartment blocks for years. Most recently, the new program called RentSafeTO is being used to improve building maintenance standards and monitor adherence to COVID-19 guidelines. We know the short-term rental market for travellers was exploding before the pandemic began. So many homes were being rented by tourists and party hosts that Airbnb and similar services expanded beyond Toronto's tourist district to residential neighbourhoods. When houses are used for this purpose, it takes that home out of the rental market for a family who really needs it and may have been the ideal tenant and neighbour.


As many of you know, Council has created strict new laws for short-term rentals and won its legal battle to be able to begin enforcement. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this new law can’t truly be put to the test until pre-pandemic rates of travel resume.



What the City is doing


The biggest challenge we face, as so many of you know, is the proliferation of illegal rooming houses.


What started at about the time of the double-cohort year in colleges and universities in 2003 has become a widespread, unlicensed practice across Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. I have been trying to herd together all the City forces necessary to address this problem since that time. Now, City Staff is finally ready to work together with local communities and councillors to get the problem under control.

Next week, councillors can attend the Planning and Housing Committee to hear what City Staff are proposing to present to residents in consultation sessions across the inner suburbs. After incorporating your suggestions and addressing your concerns, they hope to have a final rooming house strategy that the Mayor and Council will be able to review and vote on by summer 2021. I have some concerns with the solution that has been proposed, but I am going to support bringing it out to you for consultation. At the end of the day, the status quo is not sustainable. This is a city-wide issue badly in need of a city-wide discussion, and I have some strong ideas about how that discussion should proceed.

The challenges Let’s agree on what the challenges are and agree they exist for multiple stakeholders — namely both neighbours of illegal rooming houses and the tenants within. After all, having a common understanding is conducive to reaching a consensus.

  1. Council has taken a position I think we can all agree on: access to safe, affordable housing is a human right. Because the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Toronto is $1900, single minimum-wage earners, students and many ODSP recipients are left without this human right fulfilled.

  2. Multi-tenanted houses, meaning more than two leaseholders, are illegal throughout North York, Scarborough and most of Etobicoke. While they might be affordable, we have absolutely no way of ensuring rooming houses are safe when their tenants can’t admit they live there due to fear of becoming homeless.

  3. Because rooming houses are illegal, the City can't consistently enforce the property standards set out in our by-laws, nor can we ensure they meet building and fire codes. So long as the owner maintains he is not running a rooming house, provincial laws do not allow Toronto by-law officers the power to enter a private residence and inspect it because they need permission from the owner.

  4. While rooming houses are illegal, City by-law enforcement must monitor and investigate rooming houses for months in an attempt to prosecute and close them down. Currently, there is no proper source of funding for this work, other than a drain on conventional property taxes — your taxes. Similarly, fire fighters must do their best with preventive inspections without a revenue source while being painfully aware that 14 people have died in rooming house fires in the last 10 years.


The proposal These are all problems that have led City staff to make a bold recommendation. Staff propose that we allow property owners to apply for licenses to legitimize multi-tenanted homes (rooming houses) under strict conditions and under the agreement to allow City inspection and enforcement at all times. If you live on a street where these residences exist, you will have the same reaction I had when I read this staff proposal: that this seems impossible to implement. Here’s the thing. Having read all 34 pages of their report, I’m prepared to have this discussion. However, I want to hear much more detail than the report offers about how the City will embark on this licensing program while moving aggressively to bring action against rooming houses that continue to operate illegally with no license.


In the suburbs, City Staff are proposing that we enforce a maximum of six tenants per home, which is more stringent than what is allowed downtown. That would be good news because it's far fewer than the numbers I've seen in some of the problem properties in Don Valley North. Staff also suggest that parking must be brought into compliance with all other homes on the street, which is a very fair demand. After all, in any legal apartment building where a unit doesn’t come with parking, you make other arrangements for your car or look for housing where a parking spot is available.


Staff are also proposing a very thorough list of fire-safe and building code requirements. Only after Council agrees to these licensing pieces, will staff develop their implementation and enforcement plan.


This is where the proposal loses me. I need a plan of action before I can vote to proceed with licensing rooming houses on any street across the City, and more importantly, so do you. You need to know how this is actually going to work on your street before you agree.



My thoughts


We have a tendency in Toronto to make big decisions and big commitments without having an honest look at what it will cost, year after year. In order to get to "yes", Council tends to want to hear that things can be done for free. When that doesn't turn out to be true, we are stuck with a program that will cost more to execute than we thought and our first instinct is to cut back on the proper resources to inspect and enforce. That's why there must be a concrete plan on how implementation and enforcement would work when this proposal is presented in community consultation events.


I’m looking for a solution to rooming houses that is so well-executed that it drives this form of housing to suitable locations — and I don't see it yet in this report. I want a program where both tenants and neighbours feel safe, where no property is approved until it is thoroughly evaluated and inspected. This means rigorous initial inspection of building code and property standards compliance, and then true regular follow-up to address any illegitimate alterations. Right now, I'm not seeing the numbers necessary to make this possible.


But one thing both tenants and neighbouring homeowners will need to know for sure is that we have a real solution that works in the contexts of both the suburbs and downtown — not just a new regime where we end up brewing licensed rooming houses and just as many illegal ones.


Lastly, I’m looking for a solution that restores the vibrancy of every street in our ward. In a city like ours, everyone should have a fair shot at putting a roof over their head and a fair chance at becoming a valued member of their community, which is something we can all agree on.

 

Community Notices

 

Upcoming Community Meetings


City Planning staff will be hosting virtual community meetings in the coming weeks to hear from residents about two development applications in the ward:


1181 Sheppard Ave E: Monday, November 16, 2020 at 6:30 pm


The application is proposing a 22-storey office building and a 25-storey residential building with 513 units, connected by a mixed-use podium. It includes a new day nursery.


680-688 Sheppard Ave E: Monday, November 23, 2020 at 6:30 pm


The application is proposing a 24-storey residential building with 527 residential units, including 35 rental replacement units. It includes a new day nursery.You can join the meetings online by WebEx or call in by phone. Please register through the links above and you will receive further instructions by email.


 




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