Rooming Houses in Ottawa

Rooming house units offer affordable housing for low-income people. However, the number of units is in decline, some rent prices are beyond the means of individuals, and the quality and safety of the housing requires improvement.

Written by Kyla Tanner

August 29, 2019

Rooming houses, also referred to as lodging houses or single room occupancy (SRO) buildings, offer individual rooms for rent to those in need of transitional housing. These rooms often share a kitchen and washroom facilities with other tenants. Rooming houses play an important part in the housing continuum (see CMHC’s housing continuum below), providing an affordable first step of housing to those transitioning out of shelters. Tenants are often low-income individuals who, without available rooming house units, may be at risk of homelessness.

Rooming houses are required to be licensed by municipalities to track densities in the area, protect neighbourhood character, and to provide safer and better maintained accommodations. The latter reason is an important one and is due to a history of rooming houses being poorly maintained by private for-profit landlords. Tenants report common issues such as mould, broken windows, exposed pipes and electrical wiring, no heating for long periods in the winter, unsanitary common areas, bed bugs and cockroaches, illegal evictions, interference with mail, and refusals by the landlord to complete repairs. Rooming houses have developed a negative connotation and stigma due to these conditions.

Although the regulation and licensing of rooming houses was designed to provide better living conditions, in many cities it has inadvertently resulted in a depletion of stock. For-profit landlords have reportedly been reluctant to adhere to the regulation due to expenses like installing fire escapes, sprinkler systems, and higher maintenance standards. Maclaren Municipal Consulting Inc. recently published a report that found Ottawa had 400 rooming houses prior to licensing requirements, while in 2019, only 90 licensed rooming houses remain. CBC highlighted this in a seven minute radio segment last week. This trend has repeated through many major U.S. cities as well as Toronto. Yet, these numbers may not be completely accurate as many rooming houses operate without a license and escape official counts. As a result, these houses often have poor living conditions.

In response to this complex issue, CMHC stated that, “municipalities must find a balance between ensuring safety standards are met and providing affordable housing options”. Ultimately, there needs to be a continued supply of affordable housing options through rooming houses, but they must be appropriate in quality and safety. Many organizations recommend that rooming houses be managed by non-profit organizations whenever feasible, thereby ensuring affordability and better quality of living.

In addition to for-profit landlords not wishing to license, rooming house stock and affordability is at risk as communities gentrify. Private landlords may sell their properties as property values increase; when they retire without family to continue the business; and as profit margins decrease with the rise in utility costs and property taxes. With rooming house closures and Ottawa’s low vacancy rate, rooming house tenants in private market housing are at increased risk of homelessness.

A 2017 study undertaken by the Somerset West Community Health Centre, indicated that a rooming unit rent costs $362 to $710 per month in Ottawa. Non-profit organizations typically set their rent at Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) shelter allowance costs, approximately $500 per month or Ontario Works (OW) shelter costs of $390 per month. Research indicates that rooming house tenants spend 45% to 72% of their income on rent – far beyond the CMHC definition of housing affordability, which is 30% of income. In the last few years, Ottawa is seeing an increase in shelter use, overall length of shelter stay, and chronic homelessness – painting a difficult picture for low-income individuals. The high cost of a room compounded with decreasing stock could be responsible for the increase in homelessness and subsequent use of shelters.

There is a strong consensus that most rooming house tenants require a variety of support services. These include, but are not limited to: support navigating services related to citizenship, employment, income verification, tenancy stability, housing and budgeting, health care and health education, mental health and addiction supports, and connecting individuals with supports in the community. There is also an increasing emphasis on the importance of partnerships in providing support services as no single organization can provide all of the supports required.

As a way to combat the disappearing rooming houses, some non-profit organizations are looking for ways to acquire private market for-profit rooming houses that are being sold, or exploring options to develop new microsuite buildings that have self-contained kitchens and washroom facilities. Non-profit organizations offer better stability for rooming house tenants because the costs are often set at ODSP or OW rates and quality of housing is not sacrificed to secure greater profit margins. However, there is generally a lack of funding opportunities for acquisition and renovation of existing rooming houses that non-profits need to feasibility purchase rooming houses. In Ottawa, existing programs such as Action Ot­tawa and CMHC’s Co-Investment Fund are not applicable for acquisition costs, and include steep energy efficiency and accessibility requirements that are difficult to achieve in existing buildings. Another challenge for non-profits is that buildings operating with such low rent structures, it is difficult for organizations to carry debt financing for projects. An important step for organizations trying to acquire rooming houses is to meet with government representatives at the municipal, provincial and federal levels to discuss the financial efficiency of rooming house acquisition relative to other forms of development, to highlight the challenges with existing funding programs, and to advocate for opportunities for acquisition and renovation funding.

Rooming houses offer a vital housing option for low-income residents. Without these units, many people would be at risk of homelessness. However, the houses are sometimes in a state of disrepair, even those that are licensed, subjecting tenants to further difficulties in addition to those they are already navigating, such as mental illness and addictions. In addition to this, the housing is increasingly precarious as private for-profit landlords continue to sell their properties.

In response to this complicated situation, non-profit organizations offer more stable living conditions with a better quality of living. Municipalities have a responsibility to provide affordable housing options for low-income residents, therefore, funding from the City for non-profits to acquire rooming houses for sale by private landlords could help to slow the loss of these necessary units.

Kyla Tanner

Project Manager

August 29, 2019