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Toronto city council defers vote on legalization of rooming houses

Council passes motion asking staff to report back in 2022 but some councillors oppose deferral
Oct. 5, 2021

Toronto city council has deferred a vote on the legalization of rooming houses across the city, deciding instead to seek more information from city staff before it proceeds on the issue.

At a meeting on Monday, Mayor John Tory proposed the deferral on a new regulatory framework for rooming houses. His motion passed 17 to 8. Staff are expected to report back in 2022 to the city's planning and housing committee.

"Council is not united on this issue and we shouldn't push through a framework that is so divisive. To me, that's an indication that more work needs to be done on it to get it right," Tory told council.

"Trying to ram sensitive issues through council is not the right course on things like this. We must keep doing the work to gain the confidence of more people across the entire city."

The vote was deferred during council's July 14 meeting as well.

Toronto's current patchwork of rules governing rooming or multi-tenant houses predates amalgamation. The new regulatory framework would have created a new multi-tenant house licensing bylaw that would replace the existing "fragmented" rules, apply across the city wherever zoning permits, and harmonize standards.

Tory said amalgamation happened more than 20 years ago but rooming houses is one of those issues that "divide this council along those old boundaries." Progress, however, is being made slowly, he said.

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Multi-tenant houses provide accommodation in a single room with a shared kitchen and/or bathroom. Currently, they are legal only in the former city of Toronto, parts of the former city of Etobicoke, and the former city of York.

Under the proposal that has been deferred, rooming houses would be limited to six dwelling rooms in most residential neighbourhoods and their landlords would have to be licensed. There would be parking and washroom requirements based on the number of rooms.

There would be a new multi-housing licensing tribunal and a new enforcement and compliance team that would carry out annual inspections. There would also be support for tenants in a bid to maintain affordable housing and not displace existing renters.

Some councillors representing suburban wards oppose the plan, saying their constituents are concerned about issues such as parking and protecting neighbourhoods that are now zoned for single-family dwellings. Some say there hasn't been enough public consultation.

City not showing leadership, some councillors argue
But councillors spoke out against the deferral, however, saying the city needs to show leadership on the issue.

"Doing anything other than moving forward with this is being willfully blind to the evidence and ignoring the advice that we've heard from our staff that we'll be leaving people in peril," said Coun. Josh Matlow, who represents Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul's.

Coun. Gord Perks, who represents Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park, said staff have already covered many of the items required to be looked at in the mayor's motion.

"There is nothing in the mayor's deferral that will advance this in any way," Perks said.

For her part, Coun. Cynthia Lai, who represents Ward 23, Scarborough North, said she has done her own survey and found that 20 per cent of constituents in her ward support a new regulatory framework for rooming houses while 40 per cent are opposed. Lai supported the mayor's motion.

"I just need time to change more minds," Lai said.

Larry Cocco, Toronto Deputy Fire Chief, told council that there have been 16 fatal fires in Toronto between 2010 and 2020 and 14 fatalities were in unlicensed rooming houses.

City staff have said monthly rents in rooming houses range from $400 to $700, while rent for the average studio apartment is $1,100.

Staff to conduct public consultation
The vote means the issue will be referred to the city's chief planner and executive director of city planning, the executive director of municipal licensing and standards, the executive director of the housing secretariat and the chief communications officer.

A report considered by council in July said: "Current zoning and licensing bylaws for multi-tenant houses are fragmented and have not been harmonized since amalgamation.

"Due to this lack of harmonization, people continue to operate unlicensed multi-tenant houses throughout the city, to meet demand. Residents are seeking affordable housing options where they work and have community ties, even if they are not permitted or in some cases are not safe. Unlicensed operations can result in inadequate and unsafe living conditions for tenants, as well as nuisance issues and wider community safety," the report continues.

"The pathway to achieving safe, livable and affordable multi-tenant houses starts with the recognition of these multi-tenant houses in zoning and licensing by-laws, which then enables regulatory oversight and effective enforcement."

In a news release on Monday, the city said staff will do the following: