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John Tory suffered a rare loss at Toronto council over legalizing rooming houses. An inside look at a move that baffled and outraged housing critics
Oct. 26, 2021
David Rider

Potentially unsafe rooming houses would be facing regulations and regular inspections if only one or two more suburban councillors had backed proposed new citywide rules fervently opposed by some homeowners.

The exact vote on the “new regulatory framework for multi-tenant houses” will never be known because Mayor John Tory, who backed the plan, learned during early debate at October’s council meeting that majority support wasn’t there.

Intense lobbying over months to convince councillors of the merits of modernizing and expanding citywide a licensing regime that has long regulated rooming houses only downtown and in parts of Etobicoke and York had failed.

If were put to a losing vote, the years-in-the-making framework would go in the trash. Homes with multiple private bedrooms and shared kitchens and bathrooms -- renting at $400 to $700 per room per month, compared to the $1,148 average for a Toronto bachelor apartment -- would remain illegal, illicit and underground across most of the rest of the city for years to come.

Tory instead tabled a successful motion to kick the framework back to city staff for more work and a return to council sometime next year -- possibly after the October 2022 municipal election that some councillors think was an unspoken factor.

The mayor’s rare policy loss at council -- three of his four deputy mayors voiced opposition -- baffled and outraged housing advocates given Toronto’s dire shortage of accommodation for its lowest-income, most vulnerable residents.

Six city divisions helped draft the multi-pronged plan including the fire service which noted that, of the 18 rooming house fires since 2010 where somebody died, all but two were in illegal, unregulated homes.

To better understand the impasse, the Star asked Tory and seven of his council colleagues what led to the latest in a decade of attempts to harmonize rooming house rules -- and why that vote never happened.

Here’s what we learned:

Carroll thinks he should done more. “He could have, and I think he should have,” whipped the vote given the risk posed by illegal rooming houses, she says. Asked if she thinks the fact the politicians will face voters next year played a role, she says: “Of course,” adding some call the pre-election period “silly season” because of council members’ extra caution and aversion to controversy.

“People who live downtown have very little understanding of what goes on in the former suburbs,” Filion says. “Like, thinking that by doing this you’re going to get rid of illegal rooming houses -- there’s nothing that we saw that would indicate that at all.”

“Residents’ frame of reference, the status quo, is an illegal mess at the end of their block -- ‘You’re asking me if I want more of that?’” Carroll says. “You have to explain to them how that mess at the end of the block can change with licensing. Many of my colleagues have not bothered to do that work -- they sent out a poll to people whose only frame of reference is unsupervised, unregulated, entirely illegal housing. Licensing is about stamping that out.”

Nunziata tells the Star: “Some councillors are afraid of reaction from homeowners but my constituents support legalizing because their nightmare is that for years we haven’t been able to enforce rules for illegal ones. We can inspect the legal ones. I was hoping I would change some minds.” Her speech appeared to sway no votes.

“I would have wanted to vote for it,” he says. “The challenge is, I heard fairly strongly from my community ‘Fix the illegals (rooming houses) first and then maybe we can look at that path forward.”

On the other side of Toronto, Coun. Stephen Holyday (Ward 2 Etobicoke Centre) is unconvinced rooming houses belong in suburbs. “You’re putting six units in a home built for one family,” he says, citing concerns including parking. “It’s a very large change and I’m not convinced it needs to occur in these types of places ... I try to not get into the argument about income or people -- it’s not about that, it’s about the physical form and its function itself.”

Tory’s motion to kick the issue back to staff passed 17-8, supported by councillors on both sides of the divide. Bailao, who often votes with the mayor, was not among them. “I know how bad the (housing) crisis is out there, I just couldn’t do it -- it would go against my principles,” she says. “These improvements would benefit tenants and the communities surrounding them. I don’t understand councillors not working with constituents to find a solution. I wouldn’t have (made a referral motion) but I respect the mayor’s willingness to continue working on the issue. I just think the solution was there and I wanted to vote for it.”