Toronto has a lack of affordable housing. No surprise there. Last year, Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) had 170,000 people on its wait list. So where do they turn to? For many of them, the answer is to a Rooming House. And although our city doesn’t have an official term for them, (we literally have over 50 different definitions) they’re generally understood to be a house, apartment or building where four or more people pay separate rent and share a kitchen or a washroom. Hmmm. Sounds like my University days. Was that illegal? Well, if the accommodation isn’t zoned and licensed as a Rooming House by the city, then yes. It’s illegal.
In fact, according to a recent editorial in September 2015 Toronto Life, there remains a significantly high number of Rooming Houses around Universities and Colleges.
But as with most things in life, you can’t nor should you generalize. Rooming Houses shelter the young, old, men, women, students and immigrants alike. And they’re not always the stereotypical accommodation that you might think of. Our stereotypes are actually “outdated,” according to Dr. Lisa Freeman who conducted her doctoral research on Toronto’s rooming house bylaws. Freeman reminds us that home ownership is no longer a prerequisite for being a “good” citizen. You can add to that, nor is it an affordable option for many. Even in condominiums, the more “affordable” housing option in the GTA, the costs are increasing. Largely in part from government development charges that homeowners end up carrying the burden of. Many Torontonians are now considering Rooming Houses to be an important and necessary part of our city’s housing stock.
But that doesn’t mean condos aren’t part of the equation for those unable to afford to buy or rent one. Hello airbnb. Can you spell d-i-s-r-u-p-t-i-o-n? You just made it a whole lot easier to get into the housing market. Rumour has it that some Rooming Houses, although not perceived as such, are a reality in some downtown condos along the core. In fact, the ability to rent out a room (or two) is what actually enables some purchasers to buy a suite in the first place. Airbnb isn’t the only culprit though. Enter kijiji, flipkey and VRBO. And as more Toronto residents rent their homes online, more city councilors believe it’s necessary to set regulations. Likely a more realistic option than shutting it down completely.
Toronto’s Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat already has the impact technology has been having on our city on her radar and there have been meetings among various city departments, including economic development, planning, transportation and IT.
Councilors such as Shelley Carroll are optimistic about the city’s Rooming House Review which included the topic of short-term rentals. Carroll has commented that over 15 years after amalgamation, zoning in our city still only legally allows rooming houses in a third of our city. It’s not enough.
The purpose of the city’s review was to address three issues:
- The product – conditions and affordability
- Tenants – vulnerabilities and rights
- Community – minimal disruption to surrounding neighbours (think litter, parking, noise, to name a few.)
One of the advantages of a condo environment is that there’s a governing body and legislature that sets regulations to promote a safe living environment. Addressing short-term rentals is no exception. They can prohibit short-term rentals in the corporation all together, or install rules to mitigate any negative impact. San Francisco for example, implemented a law that anyone renting their home must be licensed (for a fee) and offer a minimum of $500,000 liability insurance. They also have restrictions on the length of stay if owners aren’t physically present.
The first place to check about what’s legally permitted in terms of rentals in a condo you’re living in or considering living in, is the Condo Docs and bylaws. If there are restrictions in place, part of your Management and Board’s responsibility will be to ensure that they’re being abided by. There may also be some very clear “tell tale” signs that signify infractions.
It’s wise to remember that active management is often better management. Since there’s often (and should be) close interaction between the board, Management and residents, there are opportunities to address issues before they become concerns. Good management conducts regular suite inspections for water, fire safety, mechanical maintenance i.e. HVAC systems and even appliance maintenance such as dryer ducts.
Proactive maintenance is always valuable, but critical in a shared environment, to prevent the potential domino effect of damage. The benefit is two-fold. For residents, it helps ensure the longevity and value of their home. For Management, these provide an opportunity, as well as a responsibility for building representatives to bring forward any suspicious activities, for the well being of their communities.
Miller Thompson, a law firm specializing in condos, advises that some common signs of shared accommodations that may be in conflict with regulations are the following:
- Locks on bedroom doors.
- Restrictive hardware on fridges, or cabinets.
- Excess number people requesting common area/lobby access.
- Excessive Elevator use for moving large items without exclusive bookings.
The concierge in particular, as the first line of sight, are extremely well acquainted with the comings and goings of those in the building. They should feel comfortable sharing any suspicious information with the Board and Management.
It’s important to make sure the Management and Board in your community don’t have a history of neglect when dealing with issues such as these. Some may turn a blind eye since there’s no disruptive behaviour or because investigating an issue could incur additional expenses. Remember, it’s the corporation as a whole that is held liable if things go wrong. Also remember that as with most concerns,the best way to deal with them is in a timely manner, peacefully and inexpensively for all parties involved.
More Rooming House Facts & Info
- List of licensed rooming houses in Toronto
- +1000 estimated illegal rooming houses in the GTA, housing 10,000 people
- Approximately 227 Licenced rooming houses in old Toronto 227 and 379 in GTA
- 88 Applications for licences
- 95 Complaints re Rooming Houses through 3-1-1 in Toronto since 2011.
- YouTube video with advocates in favour of licensing to ensure best practices for tenants
- A new precedent last summer charged a fine of $75,000
Feature Image Source: ca.easyroommate.com