This Week in Urban Affairs: Toronto’s ‘Single Room Occupancy’

On Thursday night, John Tory was dealt a rare defeat in Toronto council: he had to withdraw his support for a measure that would have required rooming houses in the city to register with…

This Week in Urban Affairs: Toronto’s ‘Single Room Occupancy’

On Thursday night, John Tory was dealt a rare defeat in Toronto council: he had to withdraw his support for a measure that would have required rooming houses in the city to register with the city. All the necessary city councillors had to vote “yes” for the plan to be supported, but it was derailed by one vote. A rare motion agreed to by all except Conservative councillor Andrea Reimer put forward a policy to require rooming houses to register with the city or, in the event of a denial, could face fines of $5,000 to $10,000. In the end, the motion only received the votes of Tory and Reimer.

At the council meeting that night, Tory insisted that the housing bill was not about making rooming houses register, but about targeting the problem by sending a message to those running the houses that the city was watching. But John Campbell, the president of the Canadian Association of Round Homes Associations, said that while such a notification was a welcome step forward, all it would have really done was take time away from the types of action that could be taken. “There are cities across North America that have stopped the problem by regulating us and shutting us down. We shouldn’t be penalized for that.”

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In this exclusive, WSJ.com’s Jack Siegel and Mariam Hosseini look at how Toronto’s rooming houses, or “single room occupancy”, remain largely unregulated. After a civil trial, a city judge ruled in favour of the tenants, ruling that the city had breached its duty to the residents by failing to properly monitor and enforce the rules that govern their buildings.

The Commons committee on housing — chaired by Ontario Conservative MP John Carmichael — gave the government until Jan. 14 to adopt or amend the ruling. But that was more than enough time for Montreal to approve legislation that would bring in new rules — which stipulated that owners of common dwellings such as accommodations must register with the city — on Jan. 1.

In Ontario, the government ordered rooming houses to be regulated before, in 2008, facing a lawsuit by councillors who said the rules were too weak and that the province should do more to protect Toronto’s most vulnerable residents. There are about 1,400 rooms in Toronto, and several hundred are unregistered, according to Anna Brooks of the Toronto Real Estate Board.

Despite rising rents, Toronto has only two city-level planning departments, which don’t have the capacity to monitor some complaints of overcrowding, said Mayor John Tory. While conditions vary widely, residents can end up living in filthy conditions in hundreds of building: shared bathrooms, converted garage spaces and less secure living quarters.

The mother of a Chinese immigrant killed after escaping an overcrowded home three years ago, said simply “Any killing, any brutalization happens on the backs of vulnerable immigrants.”

The following stories are excerpted from Race for Home: Urban Sprawl in Canada, The Globe and Mail.

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