The house listed on Airbnb at 1 Toba Dr. in North York looks like a typical product of 1960s upper-middle class suburban living – a brick and siding structure with a steep driveway on a corner lot next to a ravine park. Inside is a very different scene: Room after room is filled with racks of bunk beds. What was a living room now has 13 beds (four racks of triple bunks and one extra cot) and a full-sized refrigerator.
The man who opened the door on a recent afternoon – he called himself Jimmy – says 20 people are currently living in the five-bedroom family home. The house actually has 35 separate “rooms” listed for rent on Airbnb (some of which are actually just one of the bunks) for bargain prices as low as $10 a night.
“I received a bunk bed and had to share the room with three other people," user Arul Prakash wrote in a recent review of his stay in what is grandly called The Mansion. "A guy was making phone calls in the night and another guy was watching movies with loudspeaker on at 4 a.m. and I couldn’t really sleep. They don’t provide toilet papers in the lavatory and the guests had to bring their own. This is fine for people who are staying for long, but can you expect tourists to carry around toilet papers?”
Aside from the discomfort of guests such as Mr. Prakash, the house on Toba Drive, a cross between a hostel and a rooming house, represents the extreme edge of the Airbnb model. It is an example of the multiple ways an operator can exist on the sprawling hospitality platform while flouting municipal rules and safety regulations. According to the city’s bylaw enforcement portal, there are no current investigations into 1 Toba Dr. Several neighbours The Globe and Mail spoke to had no idea that the house had been operating as a short-stay hotel since 2019.
The Airbnb listing is registered to a man named “Walter,” but the house does not appear to be owned by him. Property records for 1 Toba Dr. show it was purchased for $4.7-million in 2016 by Yuming Chen and Fang Dong, and it was listed for lease on Toronto’s local MLS site in 2019. Another house listed by Walter on Airbnb, 411 Carlton St., is registered to Kenneth Green, and also appears to be leased. Walter declined to answer some of The Globe’s questions, but did say he has been an Airbnb operator for four years and claimed to have multiple houses under multiple identities on the platform.
Walter is far from the only operator on Airbnb in Toronto who could run afoul of the city’s new rules that limit the number of bedrooms in a rental to three, and cap a whole-home rental to 180 nights a year. According to McGill researcher David Wachsmuth, as of April, 2019, there were more than 21,000 short term rentals in Toronto listed on such platforms as Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway. According to data activists at InsideAirbnb.com, there are 136 host identities in Toronto alone with eight or more room or house listings to their name. Across Canada, Airbnb has close to 150,000 listings.
A cursory search of the platform finds multiple examples of a listing that would be a de-facto rooming house (in Toronto, any house, apartment or building where four or more people pay individual rent and share a kitchen or washroom could be defined as a rooming house). The economic logic for packing in renters is clear: At its current occupancy, 1 Toba Dr. could be pulling in as much as $6,500 a month, maybe as much as $10,000 if every bunk was full. Parts of the house have also been advertised on other platforms for longer-term stays, for as low as $380 a month.
Toronto only allows rooming houses in the districts of Etobicoke, York and the old city of Toronto. Scarborough and East York also ban rooming houses. It’s easy to find examples of listings in those areas that would flout rooming house rules, which to Airbnb means those operators may not be in compliance with the platform.
“When hosts sign-up on Airbnb, they must certify that they will comply with local rules before they list their space,” Alexandra Dagg, director of Public Policy at Airbnb, said in a statement. “We also have a hosting responsibilities page that reminds people to check their local laws and regulations and includes additional information and resources.”
Airbnb has in recent months taken steps to address safety risks that arise from younger users holding parties that have turned violent in several instances, including the January 31 shooting in a downtown Toronto condo that left three dead. But safety risks for rooming houses have not received special attention.
“There are no regulations about the number of beds that people can put in the room they are renting short-term. However, people can not short-term rent each bed as a ‘room.' The city’s enforcement initiatives will be implemented for rooming houses attempting to operate as short-term rentals,” said Carleton Grant, executive director, Municipal Licensing and Standards division for the city of Toronto.
Fire is one of the chief risks associated with illegal rooming houses. Between 2014 and 2018, about 40 fire loss incidents a year were recorded at rooming-house/boarding-house establishments in the province, according to Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal. Seven people died in rooming house fires in that time, and more than $10-million in damages were recorded. In those incidents, open flames or smoker’s articles were the primary cause of the fires (28 per cent of the time), while another 25 per cent of the time the cause was undetermined. The fires started in living areas or kitchens 66 per cent of the time.
The interior rooms of the Toba listing smelled of marijuana smoke, and while purchase and consumption has been legalized, smoking marijuana indoors in remains a flashpoint for rental providers, not least because of safety.
Rooming houses are required to have two exits to an exterior door for second floors or basements, and Toba’s second floor had only a single interior staircase to exit. Having CO detectors is a legal requirement in Ontario for rental operators, but the Toba Drive listing states it has none.
Ms. Dagg said Airbnb’s rules on disclosure of CO detectors were updated in 2018, and the company “recommends the purchase of a portable detector for use during travel, given they are not common in many parts of the world.”
Despite safety concerns and being illegal in much of the city, rooming houses are some of the most affordable housing stock available to Toronto tenants. The small number of licensed rooming houses is believed to be vastly outnumbered by illegal operators, but City Hall remains split on how to bring them out of the shadows.
“For the past 10 years, every year the city of Toronto discusses rooming houses and how to deal with them. A lot of these illegal rooming houses are filling that affordability vacuum,” said Bahar Shadpour, with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. “The victims of that are people that are forced to live in that shadow market. They might not call 311 to deal with any issues that might be a detriment to your health [mould or fire safety] because if they do, and the city comes and shuts down the rooming house and those people become homeless.”
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.