Addressing Toronto’s loss of dwelling rooms in rooming houses

By: Ruolan Ma

As the epicentre of Ontario’s housing crisis, Toronto has a rental market with an extremely limited housing stock and one of the lowest vacancy rates in Canada at 0.5%. As a result, rental prices remain high with the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto reaching 2,250 in 2022, a 22% increase from the previous year. This situation is exacerbated by city development projects that require demolition, conversion, or renovation of existing housing. Rooming houses, or multi-tenant houses, are one of the target locations for new development projects, putting tenants under threat of eviction. However, rooming houses play an important role in providing affordable housing, since rent associated with dwelling rooms falls in the affordable or mid-range rent tier. This status quo makes addressing the loss of dwelling rooms an urgent task. As a major destination of immigration and education, Toronto attracts thousands of immigrants and international students each year. Those arriving typically have lower incomes and are therefore in need of affordable housing options. Moreover, depriving these vulnerable individuals from homes takes a toll on their mental health and could lead to a series of social problems such as increasing crime rates. The City of Toronto has started to draft a policy address this crisis; however, systemic changes should be considered to involve more experienced actors in housing and facilitate their cooperation with the government

Rooming houses are common in Toronto’s South Parkdale district. They are clean, safe, and legally licensed, providing a roof over the marginalized working class and immigrant groups. Moreover, they build a community that promotes social cohesion in the neighbourhood. However, this harmonious landscape has changed in recent years: landlords attempt to evict tenants so they can increase the rent without any limits, and investors step in to buy the houses and upscale them into high-end housing to maximize profit. Tenants in Parkdale’s rooming houses are struggling with soaring rent due to the decrease in supply, living in fear of losing the only home they can afford. 

To prevent the excessive loss of dwelling homes, the City Council of Toronto has created policies to address this issue. In June 2019, the Official Plan Amendment 453 is approved to address the loss of dwelling rooms due to redevelopment and the displacement of tenants.. Specifically, the policy outlines requirements for developments resulting in the loss of ten or more dwelling rooms: they should provide replacement and maintenance of the same amount of residential area as rental units or dwelling rooms, remain a similar rent level of replacement housing, and work on tenant relocation and assistance plan.

The consultation process  carried out by Luna Consulting uncovers opportunities and challenges brought by this policy. For example, the policy will generate more public attention to preserving affordable housing, which could lead to more investment. A more active involvement and investment of non-profit organizations working in this policy area and the government are expected since they have more information in hand. In fact, other major cities in North America that face the same problem of losing dwelling homes, such as Montreal, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Chicago, have witnessed promising results from city and non-profit acquisition. This including includes the operation of dwelling room buildings, mostly because the non-market ownership guarantees the rights of tenants compared to the privatized market which favors wealthy tenants. Toronto has started the experiment with this scheme: in October 2021, the City of Toronto passed a motion to explore the purchase of a west end rooming house to expand the supply of affordable housing. In addition, the Multi-Unit Residential Acquisition (MURA) program was established to fund non-profit housing organizations and community land trusts to prevent affordable housing from being lost to the private market. The engagement of the government and non-profit actors will eventually create a safety net for tenants in at-risk rooming houses.

However, stakeholders also expressed the concern over lack of data gathering and coordination between housing organizations in the city, which makes enforcing housing protection policies less effective. Along with the implementation of the policy, different organizations should collaborate on data collection related to rooming houses and tenants while ensuring all tenants have access to legal assistance. Non-profit organizations working on protecting affordable housing, such as the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, should be more involved in the process of both policy consultation and implementation to close the information gap and mobilize more people to join the campaign.

As one of the last remaining affordable housing stock in Toronto, rooming houses are now under threat of being replaced by development projects that could render many individuals from vulnerable groups homeless. While the policy is being drafted to address this issue, the city of Toronto should consider a strategy promoting the role of non-profit actors, which involves plans for a better coordination.

Ruolan Ma is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She graduated from McGill University in 2022 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and Economics. Her research interests include economic and immigration policy. 


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