Today is the 25th anniversary of the Rupert Hotel fire that killed one woman and nine men in Toronto.
Those who lost their lives that day were:
Donna Marie Cann, Vincent Joseph Clarke, Stanley Blake Dancy, David Didow, Edward Finnigan, John Thomas Flint, Dedomir Sakotic, Ralph Oral Stone, Vernon Stone, and Victor Paul White
The Rupert was located at 182 Parliament Street close to Queen Street East.
In 1989, the Rupert was overcrowded and badly maintained.
A plaque erected at the site in 1993 notes that the fire "sparked action by municipal and provincial governments and community organizations to improve conditions in rooming houses."
In the years following the tragedy, about 500 units of Toronto housing were created or upgraded to meet or exceed the already existing standards. Not long after the plaque was installed, though, the funding that supported the upgrades and advocacy ended. The year 1995 brought Common Sense to Ontario and the building of all affordable housing came to a crashing halt.
What has happened since then?
On the positive side, the legislation has changed over the years so that most residents in rooming houses are considered to be tenants and have rights and responsibilities of tenants.
However, licensing of rooming houses that would be a benefit to tenants and would help to reduce the chance of fires continues to be problematic.
Lisa Freeman, a postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University, has done extensive research on Toronto’s rooming houses. In a twenty-seven page paper published by the Wellesley Institute (Toronto’s: Suburban Rooming Houses: Just a Spin on a Downtown “Problem?”) she looks at the lack of regulation of this housing in much of the City of Toronto.
In researching her subject, Freeman conducted 73 interviews with tenants, housing and settlement workers and Toronto city staff.
Freeman points out, as we and others have often argued, that rooming houses:
“… represent both a step away from, homelessness and a step towards stable and secure housing. Though often depicted as temporary housing for transient individuals, the majority of tenants rely on rooming houses for long term dwellings, spending 2—30 years living in multiple rooming houses.” (page 5)
In Toronto, rooming houses are licensed and permitted in the downtown city and in south Etobicoke. But, they are explicitly prohibited in Scarborough, North York and East York.
This inconsistency is actually written into Toronto’s new zoning by-law.
One impact of this variation is that there are now fewer licensed rooming houses areas where they are permitted but more unlicensed unregulated houses in the areas where they are not allowed.
“Since many rooming houses exist beyond a licensing and regulation regime, the living conditions can quickly become unsafe and a threat to tenants’ health. If annual fire and safety inspections do not occur, there is a greater possibility that unlicensed rooming houses will deteriorate and risk becoming fire hazards that lead to fatal fires,” says Freeman (page 6)
This is undoubtedly occurring in other cities. For example, the number of licensed rooming houses in Hamilton dropped significantly beginning in the early part of the 21st century.
Freeman believes that “the inconsistency in municipal regulations across the city leaves tenants in a vulnerable position and at risk for unhealthy, unsafe living conditions with little protection and oversight.” (Page 1)
So, exactly how many unlicensed rooming house are there?
Following a fatal rooming house fire in the Kensington area of Toronto in March of 2014, Michael Shapcott, director of affordable housing and social innovation at the Wellesley Institute, was interviewed by Erin Ruddy for Canadian Apartment Magazine.
In that story, Shapcott said, “there is no way to know for certain how many unlicensed rooming houses exist.” The waiting list for subsidized housing “provides a good indication” and it is huge and growing.
Appropriate regulation and licensing of rooming houses is imperative. There is much work to do.
- Lisa Freeman Toronto’s: Suburban Rooming Houses: Just a Spin on a Downtown “Problem?” at http://www.wellesleyinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Suburban-Rooming-Houses-FINAL-Sept-24.pdf
- A Video from Freeman and colleagues can be viewed at http://www.torontotenants.org/news/fight-safe-housing-rooming-houses-suburbs-toronto
- Rooming Housing Fire Highlights Safety Concerns from Canadian Apartment Magazine. http://www.reminetwork.com/articles/rooming-house-fire-highlights-safety-concerns/
- From the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic’s website http://www.hamiltonjustice.ca/blog/?post=Tenant+Safety+Must+be+a+Priority&id=237)