Illegal rooming houses near university, college campus raising residents concerns

In certain neighbourhoods in Scarborough, people age, homes are sold and rooming houses start.

Those rooming houses are illegal and, in the eyes of home-owning neighbours, are usually about as welcome on a street as marijuana growers are.

Despite pleas from anti-poverty groups and lengthening waiting lists for social housing, local city councillors - even Raymond Cho and Chin Lee, who lived in rooming houses as newcomers to Canada – can’t see a benefit to making rooming houses legal anywhere in Scarborough.

They were instrumental in putting off discussion of legalizing and licensing Scarborough rooming houses until after 2010 election; after that, while a citywide zoning bylaw was being redrafted, they help put it off again.

“Overwhelmingly, Scarborough councillors voted against even opening that door,” Scarborough East Councillor Ron Moeser said this month, acknowledging the rooming house issue would “raise its ugly head again.”

Right now, the issue is in Moeser’s ward.

After complaints from residents of Highland Creek, the neighbourhood nearest the University of Toronto Scarborough and Centennial College’s Morningside Campus, the councillor last fall formed a working group with residents, campus officials and municipal bylaw enforcers, who Moeser says have until September to close as many rooming houses as they can.

They have had success, but Don Valley East Councillor Shelley Carroll, whose North York ward also has rooming houses catering to post-secondary students, says enforcement can’t erase the problem.

“Out of the dozens (of rooming houses) that you have you’re lucky to shut down five or six,” she said.

A Scarborough house can have a separate apartment and two rented rooms in its main unit, but no more.

Insisting it’s up to institutions such as UTSC to build enough residence rooms is another dead end, Carroll said. “They can only build so many and they can only charge so little,” she argued, adding students will “flow like water” in search of an off-campus alternative that leaves a few bucks in their pocket.

Last fall, the Highland Creek Village Association reported in a newsletter it had found “over 40 listings in the immediate area each offering three, four, five or more bedrooms” and aimed at student renters (or agents who may rent the house to someone interested in subletting bedrooms) for $400-600 per month. By contrast, a room in the UTSC campus’s Foley Hall during the next fall-winter session is $951 a month (including a $400 non-refundable deposit) and a single on-campus townhouse room is $871.

Carroll said the lack of a legal rooming house alternative nearby makes it harder for judges to assign harsher penalties to owners who carve up homes.

“Students have to live somewhere, and you haven’t provided that somewhere,” she argued.

Despite his reluctance to allow “intensification” in Highland Creek, Moeser has been researching how authorities deal with off-campus housing in Waterloo, London and in Oshawa, where some homes near the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Durham College can be licensed to have four to six rented bedrooms.

On a tour, Oshawa Mayor John Henry pointed out to Moeser some challenges with noise and garbage at such houses, but said the arrangement was working in most cases.

Moeser has said if city enforcement can’t shut down enough of the illegal rooming houses by September he may be forced to consider the creation of special “zones” around UTSC where some form of rooming house can be legal – an idea he knows will be unpopular with residents.

The campus plans to increase its enrolment from 11,200 to 13,400 four years from now, and some residents have expressed fears this growth will make a “student ghetto” of their neighbourhood.

“It’s the U of T that’s created the problem,” said one homeowner, a member of Moeser’s working group who didn’t want to be named. “They’ve dumped it on the community.”

Andrew Arifuzzaman, UTSC’s chief strategy officer, said while the campus is planning a new residence to be completed in 2016, it will form a group encouraging students to meet off-campus neighbours and provide them with more education on living in the community.

“We’re working closely with the community to try to mitigate what we can,” said Arifuzzaman, who suggested some residents think neighbours “are running a rooming house” when they have seen students in a legal basement apartment.

It’s obvious, though, that some Highland Creek homeowners see students as a financial opportunity, and last month, when the city busted an alleged Military Trail rooming house, it accused a real estate agent of being its operator.

The Real Estate Council of Ontario says anyone trading real estate in Ontario is required to follow its code of ethics, which prohibits “knowingly making an inaccurate representation” about a property.

“Saying that a rooming house arrangement is legal when he or she knows it is not would certainly fit the bill,” said a statement by the group this month, which added real estate professionals violating the code face penalties ranging from a warning remaining permanently on file to fines up to $25,000.;