I’m no stranger to the tight end of the housing market.
When I first arrived in Toronto, I took a room at Parkdale’s Queen’s Hotel, but was informed that because it was a hotel I would not be permitted to stay long-term.
Within a month I found another spot in a rooming house, but was cheerfully told by the landlord that “bachelorettes are only for one person” and that I’d have to leave once my wife arrived.
How could I argue? “Bachelorette” implies that tenants are supposed to be single, and there are, of course, safety and other standards to consider.
But bylaws designed to protect tenants all too often end up blocking the kind of organic intensification that turned former inner-city suburbs like Parkdale into diverse neighbourhoods.
In Toronto’s overheated real estate market, chopping off the bottom rung of the housing ladder means pushing people into illegal units or onto the street. It’s hard to climb back up when you lack an address.
Some politicians think it’s still acceptable to rouse opposition to rooming houses for the poor or for “crazies,” as Davenport MPP Tony Ruprecht showed recently.
Toronto’s most affordable legal accommodation, rooming houses and bachelorettes, seems to be the hot potato nobody wants.
Maintaining what we have is a challenge. Last month, 1510 King West (aka the Pope Squat), a contested space that has inflamed divisions over housing in Parkdale for more than a decade, once again became the focus of controversy.
This time the arena was the Ontario Municipal Board, where local homeowners were trying to stop a plan to convert the long-vacant property into a rooming house with 16 bachelorettes and four one-bedroom apartments, arguing that Parkdale already has more than its fair share of rooming houses. A decision isn’t expected for months.
A flyer distributed to homes and at meetings in south Parkdale outlined the case against 1510 King, citing several provisions of zoning bylaw 438-86, including minimum unit sizes almost three times larger than the current building code, meaning that only more expensive one- or two-bedroom apartments or larger can be built.
Neil Spiegel, a real estate agent who owns several properties in south Parkdale, who’s heading the OMB challenge, claims the area is being unfairly targeted and that another rooming house “is out of balance for a neighbourhood needing to stabilize. They wouldn’t be able to do this on a residential street in other neighbourhoods.”
But supporting the project, local councillor Gord Perks outlined the need for legal, licensed, affordable housing. He argues that restrictive rules that block rooming houses in Toronto’s suburbs have caused a dangerous proliferation of illegal housing. He notes that he’s had to close a few in Parkdale, too, where people live with no lights, no bathrooms and wires from electrical fixtures dangerously exposed.
Perks says new regs need to be brought in before something tragic happens.
“Nobody in Scarborough is going to do a damn thing about it until there’s a fire and people die,” he says.
Victor Willis, who runs the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre and supports Perks’s call for licensing to ensure standards, points to the burnt-out hulk of a former rooming house at 1495 King, just a stone’s throw from 1510, as a reminder of what can go wrong when safety codes are ignored.
Councillors representing the burbs argue that the city’s legalization of so-called “granny suites,” which allow homeowners an extra unit and up to two boarders, make rooming houses unnecessary.
Willis disagrees, noting that granny suites tend to rent for $500 to $700 a month, while rooming houses are more affordably priced, usually in the $300 to $400 range, making them an option for those on social assistance.
Take Glen, who said at a public meeting in late January that the 175-square-foot bachelorette he rents has helped him get his life together again.
Glen’s story receives a round of applause, but local homeowners seem intent on zoning folks like him out.
Spiegel claims the small units in rooming houses may lead tenants to spend more time outdoors and “become a burden on the neighbours.”
In a city that wants fewer cars in the streets and more life on the sidewalks, perhaps planners should be curtailing the spread of that antisocial sanctuary, the large single-family home.