Rooming house debate in Toronto: A groundswell of opposition

Please enable Javascript to watch this video A proposal by Toronto Mayor John Tory to legalize rooming houses across the city has been met with a widespread backlash. Rooming houses are small, unlicensed boarding…

Rooming house debate in Toronto: A groundswell of opposition

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A proposal by Toronto Mayor John Tory to legalize rooming houses across the city has been met with a widespread backlash.

Rooming houses are small, unlicensed boarding homes for low-income families in neighborhoods where property values have grown expensive.

Tory says the city’s real estate market has created a housing shortage and a housing crisis. With city council set to vote on the issue this week, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the push.

‘Riding the buckaloos’

Mayor Tory initially called on the government to legalize rooming houses last May. He said the city would like to “go where it was headed 20 or 30 years ago” when he started.

But while housing affordability has improved in big cities like San Francisco and New York, in Toronto, rooming houses have proliferated.

A report published by the City of Toronto in May estimated there are more than 4,500 licensed rooming houses in the city, renting hundreds of thousands of apartments.

The apartments are intended for low-income earners, but critics of the proposal say the homes are often for people without housing help, and targeted to those who rely on social assistance.

Getting back on track

The proposal to legalize rooming houses was met with protests and official opposition from both major political parties.

Then in late August, the Housing Task Force, an advisory committee appointed by the city’s mayor, called on council to support the idea.

“We should be looking at options to address this housing crisis and I do believe that the rooming house model is one of those,” Tory said in August.

The City of Toronto website explains: “The principles of this amendment are to manage and regulate rooming houses.”

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Home rule

Tory has pushed a more conciliatory approach to tackling the city’s housing shortage, and exploring alternatives to simply building more apartments.

Housing advocates argue that instead of banning the homes outright, the city should push for greater municipal controls, as the federal government has not modernized its regulations around space.

Opponents of the policy point to other big cities around the world that have already decriminalized and legalized rooming houses.

Although places like Vancouver and the United Kingdom have outlawed the residences, in other countries like Germany, rooming houses are seen as part of the community and are regulated by local government.

Tory’s organization, United Communities, has since been involved in organizing protests against the plan, claiming that the group lacks proper background information on the issue.

Video by Justin Moore/Getty Images

“This sort of proposal defies common sense and the core principles that define democracy,” said Lisa Turnbull, executive director of Toronto’s advocacy group Atira Women’s Resource Society.

“This may prove to be the most divisive election in our city’s history, but the Mayor’s rhetoric and absence of concrete solutions puts Toronto and its needs ahead of its political standings at the polls.”

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