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Sritharan Kannamuthu, left, describes the conditions in the unlicensed rooming house in which he lives in Scarborough, May 1, 2014. Kannamuthu talked to the Globe and Mail in the offices of Regini David, right, of West Scarborough Community Legal Services.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

A man steps off his porch and walks down the driveway. "You going to shut that place down?" he asks, gesturing across the street. Regini David doesn't answer. She knows which property he is referring to: an illegal rooming house, one of a number in this quiet neighbourhood in central Scarborough.

As a legal aid worker and housing advocate, Ms. David has visited dozens of rooming houses across the city. This is one of the nicer ones: With a well-maintained front yard, it doesn't look out of place on this tidy residential street. "It has a beautiful, spacious garden," she says. The tenants, who live in the basement, have access to the garden. But not all rooming house residents are as lucky.

Toronto has a severe shortage of affordable housing. As of the end of July, there are more than 170,000 people on the waiting list for Toronto Community Housing. Rooming houses, many of which are unlicensed, are often the only choice for people with low incomes. But these cramped quarters can create dangerous living conditions, leading to tragedies such as the fire in March at an illegal rooming house in Kensington Market that killed two men and left 10 people homeless, including two children.

Rooming houses are legal only in the old city of Toronto and restricted areas of Etobicoke and York, leaving the inner suburbs – which are home to an increasing share of the city's poor – with many unlicensed rooming houses and a lack of oversight.

This week, the Wellesley Institute released a research paper that examines the role rooming houses play in providing affordable shelter for residents in Toronto's inner suburbs. The report, titled "Toronto's Suburban Rooming Houses: Just a Spin on a Downtown 'problem?'", looks at how the city can adapt its bylaws to not only make this form of housing legal but also address the issues tenants in these communities face.

When suburban residents argue that rooming houses don't belong in their neighbourhoods, they are invoking an outdated ideal of the suburbs as middle-class havens where homeownership is a prerequisite for being a "good" citizen, says Dr. Lisa Freeman, the author of the report, which was based on her doctoral research on rooming house bylaws in Toronto.

"There's a wide variety of people who are living in rooming houses and they're not necessarily disruptive to neighbourhoods they are not people who are involved in crime," she says. "A lot of people living in suburban rooming houses want to live in that neighbourhood but can't afford to unless they have that accommodation."

There is a "beggars can't be choosers" mentality around rooming houses, says Michael Shapcott, the institute's director of housing and innovation. "And when there's a tragedy, [people] think, 'That's too bad. Nothing can be done.' But there really are things that can be done."

In 1989, a rooming house fire at the Rupert Hotel on the east side of downtown killed 10 people, prompting an inquest and demands for action. As part of the Rupert Coalition, Mr. Shapcott helped revitalize more than 500 units of rooming house stock in the Parkdale area, which was funded with help from the province and the city. The pilot project also provided social and health assistance for tenants, and offered forgivable loans to landlords who maintained their properties up to standards.

Mr. Shapcott says the three-year program demonstrated that there was a cost-effective way to transform rooming houses into a safe and viable housing option for low-income and vulnerable populations – a conclusion that was confirmed by an independent evaluation. "But governments weren't listening at that point. All they wanted to do was cut funding."

Over past few decades, gentrification has eroded the number of licensed and unlicensed rooming houses in downtown Toronto, leading to a corresponding rise in homelessness, Mr. Shapcott says. Rising property values also pushed low-income residents out of the city core. Today poverty is concentrated in the inner suburbs, where non-white and marginalized populations often live.

At the West Scarborough Community Legal Services Clinic, Ms. David has seen an increasing percentage of her clients living in rooming houses, an observation supported by Dr. Freeman's doctoral research, which concluded that there is a rising number of these illegal shelters in the suburbs.

Dr. Freeman and Ms. David interviewed 75 tenants, housing workers and landlords across Toronto and found a wide variation in the type and quality of rooming houses. While some houses were in poor condition – overcrowded, with fire hazards and mould – others were well maintained and up to code, even when the landlord didn't have a rooming house licence. "We need to change the bylaw in a way that treats every individual equally," Ms. David says, "so people can live where their family is, where their mosque is, the neighbourhood where they want to live."

Sritharan Kannamuthu moved to Scarborough to be close to his children. The tiny basement unit he rents is in a three-storey house that he shares with 10 other people. No visitors are allowed, cable access has been cut and tenants are barred from using the washing machine. He doesn't like living there, but rooming houses are the only option he has. Because of his epilepsy, Mr. Kannamuthu can't work. He receives $479 a month for shelter from the Ontario Disability Support Program. In February, his landlord suddenly hiked his rent from $400 to $500.

Mr. Kannamuthu looks down at his lap where a book is open to a highlighted page. He runs his eyes over the text, which outlines his tenant rights. He knows his landlord can't arbitrarily increase the rent but Mr. Kannamuthu has little recourse. If he complains, his landlord will threaten to evict him or the city might shut down the house.

In the inner suburbs, rooming houses come in a variety of forms: bungalows, two-storey detached houses, basements. In this sense, Dr. Freeman says, rooming houses are more of a living arrangement than a built form, and should be redefined as shared accommodations. "Having a different name would change people's attitudes towards this type of housing. So instead of just a rooming house, there could be multiple forms of [shared] housing. And hopefully in the future, the city can regulate and license multiple form of housing arrangements."

City council's planning and growth management committee voted to defer discussion of a staff report on the issue until after the election. A similar situation happened four years ago. "And the way they're going, they may be able to kick it past the next election [in 2018]," says Ken Hale, legal services director at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

"The only thing we ever talk about in relation to housing in the city is how much the value of residential property is going up," says Mr. Hale, whose organization filed an appeal of the current rooming house bylaws, arguing that the patchwork of regulations has no planning rationale. "But what about the people who can't afford to buy anything? What kind of housing do they live in?"

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