Toronto mayor makes historic decision to legalize residential rooming houses

Toronto Mayor John Tory has had a good first two years in office: he’s won reelection twice, kicked off the Canada Summer Games on a high note, and kept major towers like the Trinity…

Toronto mayor makes historic decision to legalize residential rooming houses

Toronto Mayor John Tory has had a good first two years in office: he’s won reelection twice, kicked off the Canada Summer Games on a high note, and kept major towers like the Trinity Bellwoods Park condos away from popular neighbourhoods. His first big defeat as mayor, however, was an unprecedented one: Tory ran into a headwind in his bid to legalize more rooming houses in the city, having promised to get them out of the way of new developments.

The business of housings: A 1970s-era law known as the Residential Tenancies Act and the Private Rooming House Act completely outlawed the city from regulating rooming houses and short-term rentals of residential units. Because of these laws, potential renters often don’t know that the owner, when they move in, is a bed and breakfast operator – an illegal, unregulated presence in a residential area. Toronto is the only Canadian city with such laws, and as it hasn’t adopted any of the major recommendations from a city-led task force on the issue in 2013, their existence in the city has become a major headache for Toronto’s housing sector, housing advocates, and city officials.

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On Thursday, some 88 percent of Toronto’s council agreed with the official report of the task force, which called for the legalization of rooming houses through a permit system similar to that for hotels, as well as a delay of new listings until next year. A proposed bylaw to legalize these rooms will now move forward with council for a first reading.

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A look at the proposed law: The Toronto bylaw will regulate how owners of rooming houses charge for rent, mandate requirements for maintenance and monitoring, and make it much harder for owners to operate their rooms. In addition, the bylaw would ban front doors from being installed on the outside of a rooming house, require hot water faucets for showers, and restrict signage from being used as visible ads for the rooming house. Owners would also have to become licensed and hold annual inspections of the property.

One common thread in all the recommendations was the use of a lease and certificate of occupancy, which could be enforced through regulations like a business licence. Those licenses would require owners to obtain a term life certificate and a broker’s licence, as well as an inspection of the property at least every five years. Taxpayers would be expected to foot the bill for such permit applications, which could cost between $1,000 and $20,000 depending on the size of the property.

Quick history lesson: For more than 10 years, this has been one of the top-requested recommendations for the council’s Toronto Licensing and Standards Committee. As Vox wrote in 2016, “Once granted, a certificate of occupancy, or license, would grant the owner the right to rent out the apartment and keep it empty during the day.”

Why it matters: Toronto, which is in the middle of a housing crisis with skyrocketing prices and rent, has started looking for new ways to manage this and has faced criticism for allowing it to occur. Liberal city councillor Matthew Keating, who ran on a platform of legalizing these rooms, says the fight over legalizing these rooms has helped him put his policy goals on record. “I can get this message through today because of the plight of [the] illegal rooms.”

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