Rooming Houses in Toronto – 1960s & 1970s

Rooming houses in Toronto became a big issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s as housing priorities were changing rapidly. These dwellings were usually old houses that had been converted for single-room-occupancy tenants, who typically paid weekly rent and shared the bathroom and kitchen facilities with four or more (unrelated) tenants. Such rooming houses had been considered a “respectable” form of housing until the 1950s-era, when “suburbia” changed the equation. With the “nuclear family,” female domesticity, and home-ownership now seen as the model for order and “good citizenship,” rooming houses were (often unfairly) considered the lowest form of housing. As a result, the City of Toronto paid little attention to them because only so-called “transients” lived in them.

Because of this neglect by urban politicians, developers (like Meridian Property Management Group) began buying up entire blocks of rooming houses for eventual demolition and redevelopment – a tactic called “block-busting.” While waiting to massively clear these neighbourhoods for redevelopment, the big property owners leased out the rooming houses to unscrupulous middlemen, who then sub-rented to poor tenants. This form of gentrification had resulted in thousands of evictions of roomers in the late 1960s – causing tenants to begin organizing, often with the help of new Left activists.

“Roomers: The Lost Race of Society”

This neglect by City Hall (and the subsequent exploitation by developers) was challenged by a long-time rooming-house tenant named Norman Browne, who in 1969 wrote a report called “Roomers: The Lost Race of Society.” Browne stated that 100,000 roomers were living in inadequate housing in Toronto. He had talked with other roomers about living conditions, rent levels, relations with landlords, and he had examined housing legislation to see if the rights of rooming house tenants were protected. What he found was that roomers were being overcharged for inadequate rooms, and treated as second-class citizens by provincial housing legislation. Browne sent his report to the Toronto and Metro City Councils, the Ontario Housing Corporation, other city agencies, and the Toronto Star.

Browne’s report focused largely on Ward Seven, a newly created ward in south Toronto that encompassed Sherbourne Street to Logan Avenue and included Don Vale, Cabbagetown, Regent Park, Moss Park, Riverdale, and St. Jamestown. In 1969, this ward contained three large areas that were slated for “urban renewal” – Trefann Court, Don Vale, and Don Mount – and contained many rooming houses.

It was this milieu that brought urban reform politician John Sewell into municipal prominence, along with urban theorist and Toronto resident Jane Jacobs – who were both anti-development. In fact, at one point John Sewell leased 20 houses from Meridian, replaced the unscrupulous middlemen-landlords, and rented to the existing tenants. Sewell and Jacobs were joined by tenants’ organizations like the Just Society Movement (a union of poor people led by Doris Power, Suzanne Polgar, and Susan Abela) and the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA).

Christian Resource Centre Study

With Norman Browne’s 1969 study having prompted media attention, and the likes of Sewell and Jacobs adding their voices to the rooming house issues, the Canadian federal government (under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) in 1970 provided a $3,000 grant from the Department of Citizenship & Immigration to a Don Vale organization called the Christian Resource Centre to study Ward Seven roomers. Norman Browne was appointed as the director of the project. Shortly thereafter, Browne became the editor of the bi-monthly community newspaper Seven News – which became the most prominent advocate for tenants’ rights in 1970s Toronto.

As Browne reported in the October 2, 1970 issue of the newspaper, the First Survey of his new study had found 3,000 roomers counted in the area bounded by Parliament Street, Queen Street, Jarvis Street, and Carlton Avenue. For the 2nd phase of the study, 300 roomers were to be selected at random for interviews, which would lead to recommendations for all agencies and all levels of government.

High-rise for Roomers

While Browne’s new study was underway, the federal Central Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC) announced in August 1970 that it was partnering with a private developer (Fred Braida) on the building of an innovative housing program for low-income tenants in Toronto: Canada’s first high-rise building for roomers, a “pilot project” called Baldwin Court, a 14-storey building with “mini-apartments” at 286 Sherbourne Street. The CMHC was to provide financing, and the construction would take place under a special bylaw. Construction was slated to begin on September 15, 1970.

Upon this announcement, a Seven News editorial stated: “Is the newly planned Roomer-Apartment a small part of some comprehensive development plan? Will the area change so radically that life-long residents are not able to live within it? Who determines our way of life and do we have any say at all as to what happens to us?... Will our city end up designed for a fast buck or can we find some way to combine the buck with the design for living that we need?”

Baldwin Court opened (to some acclaim) in November 1971. It offered 106 double-rooms and 30 single rooms, with each unit furnished and equipped with a kitchenette and a 3-piece bath. Later, Browne revealed that the developer had given him credit for the idea.

Norman Browne’s federally funded study – co-written with Mary McMaster and called “A Study on Roomers” – was released in 1972. It recommended: better use of agency fieldworkers among the rooming house population; improved health care programs; licenses for rooming houses to ensure minimum standards for facilities, maintenance, and rents; an amendment to the Landlord and Tenant Act to define and include roomers in its provisions; and wider choice of accommodation for renters.

In late 1972, Seven News received a LIP grant of $9,000 and continued drawing attention to the fate of impoverished roomers, revealing, for example, that the death rate in the South of Carlton area (Carlton, Parliament, Queen & Jarvis) was three times larger than the city average but there were no health clinics in the area.

Rooming House Fires

The publication of the Browne & McMaster study happened to coincide with a terrible Toronto rooming house fire that killed a tenant named Gig Yun, prompting a coroner’s inquest. That inquest led to recommendations that included licensing for rooming houses, minimum housing standards, inspection, and bylaw enforcement. City alderman Karl Jaffary sent a memorandum to the Urban Renewal, Housing, Fire and Legislation committee of Toronto City Council, urging that they study the recommendations. City Council hired consultants Peat Marwick and legal firm Greenspan and Vaughan to do the study.

In January 1973, the Province of Ontario established the Advisory Task Force on Housing Policy and appointed Norman Browne as an advisor. His 1972 “Study on Roomers" was given to the Task Force, along with its recommendations. But in March 1974, Browne told Seven News that the final report of the Task Force “devoted one sentence of two lines to the subject. It said the problems of roomers should be more fully investigated. Wow.”

Meanwhile, the spate of rooming house fires in the South of Carlton area (with 45 fires between 1970 and 1974) continued to shock Torontonians: with 14 deaths in 1973 and at least 10 more deaths in 1974. The latter year included a fire at 5 Maitland Place (near Yonge St.), a rooming house owned by Meridian, that killed five roomers – a tragedy that reinvigorated tenants’ campaigns against Meridian’s continual block-busting. When the City of Toronto then inspected Meridian’s rooming house properties, the City won 88 convictions against Meridian on charges of breaking the building bylaw and the housing standards bylaw.

During the coroner’s inquest into the 5 Maitland Place fire, Meridian president Philip Roth claimed that he was not in the rooming house business because he only leased the buildings out to others, who operated the houses.

While the Federal government was helping to fund Neighbourhood Improvement Project (NIP) grants through its Department of Urban Affairs, it claimed that the legislation did not allow the money to be spent on buying properties for co-op housing.

But in May of 1974 the City of Toronto began negotiations with Meridian’s Philip Roth to acquire dozens of his rooming house properties, at the same time that the City was under pressure to institute legal measures for standards enforcement. Although the Peat Marwick study had been somewhat ambiguous about the situation, noting that code enforcement could result in more tenant displacement, on November 22, 1974, Toronto City Council passed two bylaws: 412-74, which required the owners of non-owner-occupied rooming houses with five or more tenants to obtain a licence and submit to yearly inspections; and 413-74, which set standards for fire protection and maintenance. The Landlord & Tenants Act was expanded to include rooming-house tenants rights for the first time.

By 1977, almost half of the city’s rooming houses had gone out of business – 582 out of 1202 – since the passage of the bylaws. Some were converted back into single-family dwellings for rental, or succumbed to the urban redevelopment process. By 2012, some 412 licensed rooming houses remained in Toronto, while rents (and urban development) were escalating rapidly in the city.

The disappearance of affordable housing for people on the margins
Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History

Subject headings
Affordable HousingGentrificationHousingHousing CrisisHousing Policies & ProgramsLow-Income HousingThe PoorRental HousingRooming HousesTenants