Although rooming houses pose a stopgap solution to Toronto's deepening housing affordability crisis, the framework that would help legalize them city-wide has once again been delayed.
According to an update for the Planning and Housing Committee, released today, the regulatory report that has been in limbo since mid-2021 won't be available until early next year. The delay has been met with frustration from community advocates and housing affordability experts. Councillor Josh Matlow even took to Twitter to voice his disquiet.
In an interview with STOREYS, Matlow says the onus is on the government. There is very little urgency in the matter and lagging legislation is leaving people in unsafe conditions.
"I think it's shameful to delay moving forward on necessary regulations to protect the health and safety of Toronto residents, many of whom are some of the most marginalized members of our society," he says. "I understand that politics plays a role in a lot of what's debated in council... but this is about the basic health and safety of marginalized residents in the midst of a housing crisis."
Rooming houses, also called multi-tenant houses, have been a hot topic of conversation in Toronto for some time. This is not the first setback to rooming house legislation.
The creation of a city-wide zoning approach and standardized regulations for rooming houses were proposed to Toronto City Council in June 2021. At that time, regulatory framework was presented for consideration, but Council's decision on the matter was then deferred twice that same year -- first in July and then again in October. The item was slated for reconsideration in 2022, but despite a motion brought forward by Councillor Gord Perks in May, the issue remained unaddressed.
To date, the prevailing reasoning given for the delays is that issue is too "divisive," which has ostensibly resulted in a lack of majority agreement amongst council members. Mayor John Tory has also stated that the matter is "politically complicated" and requires extensive work to get right.
"I don't think it's arguable that it's politically complicated... but it doesn't have to be that complicated," says Matlow. "City Council has a choice. It could take action now if it chose to. It already knows that we are leaving marginalized people in jeopardy. And quite frankly, to sit on our hands and deliberately delay until after our election, I find just deplorable. It's like we're reluctant to make difficult decisions."
At the moment, the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO) has a provincial appeal pertaining to the city's multi-tenant framework with the Ontario Land Tribunal forthcoming. If Council fails to take action that advances the framework, ACTO has stated that they are prepared to press forward nonetheless.
ACTO's stance is that rooming houses could help to diversify Toronto's housing offerings, particularly as it pertains to Toronto's hot, often inaccessible rental market.
"ACTO has been working with the City of Toronto directly for over a decade to implement a framework to broadly legalize and regulate rooming houses," Genrys Goodchild, a spokesperson for ACTO tells STOREYS. "Multi-tenant homes (rooming houses) are one of the last types of truly affordable housing available for Toronto residents, and legalizing and regulating them would offer an immediate, practical, and necessary step to address the affordable housing crisis in the city. Though we understand the need to get the recommendations right, there have already been multiple delays. Therefore, we are very disappointed the rooming house decision has been deferred by the Toronto council yet again."
It's worth noting that the red tape surrounding rooming houses isn't necessarily dissuading residents from the multi-tenant living format. For instance, in Scarborough, where rooming houses are technically illegal, it's common for many renters to live under the same roof, although they are not typically disclosing this reality to government entities. In some cases, these types of arrangements can be squalid and unsafe. Moreover, these under-the-radar rooming houses are not being accurately reflected in census data.
The framework would provide much-needed regulation for the rooming housing that's already in use. It could also help to expand safe, liveable, and affordable rental housing options for marginalized communities like seniors, low-income earners, students, and newcomers to Canada.
"The really sad thing about it, in my view, is that we represent them too. We represent the residents who are homeowners... but we also equally represent the people who are residing in those rooming houses. And we've already been told straight out that they're at risk if those multi-tenant buildings aren't regulated," says Matlow. "I know that it's a contentious issue and we're in elections. That's not a good enough excuse, but I think that's the reason."
We've already seen rooming house legislation rolled out effectively in other parts of the world, but with little urgency being given to the matter in Toronto, official framework is at best a distant reality.