SRO: From Single Room Occupancy to Standing Room Only

Alexis Mulvenna

The housing crisis in Toronto is worsening, with approximately 90,000 households currently on the wait list for social housing. In many of these cases, the availability of single room occupancies (SROs) is what keeps individuals from living on the street or in emergency shelters. An SRO contains individual rooms inside a multiple-tenant building − many of which are current or former hotels — rented out at daily, weekly, and monthly rates. But while these units play an important stopgap role amidst the current housing crisis, they are becoming fewer in number.

Some of Toronto’s most famous SROs, such as the Drake Hotel and the Gladstone Hotel, have undergone redevelopment. These establishments used to provide refuge for those with chronic addiction issues and mental illness, and for those living in extreme poverty; now, they are landmarks for different reason as high-priced hotels, fancy restaurants, and indie dance clubs. The same can be said for the former Bay Street Motel, now the pricey boutique hotel beSixFifty.

Other SROs in the city now appear to be in danger of facing a similar fate. The Waverly, a SRO on Spadina Avenue, may soon be transformed into a high-rise private student residence. Although the City of Toronto rejected the initial redevelopment proposal in January of this year, mainly due to concerns over zoning laws, owner Paul Wynn plans to appeal the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board. If the Waverly is indeed demolished, its current tenants − a handful of which are elderly and have resided there for upwards of 10 years − will be displaced. With few other housing options, these individuals would likely try to move into another SRO within the city, or be forced to transition onto the street or into an emergency shelter.

Other SROs that may soon face redevelopment include the Parkview Arms at Queen Street and Strachan Avenue, the Palace Arms on King Street, and the Broadview Hotel on Queen Street East. Many of these hotels are located in neighborhoods emerging as the hippest districts (even Vogue Magazine agrees), overrun with trendy boutiques and bars amidst increasing property values.

The Broadview Hotel has already been purchased by Streetcar Developments, with plans to turn it into a 58-suite hotel, restaurant, and café. The loss or predicted loss of these hotels represents an alarming trend, especially as little new affordable housing is being built in their place, and uncertainty surrounds the City’s ability to build 1,000 new units this year.

Critics of SROs argue that these establishments are little more than ‘flophouses’ in serious disrepair, placing the health and safety of their residents at risk, and that their presence detracts from the need for more housing of a high-quality and permanent nature. However, simply eliminating this form of housing is arguably the wrong way to go, as it places an already vulnerable population at immediate risk of homelessness.

The renovation of these buildings, if done by private owners, can result in rent increases that effectively shut out low-income residents. While some housing models do integrate a mixture of affordable and pricy units, this is mostly seen when developing new condominiums or apartments, and the same cannot necessarily be said for the re-development of SROs. In the case of the Gladstone Hotel, an initial plan to combine boutique rooms with those already inhabited by low-income residents was ultimately abandoned, and the Gladstone re-developed into the hotspot it is today (as captured in the documentary Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel).

Yet there may be lessons to be learned from other jurisdictions. Vancouver, for instance, has enacted bylaws preventing the renovation of SROs due to their acknowledged role in preventing homelessness. While Toronto has seen the preservation of some SROs, such as the New Edwin Hotel which is currently operated by Woodgreen Community Services and provides 30 transitional units, it offers them no legal or legislative protection.

In Vancouver, the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) – a program funded by the British Columbia Housing and Mortgage Corporation (a provincial Crown corporation) and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority – manages former SRO hotels on the city’s east side. These hotels provide long-term housing for hard to house populations such as those suffering from mental illness or addiction. Rent is calculated based on the shelter allowance portion of each individual’s pension or welfare payment, and buildings provide shared bathrooms, kitchens, lounges, and laundry facilities. Mental health workers also provide round-the-clock service. There are also doctors that visit, a café that provides a daily free meal to residents, and connections with a variety of other services – it is, for all intents and purposes, a community.

Funds paid out to the Portland Hotel Society are thought to be recouped from a decline in tenant contact with hospitals, the police, and the justice system. Though recently plagued by audit that showed frivolous executive spending – similar in many ways to that which recently plagued the Toronto Community Housing Corporation – the organization has since undergone a large managerial upheaval and continues to offer many critical services.

In addition to the hotels managed by the PHS, British Columbia has purchased 26 government-owned single room occupancy hotels in Vancouver since 2007 in a bid to protect the stock of affordable housing in the downtown core. Currently, 13 of these provincially-owned SROs are undergoing restoration through a public-private partnership known as the SRO Renewal Initiative. This will not only preserve the heritage features of many of these old hotels, but will ensure that clean, safe. and energy-efficient social housing is available to those in critical need.

Housing falling under provincial jurisdiction is a key factor in the difference in Toronto and Vancouver’s housing strategies vis-a-vis SROs. Unlike every other G8 nation, Canada lacks a federal housing strategy, and federal funds for social housing have been in decline for several years. Although many of Toronto’s SROs were destroyed during the ‘urban renewal’ of the 1960s-70s, SROs remained in Vancouver as a source of cheap lodging for transient workers; and while the B.C. government views SROs as a key component of their housing strategy, Ontario has largely ignored this crucial housing stock. With the rapid disappearance of Toronto’s remaining SROs, and as the housing crisis worsens, it remains to be seen if the city should or could adopt a similar housing strategy to that in Vancouver  – or if it may already be too late.

Alexis Mulvenna is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and a 2017 Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Management and Organizational Studies from Western University, where she completed a double major in business management and psychology. Alexis has a keen interest in the intersection of law and policy, and in many areas of social policy.