Despite the aromatic blend of cigarettes, pot, crack, booze and urine filling the air, I took it. I took the room because its Riverdale location was good for me and the rent was more affordable than the $700 bachelor alternatives. My first-ever rooming house space had never been cleaned, much less painted, but it came fully loaded with a dangling light bulb, blocked heating vent, broken window pane and a variety of bugs for company. The "furnishings" consisted of a rusty cot topped by a stained mattress, a wobbly chair and an old grime-covered fridge that often wheezed and whimpered as if it were in pain. Were these evidence of life? Or of mere survival?
What an education I got. How was I to know that rooming houses don't even provide toilet paper or hand soap in the bathroom or a decent sink to wash your dirty dishes in? But after weeks of cleaning, minor repairs, painting and refurnishing, I was happy with my room and nearby bathroom, or at least able to relax and enjoy coming home at the end of the day.
Then the guy down the hall decided that I was just a little too comfy for someone who didn't sport tattoos or smoke weed daily as he did. A few cuts and bruises later, I took the hint and got out.
Now, you might see my bad experience as confirmation that those who live in such dwellings are "problem" people, and that their bad behaviour vindicates their absentee landlords. But actually, I think quite differently.
One of the ways we can send a message to the struggling and homeless is by treating them the same way we'd want to be treated. I wonder how many of us would want to be given the options that rooming house residents have been given, and no more. How many landlords would like to live in their own rooming house rooms? How would we feel if our $520 social assistance cheque were signed over to a property owner to ensure that he got his $500 before we spent it? And exactly what would we live on after that?
I suspect that some owners of multi-unit properties, like my old landlord, try to be seen as legitimate business people offering a service to the public when in fact they're simply making a profit off the backs of those least able to cope. The perpetrators must know they're acting unethically, I assume, yet they generally seem to get away with it.
Yes, legally licensed rooming houses (484 in the old city of T.O.) must be inspected once a year, but these are only a fraction of the rooming houses out there. City reports say there are at least three times as many illegal spots out there. And as for the legal properties, Joe Luzi, acting south district manager with municipal licensing and standards, admits that keeping them in line has its challenges.
"Some places have chronic issues that landlords have not kept pace with. They're well known to us and have documented histories." But, he adds, "It's a cat-and-mouse game."
If landlords don't comply with notices and orders, the city can take legal action and prosecute them. However, Luzi cautions, "We have not really gotten the support of the courts. When we try to get fines, it's rare for us to get huge penalties. Usually they're measured in hundreds of dollars as opposed to thousands." Even though the maximum penalty under some bylaws can reach $50,000 and licences can be revoked or suspended, Luzi admits this happens "very, very infrequently."
So how might the situation be improved? Of course, passing bylaws that prohibit rooming houses, secondary suites or bachelorettes is easy and satisfies the NIMBY folks, but this punishes those landlords who are acting responsibly. It reduces the stock of affordable and private dwellings for those whose only other alternatives are hostels and shelters or the streets and ravines outside.
While many organizations do their part to reach out to those who are homeless, the first step into something more permanent is the rooming house. Bowing to calls for improvement, the city will issue a 300-page report identifying rooming house "issues" and how to address them by the end of this month.
In the meantime, the search for housing continues. I'm in Bob's house, responding to an ad for free rent in a rooming house in exchange for work done on site.
Like other rooming house owners, Bob's list of laments runs long: the damages done by "difficult" people who've reached society's bottom floor, the problem of finding the funds to undo that damage, the hassles of collecting the rent each month, to name but a few.
As I step out into the afternoon sunshine, I'm relieved that I don't have Bob's headaches. But my empathy is fleeting. I do, after all, have more rooming houses to look at.