A controversial proposal to legalize rooming houses across Toronto has Scarborough city councillors facing off against their downtown counterparts.
Under current zoning and licensing bylaws, rooming houses are allowed only in the old city of Toronto and various parts of Etobicoke.
The proposed plan would harmonize the rules to make rooming houses legal in areas like Scarborough, where they are currently banned.
But Scarborough councillors say their constituents do not want rooming houses in their neighbourhoods because of the strain it would place on the community’s infrastructure. They have also raised concerns about absentee landlords who rent rooms to rowdy tenants.
“People have said they want to keep their single-family community,” Ward 44 councillor Ron Moeser said. “People in the suburbs have driveways, larger lots, backyards, and they want to maintain the character of that. It’s very different in the city of Toronto.”
Ward 38 councillor Glen De Baeremaeker said downtown Toronto, which has a longer history of rooming houses, has learned to accommodate them but suburban areas are built very differently.
“Downtown Toronto does not look like my ward. We have a different urban form, we have different types of people and we have different income levels — we’re poorer,” De Baeremaeker said of his Scarborough East ward.
A 2007 University of Toronto report, The Three Cities within Toronto, tracked the growing income disparity in the city over the past 30 years. The result was a portrait of Toronto divided into three cities based on income, with the richest living in the downtown core and the poorest in the inner suburbs, including Scarborough.
Rooming houses would increase the stock of low-cost housing in the city, said Roxanne Clarke of WoodGreen Community Services.
“Rooming houses are the only form of affordable housing for low-income persons and workers. Legalizing it would encourage
developers to not just build single-family dwellings and condominiums, but to actually build rooming houses.”
Councillors who say rooming houses are a threat to single-family homes are just using this as an excuse to keep low-income residents out of their neighbourhoods, Clarke said.
“I think they’re worried about the supposed problems that seem to follow along with low-income type housing, Clarke said. “If rooming houses are legalized — with more and more non-absentee landlords and having rules in place — this would decrease the problems they are probably foreseeing in their communities.”
A revised proposal from city staff prohibits rooming houses in single-family subdivisions but legalizes them in high-density residential areas close to main roads.
De Baeremaeker said he supports the new proposal because it accommodates low-income residents who can only afford to rent rooms for $300 a month, while at the same time respecting people who have single-family homes.
“I need to help my fellow Scarborough residents who are having challenges making money to give them appropriate and decent accommodation,” he said. “But I don’t want to do that at the expense of everybody else.”
Rooming house advocates argue legalizing rooming houses would allow the city to inspect the homes and provide protection for tenants.
But changing the bylaw would not automatically get rid of bad landlords who exploit their tenants, De Baeremaeker said
“We have to do better enforcement and prosecution of the horrible people who break the law,” he said. “At the same time we should open up well-run, professional, high-quality rooming houses so the people who have to live there at least have a decent place to live and have a way to protect themselves.”
Last week, the city’s planning and transportation committee voted to defer debate on the bylaw until after the election this fall.
But De Baeremaeker is pressing for the issue to be debated now.
“I think it was unfortunate it was deferred,” he said. “The longer you defer, the longer (there will be) people who are living in poverty and the longer they’re going to be vulnerable.”