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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Rooming Houses = Affordable Homes

by Regini David and Sritharan Kannamuthu

For over 21 years, West Scarborough Community Legal Services (WSCLS) has provided legal advice and representation on laws relating to poverty for low income persons in Scarborough. One of the major areas of our work is helping tenants with housing issues. WSCLS currently is working on a campaign along with other housing advocates and organizations on rooming house issues.

A rooming house is a dwelling where three or more people share a bathroom or a kitchen as tenants. Rooming houses have always provided affordable housing to many people in the City of Toronto. In Scarborough, East York and North York, present zoning by-laws are such that rooming houses are not permitted.

In Etobicoke and York, they are only allowed in very restricted areas, while in the former City of Toronto they are generally allowed. Often these prohibitions and restrictions are ignored. In a City that is experiencing a crisis in providing affordable housing, shared residential uses will always be in demand by people who cannot afford to buy or rent self-contained units.

The City has a strict licensing system to protect rooming house tenants and our neighbourhoods from overcrowding, bad maintenance and exploitation. However, because most rooming houses are not a recognized use in the zoning by-law, they are outside this system of protection.

“I have been living in so-called “illegal” rooming houses for the last 14 years in many parts of the city. As someone with a low income, receiving Ontario Disability Support, I am not able to pay for a full apartment. The only homes I can find are rooming houses with my limited income.” Kannamuthu

Restricting rooming houses in some parts of the City will force low income persons further into poverty and push them away from affordable housing because they will not be able to pay full rent to live there. It is almost impossible to get into Toronto Community Housing when people need it the most. There is a waiting list of 70,000. Therefore, a person on welfare receiving $364 a month for shelter, or a single parent family paid minimum wage of $ 10.25 an hour, or a student on OSAP with a limited budget mainly can only afford rooming houses.

Unsafe Conditions

Many people are living in unsafe conditions. The current City by-law pushes common working class people into very vulnerable situations and strips them of their basic right to safe and affordable homes.

“I share a basement apartment with other tenants. My landlord has not given me any key. My room window does not open. The ceiling is covered in Styrofoam. If rooming houses were legalized and inspected across the City, landlords would be forced to provide safe living conditions. This is essential as rooming houses are the only option to keep me away from the streets or the shelters.” Kumari.

The Toronto Housing Charter says: “All residents should be able to live in the neighbourhood of choice without discrimination.”

Taking Away My Choice to Live in My Neighborhood is Discrimination

“I am very upset and disturbed to know that rooming houses are illegal in Scarborough and especially that last fall the Planning Committee proposed that they would permit rooming houses in certain areas but not in residential areas. This is discrimination and City Councillors are not ready to address this reality. I have always lived in residential areas with many other rooming house tenants. I know there are many rooming houses in my neighbourhood. I do not want to identify the location because I do not want myself or my friends to end up on the streets” Kannamuthu

The City by-laws target people who are the most marginalized, the most vulnerable and most in need. According to the United Way Report, Scarborough saw a 136% increase in the number of “poor families” between 1981- 2001. Further, according to the Shared Accommodation, June 2008 Report, there are over 165,000 low income single adults in Toronto, for whom rooming houses are the most affordable option. Ontario Human Rights Chief Commissioner, Barbara Hall has informed the City of Toronto Planning and Growth Management Committee that the City by-law has the potential to violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“I am a person with epilepsy and I am emotionally disturbed due to a war in my country. I was a government officer back home. Due to my health condition and economic status, I am now in this living condition. I see many other immigrants, people with low-income in the same situation as me. We already face so many barriers to surviving in this city due to our status and health. Not allowing rooming houses in our neighbourhoods adds another barrier by making us occupants of illegal houses. The city is placing another barrier to our most basic right to affordable housing” Kannamuthu

Making rooming houses illegal in some parts of the City creates barriers within our own communities because these restrictions are based on economic status. Those most affected by these are low income families, new immigrants, students and people with disabilities.

It's Time to Act

All tenants deserve equal treatment. We believe that rooming houses should be licensed, inspected, and standardized in all areas of the City to ensure affordable housing for every tenant in this City without discrimination.

Affordable Housing is one of the primary ways to help low income people out of poverty. We know that rooming houses are very important to keep people off the streets and provide affordable homes for many low income individuals. The City by-law should include everyone and address the needs of the entire community.

Delaying or avoiding decisions on this important issue will not make it go away. It will simply leave tenants and their neighbourhoods vulnerable to those who would work outside the laws that aim to keep our city healthy.

This is an important issue for people who are directly affected and the many grassroots community organizations that are working with these marginalized individuals. We have come together to build awareness and address this important issue in our communities.

Rooming house tenants as a group, are leading the fight and are organizing at the grassroots level for change. We are working with other organizations that are also playing a major role in trying to provide affordable homes, many for years, such as the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), The Rupert Coalition and other community organizations in Scarborough and some other parts of the city.

We will not stop until our affordable homes are legalized and safe. Please join our fight for affordable and safe homes for low income families.

  • Visit our blog to sign the petition at http://roominghouse.wordpress.com
  • Join us by lobbying your councillors.
  • Support us by passing this important message on to your friends and family.
  • Call one of our members to speak at your event to get the word out for change.
  • If you or someone you know wants to file a Human Rights complaint as a rooming house tenant, please contact us.
  • For further information, contact Regini David at 416-285-0502 x 226 or visit the WSCL web site at http://www.westscarboroughlegal.ca

Regini David
is a Community Legal Worker for the West Scarborough Community Legal Services, and Sritharan Kannamuthu is an Advocate and Member of Tenants Support Group of the West Scarborough Community Legal Services.

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