Ramalingam Sethu’s limited income has forced him to share a kitchen and bathroom with tenants living in a crammed Scarborough rooming house — he says it’s the only option to keep a roof over his head.
Sethu, who has been living in illegal rooming houses for 23 years, is rallying behind a Scarborough legal assistance clinic’s campaign for the city to legalize them. He fled war-torn Sri Lanka in 1996, but has struggled to find affordable housing since.
“The only option for me is a rooming house, because my income is not enough,” said Sethu, 66, who shares a modest bedroom with his wife in a house that has a communal kitchen and bathroom. “There are so many people like me, living in poverty, who have to live in rooming houses.”
The main floor of his house has five bedrooms, with another four rooms occupied by tenants in the basement.
“They should legalize rooming houses,” said Sethu, who has been on the waiting list for a community housing unit for nearly a decade.
“We should come together and discuss how we can address this issue,” he said, adding that Mayor John Tory’s Housing Now initiative is a good start. “It’s nice that they’re talking about building affordable houses, but that’s not enough.”
Of the 11 properties to be transformed into affordable housing buildings under Tory’s plan, only two are in Scarborough.
With his pension and old age security payments totalling $1,400 per month, Sethu has limits on what he can afford. Half of his income is gobbled up by rent.
Today, rooming houses are illegal in Scarborough, as well as in parts of North York and Etobicoke.
Councillor Jim Karygiannis is open to the idea of rigidly controlled rooming houses, with tough penalties for ones that operate outside the law.
“I have no problem with rooming houses, but we need to have stiff penalties,” he said, adding that illegal rooming houses should face fines upwards of $200,000
Constituents in Karygiannis’s Scarborough-Agincourt ward unanimously rejected allowing rooming houses there in a survey last year. His website encourages people to report rooming houses.
“Last year, in my ward, there were 200 rooming houses reported,” he said. “They had people living in squalor. The fire department had to go in to some locations. It’s putting people in danger.”
Last year, city officials laid charges against several Scarborough rooming house landlords. That crackdown came following the death of 18-year-old Helen Guo, who died after a fire broke out at a residence at 10 Haida Ct., near the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus.
Anti-poverty activist, John Stapleton said Guo’s death adds credence to the argument that rooming houses should be registered or licensed.
Currently, tenants are left at the mercy of their landlords, Stapleton said. “Anything happens, the landlords just throw their stuff out.”
That point was echoed by Regini David, an outreach and law reform co-ordinator with the Scarborough legal clinic. She says the mayor’s Housing Now plan is helpful, but falls short of alleviating the housing crisis.
“It’s not going to address the whole need of the community,” David said. “Like it or not, the rooming houses are providing affordable homes to low-income people.”
Councillor Gord Perks has championed the legalization of rooming houses everywhere in the city, and lauds the legal clinic for “putting its boxing gloves on.”
“We need to amend our zoning bylaw so that rooming houses are permitted everywhere in the city, providing they meet our licensing requirements,” Perks said.
He’s behind a pilot project in which the city earmarked $1.5 million for a non-profit to buy and renovate a Parkdale rooming house, in order to keep those units on the market.
“People are selling rooming houses and evicting the tenants,” he said. “I’m trying to stop that, because we have an housing crisis.”
Perks claims some councillors in suburban areas are using the zoning bylaw to restrict low-income people’s access to certain neighbourhoods.
“I’ve always argued that, that’s discriminatory,” he said.
Perks said keeping rooming houses illegal has forced landlords to operate in the shadows, opening the door to subpar living conditions. Frequent fire, property standards and public health inspections are also lacking.
“There’s an underground unsafe housing system, which too many of my colleagues turn a blind eye to,” he said.
Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: firstname.lastname@example.org