Publications, opinions, and speeches
Why we’re not celebrating Toronto’s rooming house legalization just yet
Published on 31/01/2023
Did you break out the bubbly on December 14? After a long haul, we don’t blame anyone who wants to celebrate that Toronto City Council finally passed a regulatory framework that will make rooming houses legal across the city.
At the risk of being killjoys, we are not celebrating this new regulatory framework as a victory – not yet. To get it passed, concessions were made to what was originally proposed. This type of political negotiation is not unusual and not always problematic. In this case, we are concerned that the concessions undermine the intent of the framework and that the resulting number of rooming houses will not be at the scale needed to meet the challenge of our affordable housing crisis.
The limitations built into the regulatory framework could displace tenants by driving landlords to sell their buildings, or drive illegal houses run by irresponsible landlords further underground.
For example, the decision to limit rooming houses to a maximum of six dwelling rooms (bedrooms) would exclude many existing, quality rooming houses with more than six rooms. A landlord of such a building will be faced with the choice of converting to six units or family-sized units and raising rents to make up the short-fall, or selling the property – meaning that Toronto will lose vital affordable housing supply and tenants will be displaced. Or they might choose to operate illegally, diminishing tenants’ rights and completely defeating the purpose of the bylaw.
The new regulations specify health and safety standards to ensure that rooming houses comply with provincial building and fire codes, for example. This is good and necessary. It is also costly. Responsible landlords might be willing to do what’s needed to bring the building up to code, but the cost might very well be prohibitive. Again, this could drive current landlords to sell off their properties. Landlords who are not willing to meet these standards might simply remain underground.
The City can prevent this by implementing the new regulations with the goal of protecting tenants and preserving existing rooming houses that can meet standards. Joy Connelly, a housing advocate and researcher, recommends “grand-fathering” in rooming houses with more than six dwelling rooms, as long as they meet existing standards that prevent over-crowding. She also recommends the City immediately get a grant and/or loan program up and running that landlords can use to bring their buildings up to code while maintaining affordable rents.
These examples point to broader questions about the enforcement of regulations: how will they be enforced and for whose benefit? Bylaw enforcement is not normally considered exciting nor political. But this one might be different. There’s a reason why it took so long to get this regulatory framework passed. Some people really don’t want rooming houses – or rather, the people who live in them – in “their” neighbourhood. Many of these opponents will be watching closely that rooming houses do not impinge on their imagined “right” to have the neighbourhood look and feel exactly the way they want it to. They will undoubtedly be looking over the shoulders of enforcement officers to ensure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed, and that each rooming house provides 0.34 parking spaces per dwelling room (another prohibitive concession in the new regulations).
Enforcement is necessary, of course. It should be focused on ensuring the tenants’ right to adequate housing. The well-being and rights of tenants, not neighbours, is the priority. A human rights-based approach to enforcement would put tenants at the centre and seek solutions that shore up the human right to housing. For example, a human rights-based approach would seek to preserve existing, quality housing stock and protect existing tenants. When a rooming house must be closed because it cannot reasonably be brought up to code, a process and supports should be in place to ensure that tenants can transition to alternative adequate housing, rather than being put out onto the street. Tenants should be able to exercise agency in the decisions around their housing, and act as equal and respected participants in the process.
The good news is that this is not a new idea. Toronto can look to internationally established human rights principles and norms to guide its work. In fact, it has already started. While the City was developing the regulatory framework, Maytree had the opportunity to work with an interdivisional working group to conduct a human rights review. This process involved staff across five departments, who each saw the value and relevancy of the human rights-based approach to their area of responsibility.
We are also on the cusp of two new human rights mechanisms that can guide the implementation of the regulatory framework and, more broadly, how the City moves towards its stated goal of fulfilling the human right to housing. In the coming year, the City will establish a deputy ombudsman for housing and a housing human rights council. Together, these two bodies can monitor and hold the City accountable for the implementation of rooming houses, grounded in human rights principles and practices.
Legalizing rooming houses was long overdue, and a lot of work has gone into getting to this point. It is progress. Now we need to make sure we continue to move forward, not back. As the City implements the new rules, protecting tenants must be its first priority.