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After more than a decade of debate, Toronto could legalize and regulate rooming houses city-wide — with a cap of six rooms in most areas — by as early as fall of 2022, a new report says.

Right now, rooming houses, which are also known as multi-tenant or dwelling houses, can only legally operate in the former cities of Toronto, Etobicoke and York. In York, they don’t require a licence. And despite bans in other areas like Scarborough, many homes operate illegally.

In the report, staff point to financial strain on Toronto’s low-income tenants — including those on social assistance — as a reason residents rely on illegal and sometimes unsafe homes. Where an average bachelor unit costs more than $1,100, they wrote, a room can cost as little as $400.

“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,” the report reads, warning that unlicensed homes could be inadequate for tenants, plus cause nuisance and safety issues for neighbours. Across the last decade, Toronto Fire has counted 16 deaths in rooming house fires — 14 in unlicensed houses, and two in licensed ones.

A staff proposal for legalization was initially released last fall, as the basis for consultations. The final pitch has a six-room maximum in most neighbourhoods, but up to 25 in denser areas. While there wouldn’t be any parking required in the former city of Toronto and along some transit lines, the rule elsewhere would be roughly one parking spot per three rooms. The bathroom minimum, meanwhile, will be one per four rooms.

Any homes with 10 or more units will require an electrical evaluation. Operators will also have to provide interior and exterior plans, and processes for waste, property and pest management.

Over the next year, city staff say they’d expand their enforcement team to 28 officers from six, add 16 fire inspection staff, and create a new tribunal to handle licensing. The new laws could come into effect as early as Nov. 1, 2022, though any appeals could cause delays.

From then until 2023, staff say their focus would be on transitioning already-licensed operators into the new system, as well as unlicensed homes with violations or charges and “high-risk operators” where tenants are at risk or where there have been significant community complaints.

Enforcement was one of the key concerns that bubbled up during consultations, staff noted. “The fact that this issue is being raised shows that residents are becoming distrustful of how enforcement is currently being carried out,” Scarborough resident Howard Tam said in a Monday committee meeting, while voicing support for legalization.

Some speakers and councillors opposed the pitch; Coun. Cynthia Lai cited concerns ranging from parking to changes in “neighbourhood character” if rooming houses were allowed without a cap per ward. She called on staff to retool the plan with input from “homeowner neighbours.”

Coun. Gord Perks, who has long pushed for legalization, cautioned there may be bumps in the road ahead. “This is not something that happens quickly,” he said, noting that previous efforts in his Parkdale ward to legalize existing rooming houses had, in some case, taken years.

But he believes the effort is critical, noting the dangers of illegal and unregulated homes on tenants and surrounding communities. “The current situation is untenable for everybody.”

Toronto’s planning and housing committee approved the proposal in a unanimousvote with one absence on Monday. The pitch is expected to go before council on July 14.


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