People who oppose rooming houses in Toronto are just plain wrong

OPINION: The proper role of city government should be to make such spaces safe and well-regulated — not to try to legislate them out of existence
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 13, 2021
Rooming houses are legal, licensed, and planned for in the boundaries of pre-amalgamation Toronto. (iStock/FOTOGRAFIA INC.)

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It’s not obvious why the Progressive Conservative MPP for Scarborough–Agincourt, Aris Babikian, decided that a Toronto city council matter required his attention; he’s a Toronto MPP, but then so are 24 other people at Queen’s Park, and they only rarely decide to weigh in on local matters. But there he was, railing against a proposal at the city’s planning and housing committee.

What was the outrage that had so seized Babikian’s attention? Were those Marxists at Toronto city council proposing to seize the means of production and outlaw God?

No, they were proposing to legalize rooming houses throughout the city.

“If this proposal is approved by the committee and city council, you are going to forever ruin the peace, tranquillity, and cohesion of our city and turn neighbours against neighbours and families against families,” Babikian told the committee. (Queen’s Park Briefing reported on Babikian’s appearance last month, mentioning his profoundly unwise decision to describe the hostile questioning he’d received from some city councillors as “a lynching.”)

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MPPs are allowed to make fools of themselves in public. Indeed, in the summer-news doldrums, I personally encourage it — it makes my job easier. But it’s worth emphasizing just how wrong-headed Babikian and the other opponents of this initiative are, since the final decision will be made by Toronto city council at its meeting this week.

Rooming houses (or, in Toronto’s current technocratic euphemism, “multi-tenant houses”) already exist in the province’s capital city, and in large numbers. They’re legal, licensed, and planned for in the boundaries of pre-amalgamation Toronto, and they’re illegal and unlicensed through the rest of the city. There are 350 or so licensed rooming houses in the old city; nobody knows how many illegal and unlicensed ones there are — city staff, in their public presentation, note that it’s “a challenge” to accurately estimate how many illegal rooming houses there are across Toronto.

At the council meeting this week, the city’s elected officials will have to decide whether they’ll sweep away one of the archaic vestiges of pre-1997 Toronto and allow rooming houses across the city, and I sincerely hope they do — both because, on the specific question of rooming houses, it’s the right thing to do and because Toronto has several more housing matters on the agenda over the next several months, and it would set a good precedent.

On the specific question of rooming houses, it’s important to say that they’ve been a part of the city’s housing market for generations and that they have always provided an affordable option for those who were willing to sacrifice the missing amenities — including numerous marginalized groups but, most classically, new immigrants just looking to find their place in a new land. Cities that didn’t want those marginalized groups in their midst have gone to great lengths to exclude rooming houses (and, indeed, anything except for large single-family homes, where possible). But as the number of illegal rooming houses in Toronto proves, closing our eyes to the facts doesn’t change them: people need shelter, and they’ll often need to find the cheapest four walls and a roof they can. The proper role of city government should be to make those spaces safe and well-regulated, not to try to legislate them out of existence. This is doubly true in a city that’s been in a prolonged housing crisis: people need homes, and, for plenty of people, a rooming house is it.

But in coming months, Toronto is going to have more decisions to make on housing and planning policy. And setting the precedent early that shrieking reactionaries don’t get to dictate the fate of the city’s 3 million residents could be incredibly important. Later this year, planning staff are supposed to report back on allowing garden suites — secondary dwellings detached from a main house, usually in a back yard, and similar to the laneway suites already allowed. Further into the calendar, staff are supposed to report back on modifications to the city’s planning rules in the so-called Yellow Belt, the more than 30 per cent of the city that’s zoned exclusively for detached homes. In particular, staff are supposed to report back on ways to encourage more construction of the “missing middle” housing types, anything more dense than a detached home but less dense than a six-storey apartment building.

Rooming houses, garden suites, and the missing middle. None of these policies on their own or in concert will end the housing crisis after they’ve made it through the grinder of Toronto municipal policy-making, but they’ll help move the needle in the right direction. What all three have in common is that they’ll all necessarily mean chipping away at the sanctity of the rules intended to keep residential neighbourhoods from changing. Those rules have been a huge success, of a sort: vast areas of the city have stagnated with little to no population growth, while the city’s hypertrophy has been focused in a small handful of areas. Our policies are doing what they’re supposed to; they’re just bad and harmful policies that happen to be incredibly popular with a plurality of homeowners who vote in municipal elections.

Those of us who want a more ambitious city, one that’s able to accommodate new people of all kinds and give them a more affordable place to live, work, and thrive, should be hoping to see this week’s rooming-house motion pass — both because it’s good policy on the merits and because our city will be better off if Toronto city council can learn to say no to the reactionaries holding us back, on this issue and so many others. Now’s as good a time as any to start.

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