We are health-care providers, scientists and researchers who work in association with the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital. We live in all areas of the city and are united in our concern about the lack of good quality, permanent and deeply affordable housing in Toronto. We are pleased that the City of Toronto has put forth a framework to permit and regulate Multi-Tenant Houses (MHT) across the city, and we expect the mayor and councillors who represent us to support this framework. We are calling on our mayor and city councillors to support the motion to regulate Multi-Tenant Houses across Toronto at the Oct. 1 session of city council. We will be contacting our councillors about this motion, and encouraging our co-workers, neighbours and community to do the same.
Multi-Tenant Houses (MTH), also known as rooming houses, have long been part of Toronto’s housing structure and make a significant contribution to the limited affordable housing stock in our city. A diverse cross-section of people relies on this housing stock, including people with lower incomes, students, recent immigrants, migrant workers and people with disabilities.
In 1998, the provincial government amalgamated six municipalities to create the new “mega city” of Toronto. While MTH had been legally permitted in some of these municipalities, such as the old city of Toronto, they were not permitted in the former cities of North York, East York and Scarborough. More than 20 years later, Toronto has still not harmonized bylaws across the city and MTH are still not technically allowed to exist in some areas.
This doesn’t mean they don’t exist – they do and always have. Instead, it means that tenants living in unregulated and unlicensed MTH have fewer options to protect their health and safety. This has ripple effects for the surrounding communities, which are much safer when MTH are regulated.
According to City of Toronto data, licensed MTH are far safer than unlicensed MTH. For instance, from 2010 to 2020, there were 18 MTH that were involved in fire fatalities and serious injuries, 16 of which were unlicensed. Additionally, the vast majority of MTH charges laid by Municipal Licensing & Standards are in neighbourhoods where they are not permitted. The Maytree Foundation’s human rights review of Toronto’s MTH policies also reported that individuals living in MTH in unpermitted areas are less likely to report substandard conditions and, therefore, live at greater risk of harm to their health and personal safety. Unpermitted houses are also more likely to violate existing regulations (i.e., the Ontario Building Code).
As health-care providers and researchers, we see the impacts of substandard housing and housing instability on well-being and on mental and physical health. We also know that when people lose their housing, it has adverse consequences for their lives, families and communities. For instance, research suggests that when people experience involuntary loss of housing, they are more likely to also lose their job. We know that MTH often provides the only affordable option in the private housing market and can potentially help people avoid homelessness.
Research on permitted MTH has shown that those of lower socioeconomic background and with existing health conditions have often resided in houses that are in poor physical condition. This is likely even worse for houses that are unpermitted. Good housing quality is critical for health – factors such as adequate space allocation, indoor air quality and proper waste and pest management are essential for disease prevention, especially in congregate living settings. Permitting and regulating MTH in unpermitted areas will create a means for the city to enforce quality standards that will ultimately benefit both tenants and surrounding communities.
A city staff report notes that the proposed framework will aim to take a phased approach that will include education and outreach to tenants on their rights, as well as support for landlords to meet property standards. We applaud the city for including this in its plans as it can help sustain existing MTH and provide opportunities to invest in improving this affordable housing stock.
Good housing is critical for health.
From our vantage point within the health-care sector, we would also like to share the following recommendations with city council:
1) Establish equitable support services to help MTH tenants retain their housing and assist qualifying landlords retain their homeownership once their area of the city is regulated. This could be achieved through collaboration with community agencies as well as establishing grant programs.
2) Ensure that enforcement of the new regulations does not further harm and marginalize groups who are likely to live in MTH – this will be key to meeting the city’s human rights approach.
3) At implementation, continue to engage in the multi-divisional cross collaboration (Fire Services; Toronto Building, Municipal Licensing & Standards; City Planning; Toronto Public Health) used to develop the new framework. This collaboration will contribute to the development of a more robust policy practice in relation to housing, health and community safety.
Ultimately, a harmonized MTH regulation can help improve current policy and practices and will allow for this affordable housing stock to be better integrated within our housing continuum.
We commend city council for taking steps to solving this long-standing equity issue. We encourage it to continue to consult the community in finding ways to sustain and strengthen the quality of this affordable housing stock and ask the mayor and city council to support the regulation of MTH across Toronto at the coming council meeting. This will align with the city’s commitment to advance a human rights based approach to housing as outlined in Housing TO 2020-2030 Action Plan.
What You Can Do:
Call your city councillor and the mayor: Members of Council Contact Information
Sign the community petition: The Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA).
Take the ACTO and CERA survey on Multi-Tenant Housing.
Find More Information:
City of Toronto: Multi-tenant (rooming) houses
Maytree Foundation: A human rights review of Toronto’s multi-tenant homes policies