20 Years Later, Roomers and Boarders Still Vulnerable

There is an assumption that there is a legal structure protecting rooming house tenants, but a legal grey area and lack of policy focus leaves them vulnerable.

By Bob Wood
Published December 23, 2009

On December 23, 1989, nine men and one woman died in a fire at Toronto's Rupert Hotel at the corner of Queen and Parliament.

Last week, two members of the Hamilton Roomers and Boarders Committee attended an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of this fire. Housing advocate Michael Shapcott, who was present during the blaze, recalled the heroic efforts that tenants made to save other tenants.

Housing advocate Michael Shapcott addressing the crowd at the memorial event
Housing advocate Michael Shapcott addressing the crowd at the memorial event

The Rupert was a "rat's nest of rooms and mazes without even the basic regard for fire safety." Hallways that could have been accessed to escape the fire had been turned into rooms, according to Shapcott.

A plaque erected at the site in 1993 notes that the fire "sparked action by municipal and provincial governments and community organizations to improve conditions in rooming houses."

In the years following the tragedy, about 500 units of Toronto housing were created or upgraded to meet or exceed the already existing standards.

Not long after the plaque was installed, though, the funding that supported the upgrades and advocacy ended. The year 1995 brought Common Sense to Ontario and the building of all affordable housing came to a crashing halt.

Situation in Hamilton

The memorial event forced us to reflect on the state of rooming houses in Hamilton. Funding came here as well and our committee used it to work on developing standards for these facilities - a complicated task as occupants don't have exclusive use of a kitchen or to all habitable areas in the building.

A Task Force made up of tenants, housing advocates, and municipal departments was created. Political leadership was provided by Dominic Agostino.

Their report issued in 1994 was promising. It recommended:

The report was largely ignored for more than a dozen years. The recent hiring of staff to develop and implement a community outreach strategy offers some hope. Another positive development was a recent change to the by-law reflecting the fact that these facilities house, harbour or intend to harbour four or more persons. This should make enforcement more effective.

More to Be Done

Bill Medeiros travelled with me to Toronto and reminds me that there are still lessons to be learned. While rooming house stock shrinks, the numbers of unattached individuals who might seek accommodation in rooming houses continues to grow.

Shockingly, the poverty rate for unattached individuals has risen to 41.9 percent, according to the Social Planning and Research Council.

Recently the Regal Hotel (Bay and King) was transformed into an upscale watering hole. Fifteen to twenty individuals were put into the streets and in to shelters. These "evictions" may have been illegal, but asserting legal rights is often difficult for tenants.

There is an assumption that there is a legal structure protecting tenants. But a gray area exists, according to committee member Mike Ollier.

These "inns" once catered to the travelling public. Salesmen "roomed" (stayed a few days or even a few weeks) and "boarded" (obtained food from the sideboard) before moving on.

But this has changed. Now these rooming houses are the closest thing to affordable for many in our community. Case law has acknowledged the development of a landlord-tenant relationship between those operating such places and those staying for longer periods of time.

But issues often arise, notes Ollier. When ordered out in the middle of the night, the "practical and frightening reality" for tenants is "to get through the night." They usually just leave. Enforcing rights isn't a realistic option.

There is a serious shortage of affordable housing in our city. We need to get back to those recommendations from the 1994 committee.

Bob Wood is a community worker at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic where he works on the clinic website. He is also a freelance writer who has worked with youth, in housing and served as a municipal councillor in Burlington/Halton from 1991-97 and in 2006.


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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted December 23, 2009 at 10:15:16

"Case law has acknowledged the development of a landlord-tenant relationship between those operating such places and those staying for longer periods of time."

Actually, it's right in the statute (Residential Tenancies Act) as well. The definition of "rental unit" includes "a room in a boarding house, rooming house or lodging house and a unit in a care home".

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By bobwood (registered) | Posted December 23, 2009 at 15:22:14

Yes I know it is in the act. I am not a lawyer but the issue is one of interpretation. That's because it can, and has been argued, that people who stay in rooming houses, particularly those with places with a bar downstairs, are short term guests not tenants. So the argument is made that the Innkeepers Act applies not the Residential Tenancies Act.


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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted December 23, 2009 at 15:27:50

Tammany: While there may be law on the books, enforcement is another issue altogether. Those who do not have the means to fight are left with nothing.

Peer to Peer Mentoring group has noted a high level of housing issues for those that struggle in the city. With income levels of Social Assitance so low, the shelter portion for an individual is now set at 349.00 per month. Good luck trying to find shelter at that price. The reality is that most spend almost their whole welfare cheque on shelter, which leaves very little to provide food, transportation, and other things.

The only other options are the shelters, which are full, there are many health and safety issues re the shelters or people are left with the streets.

As a society we have failed!

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted December 23, 2009 at 19:27:04

While I take some issue with the assertion that every redevelopment that shifts people out of rooming houses is a bad thing...

It is true we do an abysmal job of providing this type of housing, and although I've seen hopeful glimpses here and there of people who are willing to put their money where their mouth is (like this: we do need more housing of this type - that is safe.

That doesn't mean leaving properties like the King/Bay one where the refuse in the rooms was waist-high as OK, nor properties with faulty plumbing, electrical, or wiring, but there needs to be a more comprehensive plan to create affordable housing units -- for those who will need them on a long-term basis, not just short-term.

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By Kenneth Moyle (anonymous) | Posted December 23, 2009 at 19:46:14

There are some shocking facts presented in this article - the appropriate response can only be outrage. Well, that is until one starts asking questions, at which point one wonders if things are as shocking and outrageous as they sound.

For example, Mr. Wood writes that "the poverty rate for unattached individuals has risen to 41.9 percent". Shocking! That's nearly half! How can that be? Well, who are these "unattached individuals"? I assume the this is the report to which he refers:; this report does not define the term either. But Stats Can uses the term to refer to single adults 18 or over. And so if that 42% includes 19 year olds fresh out of high school in their first jobs and university and college students, it becomes far less surprising. Hell, I was unattached and technically poor until I was 23 and got my first real job.

And what is meant by "poverty" in this report? It uses Stat Can's LICO measure*, which measures _relative_ poverty. Until we become a socialist utopia, someone will always be relatively poor, and it makes sense to me that young adults - who are surely a large chunk of the population of unattached adults - _should_ be relatively poor (since they are in school or just beginning to work).

Mr. Wood also refers to "evictions" from the old Regal at King and Bay: poor people evicted without due process! thrown out on the street! in the cold of June! But eviction is not the same thing as "termination of lease". And while these people did not have leases (one can only assume), even if they _had_ had leases, they would only have been given 60 days, just like any other tenant (I'm assuming that they would be month-to-month leases, and not long-term leases which would leave them exposed to liability for early termination).

Mr. Wood also refers to tenants being "ordered out in the middle of the night", implying that this happened in the case of the Regal. But he doesn't give us any reference, leaving me wonder if he isn't engaging in more misleading hyperbole.

Let's expose injustice and discuss the plight of the poor in this city - we should be able to make the Hammer better for everyone. But scary red herrings do not help convince me that relatively poor 20 year olds and thankfully-renovated fleabag hotels are somehow part of the problem of unregulated rooming houses.


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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted December 23, 2009 at 20:34:32

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By Downscale (anonymous) | Posted December 23, 2009 at 21:31:38

Wow, do you seriously believe this city would be better off with the Red Lion still housing bums? That place literally smelt like piss and shit, and on a hot summer day you could barely walk past it. I understand it must be a little tough now for Mr Greasy to find someone to wave cars into his lot, I mean he had an endless stream of labour coming out of that place. But really I think we as a people have had greater hardships.

Besides, that watering hole isn't all that upscale. But I guess when you're used to sitting in your own filth anything can be labeled gentrified.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted December 23, 2009 at 22:18:20

Any Given night 2007:

You will note Mr Moyle, that the 53% of the population staying at the emergency shelters are singles between the ages of 30 to 49.

So one could say that you are purporting your own form of misleading hyperbole.

With the econcomic crisis, with EI claims that jumped 150% and welfare claims climbing. Who knows now what the actual numbers are at the present time?

facts about the shelters:

most are closed during the day time hours staying at a shelter most likely means just a mat on the floor you have no privacy, sharing space with "strangers"

So while the Regal was a fleabag hotel to most, it was home for those who stayed there. So instead of a room with some privacy, they got a mat on the floor, which is shared space by many.

It should also be noted that are problems with long term care facitilities as well. Peer to Peer has documented that people who may have complaints or concerns, are "THREATENED TO BE EVICTED".

There must be a process in place where people can lodge complaints against those long term housing facilities where the bullies roam free and have the bullies removed. Everyone has the right to air their concerns, no matter where they live, without fear of losing their lodgings!!!

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By Andrew (registered) | Posted December 24, 2009 at 08:22:13


Thanks for the informative piece. Having worked in the clinic system, I can vouch that landlords will vigorously argue that the RTA (which is a pretty inclusive act) doesn't apply to their housing project, when it is pretty clear that it does.

As others have pointed out, while remedies are available, many tenants simply move on when faced with illegal lock-outs or random rent increases.

What a realistic solution to this problem may be is not clear to me however. While it would be great to think that (a) the City will really build sufficient units to fix the problem or (b) the City will fund a large enough investigations department to take the weight off of tenants, I seriously have my doubts. Both are expensive, and while the latter can fund itself if the landlords are sufficiently fined, eventually the City will get a strong lobby to tone down the investigations and would, I think, likely cave.

My experience is that the type of landlord--exceptions are always possible--that caters to this niche of the rental market is ignorant of tenants' rights (or simply doesn't care), is poorly funded (and frankly isn't getting rich off of these low rents), and is frequently absentee. Caring, quality landlords search for and get tenants who have steady sources of income (hello reference check). Those who are more transient are stuck with what they can get.

Leaving it to the private sector without some sort of economic motivators is not going to change this problem I fear. As much as people may like caps on rent increases, I think they discourage a lot of potential new rental projects from going forward. Why spend the money and face a strict regulatory regime, when you can build condos or commercial property, make your money and get out? Who you are too often left with are people who get into the rental housing market who simply have no clue what they are doing.

Frankly, it may be best to increase the potential damages a landlord might pay which may encourage contingency representation. As sleazy as that may sound, there is something to be said for private actors taking on the research and representation costs that go with this kind of work. Landlords will get the message pretty quick if lawyers are actively searching out bad landlords. Of course, that would just be another motivator to get out of the rental housing game, but I digress.

Anyway, the more I think about the problem the more contradictions I find. Again, however, thanks for the good piece Bob.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted December 24, 2009 at 17:52:11

Andrew: There are no easy answers to the issues we face. Meredith has provided a great link. It does show that there are people out there who do care and are willing to take the risk and treat people as people.

Some people are just lost and need to be a part of a family, not a normal family but one where one can be accepted for who there are, problems, faults and all. Sometimes hugs can go a lot farther.

No one should have to live in squalor or unsafe conditions. All it takes is a little bit of caring and understanding.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted December 26, 2009 at 00:05:48

There are some easy fixes, not cures but fixes. How about raising welfare to a more realistic level and more subsidized housing are the two that spring to mind. Canada is one of the most prosperous nations on earth and for the unfortunate to live like they have to is a travesty. Of all the things tax dollars are spent on the tiny fraction we use for our own poor is unconscionable.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted December 27, 2009 at 02:49:48

Mr.Meister >> How about raising welfare to a more realistic level

Assuming you can't unilaterally change the government policy on welfare, you can always donate some of your own money to charity, or just give it to anyone you think needs the help. If you do this often enough, perhaps others will start to follow your lead and perhaps make government welfare unnecessary. That would be very cool.

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By minimum wage math (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2009 at 22:02:28

April 1, 2009 - minimum wage is $9.50/hour

Full time = $19760/year = ($9.50 x 40 hours wk x 52 weeks/year)

/12 = $1646/month
/52 = $380/wk

+ a portion of earnings are exempt from tax altogether and they come back at tax return time.

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By minimum wage math (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2009 at 22:04:08

Above comment = intended for Connaught article.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted December 29, 2009 at 12:47:36

While I've never dealt with any matter relating to a rooming house, I do have extensive experience arguing before the LTB and find it hard to believe that any Board member currently sitting would be inclined to find that a rooming house tenant (who was really a long term tenant) was in fact a short term guest where such a finding would mean a diminution of rights for the purported tenant.

My surmise may be incorrect, and I welcome proof to the contrary, but the LTB is just so profoundly tenant-biased that I can't imagine the Board denying rights under the RTA where the substance (if not the form) of a tenancy relationship is manifest on the facts.

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By A sign of the times .. (anonymous) | Posted December 29, 2009 at 23:39:18

NO MORE AFFORDABLE HOUSING!! What is wrong with you people?

Bring back the Common Sense Revolution!! I'm getting tired of the tax and spend Liberals ... maybe if $1 Billion hadn't been pissed away on e-health and another Billion had been lost in the welfare system, there would be money for work for welfare and job training. Goverment handouts do nothing but continue the poverty cycle.

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By canbyte (registered) | Posted December 31, 2009 at 21:25:15

I want to make a point....

Wood said

Quote: " * Systematic inspections * Reports from Fire, Public Health and Building Departments prior to licensing * Increased resources for inspections and license fees to cover their cost * Training for operators * Exploration of a rooming house rating system * Co-ordination of social service workers with inspection services

..... Another positive development was a recent change to the by-law reflecting the fact that these facilities house, harbour or intend to harbour four or more persons. This should make enforcement more effective....."

[please insert appropriate word here]

"..... rooming house stock shrinks, the numbers of unattached individuals who might seek accommodation in rooming houses continues to grow."

As far as i am concerned, the word to insert is "Therefore".

Some folks want to switch the two parts and insert the same word! (Hope that doesn't strain the brain too much :-)
Putting things backwards will not work but that is how public policy seems to work these days. Oh well, we're due for a correction that will undo all the garbaceous ideas in people's minds and crappy regulation will fall apart of its own accord. Get ready.

[Comment edited by canbyte on 2009-12-31 20:26:10]

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By d.knox (registered) | Posted January 01, 2010 at 20:41:39

The Regal Hotel (what a grand name for that dreadful place) was rented out by the week (that's what the dilapidated sign announced), so legally, the notice period is 28 days (or thereabouts). Weekly tenancies are common in this type of accommodation. The absolute best case scenario, although quite unlikely to be upheld, would be monthly tenancy, so no more than 60 days notice would have been required. Landlords are allowed to terminate tenancies for a variety of reasons and there are protocols for this termination. It may be that the proper procedures weren't followed, but that doesn't mean that otherwise, the former tenants would still be living there.

The place is no longer a hotel; there has been a change of use. Assuming that this situation was a perfectly legal, a normal landlord-tenant relationship, the tenants still wouldn't have a place to live there, because the landlord has changed businesses. There is nothing illegal about this. People have the right to change businesses.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 18, 2010 at 15:33:42

"No one should have to live in squalor or unsafe conditions. All it takes is a little bit of caring and understanding."

Would that that were true. But I think that it is demonstrably not.

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