A Major Canadian City Is Losing Its Most Affordable Housing

Up to a third of Parkdale, Toronto's rooming houses are at “imminent risk” of being closed, a recent report shows.

by Lindsey Vodarek
08 April 2019, 6:22pm

Toronto skyline. Photo via Flickr user Prayitno 

Not long ago, Richard lived in a big, beautiful house in Parkdale with five other tenants. But after the owner decided to sell it, he ended up in a one-bedroom apartment with three roommates. “They had turned the closet off the kitchen into a bedroom. The main tenant slept on her own couch,” he tells VICE. Now, Richard, who struggles with anxiety, is in a highrise, temporarily subletting a room for half price. He has been living in and around Parkdale for nearly 30 years and has worked as a server, in restaurant management, and owned a cafe. “It’s an amazing community and I may have to leave,” he says.

Across town in Riverdale, Jason has been living in a rooming house for 15 years. “It’s the only thing that’s allowed my life to continue in Toronto as an artist,” he tells me. Now he and 21 other tenants have received an eviction notice. With his own room and kitchen, Jason never minded sharing a bathroom. But his building was recently sold and the new owners want to evict in order to renovate the private rooms into full, upscale units.

Like Richard’s and Jason’s, Toronto’s cheapest rooms for rent are at risk of being gobbled up and converted to expensive housing. Roughly a third of Parkdale’s remaining rooming houses—typically $400-600 a month—are at “imminent risk,” says Saving Room, the study by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, a community-led organization that’s trying to protect the neighbourhood’s housing by changing how land is developed.

In a sign of how dire the situation has become, even Parkdale Community Legal Services (PCLS), the agency that has fought to save rental units from developers for decades, was slapped with an eviction notice.

Parkdale has long been known as an affordable neighbourhood with a culturally and economically diverse population. For over a decade, it has increasingly become known as a hip spot for new bars and restaurants. There has been ongoing backlash to this gentrification, most recently against attempts to rebrand part of it “Vegandale.” It has also been a landing place for refugees and new immigrants, deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients and the recently incarcerated, as well as home to artists and young professionals. In a city with a vacancy rate hovering at only 1.1 percent, it is extremely desirable.

This means no one is safe from gentrification, agency officials said at a community meeting in December. Rooming houses generally include individual rooms in multi-tenant houses, residential hotels, and other buildings providing private living accommodations with shared areas such as a kitchen and/or bathroom for four or more people.

They serve a vital function in a tight housing market because they are often the first stop of new immigrants, students, seniors on a fixed income; and the last option for low-income tenants before ending up on the streets.

A door-to-door inventory of Parkdale found the city doesn’t even know how many of the rooming houses exist, even though they are considered "a key part of the housing continuum."

For example, the inventory found that 43 percent of the 198 rooming houses mapped were unlicensed, meaning they were not accounted for. Meanwhile, Parkdale, the neighbourhood with the largest stock of the city’s rooming houses, officially lost 28 such houses and their 347 rooms in the last decade.

Before 2008, the number of rooming houses across Toronto remained relatively stable, with about 500 licensed per year. In the next four years, it dropped to about 400. Since then, new trends in real estate commodification have exacerbated this reduction. Now only 357 licensees remain.

“What we’re often talking about is how do we build more affordable housing. But what gets lost in that discussion is that the housing that already exists is getting lost at a very fast rate,” Emily Paradis, report author and senior researcher at the University of Toronto tells VICE.

Joshua Barndt, executive director of Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT), tells VICE that in the past, evicted tenants could find other housing options nearby. “Relocation was feasible. As of 2015, it’s become almost impossible.”

While Toronto is behind many North American cities in terms of saving and protecting affordable housing units, the pattern is being repeated across numerous cities with a booming economy.

For example, according to the Saving Room study:

  • Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside lost more than half its 13,300 single room occupancy units (SROs) between 1970 and 2007. Since 2007 rents have jumped 37 percent.
  • Chicago lost 30 percent of its SRO hotel stock between 2008 and 2014;
  • San Francisco saw its SROs decline from 90,000 units to 20,000 in the 1990s.

When these rooms are lost, tenants often require housing support services and financial assistance to find a new home. This is usually provided by city-funded programs, including the shelter system.

“As housing pressures become more severe, these sorts of conditions become sharper and more painful,” Parkdale-High Park city councillor Gord Perks tells VICE.

According to Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, privately-run dwelling rooms in the neighbourhood outnumber Toronto Community Housing rooms two-to-one. Without them, the shortage of housing will be severe. And evictions often lead to other financial consequences. “When rooming house tenants lose their homes, there’s a high likelihood that these tenants become homeless and require much more intensive and expensive services. It makes more sense to make sure they can stay in their affordable housing,” says Barndt.

The city’s homeless population has been increasing over the past several years, reaching nearly 7,000 documented people needing shelter every night. Shelter programs have been adding beds, but most are still at or near capacity. The social housing waitlist is nearly 100,000 applicants long. To leave the community would also mean leaving the support system that has developed there, including social services like Parkdale Community Legal Services, specifically designed to help vulnerable tenants.

Amid Toronto’s eviction epidemic and a historically low vacancy rate, action is finally underway to offer dwelling room tenants the same rights as those living in fully self-contained units. This past December, the city conducted public consultations on the draft amendments to require replacement units and additional tenant assistance in cases of eviction due to redevelopment. Jason’s neighbours attended the meeting with him. They are supportive of the current tenants staying where they are, and fear what will happen to them if they leave.

For Richard and his neighbours, the city held a special consultation to hear their concerns about Parkdale.

“We were shocked to find out that rooming houses are not protected while other rental units are,” says Barndt. “It represents a human rights issue that needs to be redressed. All tenants deserve equal rights under the law.”

For the past three decades, Montréal has supported the transfer of about half of the city’s rooming houses to operation by non-profits. Advocates there are hopeful for more changes with the city’s new power—the right of first refusal on the purchase of rental properties.

In 2015, Vancouver raised the fee for unit conversion from $15,000 to a replacement cost of $180,000. In December, the city passed a motion to extend rights of replacement and assistance to those facing eviction from renovations. In Chicago, a six-month moratorium on residential hotel conversions was introduced in 2014. A preservation plan followed, restricting sale, conversion and demolition. Extended timelines were created to help non-profits secure funding to purchase. In San Francisco, residential hotels have been protected since 1981, preserving over 500 buildings—homes for five percent of the city’s population. But in the surrounding suburbs where the same protections don’t apply, there’s been a corresponding increase in homelessness.

In order to further combat these evictions and preserve housing, San Francisco is working with the San Francisco Community Land Trust. A land trust works by buying property and removing it from the speculative market, then rehabilitating and maintaining the building as affordable housing. The city acts as the gap financer, so that the trust can purchase at market rate.

The Bay Area now has seven Community Land Trusts. The city describes the program as “a win-win-win: the seller gets market value, tenants stay in place, the city increases the supply of affordable housing. According to Paradis, having the city and non-profits run rooming houses is “the only option that guarantees long-term protection of this kind of affordable housing in rapidly-growing cities like Toronto.”

Councillor Perks agrees. Last summer, council passed his motion to create a $1.5 million fund that a non-profit could use to purchase and operate a rooming house in Parkdale, leveraging development fees and other federal and provincial funds. Council will next review proposals from organizations to undertake a pilot.

“It’s just the beginning,” says Barndt. “We have an increasingly dramatic situation in Toronto, but we also have an opportunity to catch up.”

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.