There is an assumption that there is a legal structure protecting rooming house tenants, but a legal grey area and lack of policy focus leaves them vulnerable.
By Bob Wood
Published December 23, 2009
On December 23, 1989, nine men and one woman died in a fire at Toronto's Rupert Hotel at the corner of Queen and Parliament.
Last week, two members of the Hamilton Roomers and Boarders Committee attended an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of this fire. Housing advocate Michael Shapcott, who was present during the blaze, recalled the heroic efforts that tenants made to save other tenants.
Housing advocate Michael Shapcott addressing the crowd at the memorial event
The Rupert was a "rat's nest of rooms and mazes without even the basic regard for fire safety." Hallways that could have been accessed to escape the fire had been turned into rooms, according to Shapcott.
A plaque erected at the site in 1993 notes that the fire "sparked action by municipal and provincial governments and community organizations to improve conditions in rooming houses."
In the years following the tragedy, about 500 units of Toronto housing were created or upgraded to meet or exceed the already existing standards.
Not long after the plaque was installed, though, the funding that supported the upgrades and advocacy ended. The year 1995 brought Common Sense to Ontario and the building of all affordable housing came to a crashing halt.
The memorial event forced us to reflect on the state of rooming houses in Hamilton. Funding came here as well and our committee used it to work on developing standards for these facilities - a complicated task as occupants don't have exclusive use of a kitchen or to all habitable areas in the building.
A Task Force made up of tenants, housing advocates, and municipal departments was created. Political leadership was provided by Dominic Agostino.
Their report issued in 1994 was promising. It recommended:
The report was largely ignored for more than a dozen years. The recent hiring of staff to develop and implement a community outreach strategy offers some hope. Another positive development was a recent change to the by-law reflecting the fact that these facilities house, harbour or intend to harbour four or more persons. This should make enforcement more effective.
Bill Medeiros travelled with me to Toronto and reminds me that there are still lessons to be learned. While rooming house stock shrinks, the numbers of unattached individuals who might seek accommodation in rooming houses continues to grow.
Shockingly, the poverty rate for unattached individuals has risen to 41.9 percent, according to the Social Planning and Research Council.
Recently the Regal Hotel (Bay and King) was transformed into an upscale watering hole. Fifteen to twenty individuals were put into the streets and in to shelters. These "evictions" may have been illegal, but asserting legal rights is often difficult for tenants.
There is an assumption that there is a legal structure protecting tenants. But a gray area exists, according to committee member Mike Ollier.
These "inns" once catered to the travelling public. Salesmen "roomed" (stayed a few days or even a few weeks) and "boarded" (obtained food from the sideboard) before moving on.
But this has changed. Now these rooming houses are the closest thing to affordable for many in our community. Case law has acknowledged the development of a landlord-tenant relationship between those operating such places and those staying for longer periods of time.
But issues often arise, notes Ollier. When ordered out in the middle of the night, the "practical and frightening reality" for tenants is "to get through the night." They usually just leave. Enforcing rights isn't a realistic option.
There is a serious shortage of affordable housing in our city. We need to get back to those recommendations from the 1994 committee.
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