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«by Lisa Marie Freeman A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of Geography ...»

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Making Room: The Geography of Rooming House

Regulation in Toronto.


Lisa Marie Freeman

A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Department of Geography

University of Toronto

© Copyright by Lisa Marie Freeman 2013

Making Room: The Geography of Rooming House Regulation in


Lisa Marie Freeman

Doctor of Philosophy

Department of Geography

University of Toronto



This dissertation addresses the contemporary moment of the uneven regulation of rooming houses using qualitative research methods including semi-structured interviews, participant observation and document analysis. The uneven regulation of rooming houses provides an opportunity to study the local administration of poverty, the fragmented legal landscape of municipal law, the suburbanization of poverty and the governance of a marginalized tenant population. This dissertation questions how municipal governments function administratively, how space—specifically suburban space—influences urban governance and how an imagined geography of a 1970s skid row permeates present-day debates concerning suburban rooming houses. The geography and regulation of rooming houses in Toronto is fragmented. This fragmented legal landscape provides an opportunity to study how the bureaucratic functions of the municipal government alter the state of affordable housing in the city. In 1974, Toronto implemented a rooming house licensing bylaw as a response to fatal fires and unsafe living conditions in rooming houses. Still, in 1989 the Rupert Hotel fire happened in a licensed downtown rooming house. This specific fire garnered considerable municipal attention to the ‘problem of rooming houses.’ When the City of Toronto amalgamated in 1998, the rooming house ii licensing bylaw remained within the jurisdiction of the former City of Toronto (the downtown) and rooming houses were prohibited in the former cities (the inner suburbs) of Scarborough and North York and licensed (in a limited capacity) in Etobicoke. As poverty continues to rise in Toronto’s inner suburbs, rooming houses are increasingly in demand. Meanwhile, the legal status of rooming houses continue to be precarious as they are perceived to be illegal in the suburbs and legal in the downtown. Overall, this dissertation documents the geography of municipal bylaws in the context of gentrification, urban renewal, increased poverty in the suburbs and the everyday role of law.

–  –  –

My journey through this doctoral degree would not have been as challenging or enjoyable without the on-going support of my Supervisor Sue Ruddick. You were there for every step of this degree gently nudging me on, answering frantic emails, providing detailed comments on my drafts and always asking the right questions. Most importantly, you helped me see the importance in those moments of complete confusion and frustration.

Every time I hit such an intellectual hurdle, I would remember that ‘confusion is good,’ push forward and often re-work my entire argument for the better. Comparing the dissertation process with a marathon, not a sprint, with moments of difficulty and recovery, enabled me to continue on, persevere and see the finish line.

I would also like to thank my doctoral committee for their on-going support throughout this process. Mariana Valverde, in particular, has been integral to the fruition of this project. Our on-going conversations about municipal law and politics in Toronto helped me see the complexity and humour in the governing practices of our city. My experience as a Junior Fellow at the Centre for Criminology and Socio-legal Studies has exceeded all expectations. With your support, I became part of the Centre’s intellectual community and developed a second home at the University of Toronto. Emily Gilbert and Paul Hess have provided critical insight and casual conversations over the years. Your willingness to listen to my rambles, discuss the process of the PhD and thoughtfully comment on my work has helped immensely.

My entire PhD experience would not have been as enjoyable or invigorating without the intellectual community at The Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. I loved the combination of critical intellectual thought and creative playfulness I encountered in the Department. A big thanks to Vanessa Mathews, Lindsay Stephens, Jen Ridgley, Paul Jackson, Patrick Vitale, Kate Parizeau, Heather Dorries, Laura Pitkanen, Emily Eaton and Amy Siciliano for all the intense discussions, silly conversations and general clowning around. Even though I spent many nights at my desk, I loved the active community at the Department and the many nights with the ad hoc ‘Tuesday beer night crew’, Katie, Caitlin, Martin, Martine and Brett amongst many others.

I would like to thank the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation for their on-going financial support and creation of another great scholarly community. Through the Foundation I have established too many meaningful relationships to note. I would, however, like to thank PG Forest for his continual guidance and support in navigating this academic world. My time with the Foundation would not have been the same without sharing ideas and conversations with Josée St-Martin, Bettina Cenerelli, Jodi White, Julia Christensen, Andrée Boisselle, David Theodore, Mike Ananny, Laura Madokoro, May Chazen, Lisa Helps, Sarah Kamal, Lily Yumagulva and so many others.

iv The PhD can be a long and isolating process, one I could not have survived without the incredible support of my family and friends. My parents, Barb and Don Freeman, were always ready and willing to accommodate my last-minute planning, my aversion to the telephone, my need for comfort food and a few days writing in the country—be it St.

Jacobs or Clear Lake. My sister Kim, brother-in-law John and nephew Austin provided numerous distractions and at times your house was a nice getaway. I want to thank Austin for always pulling me out of my dissertation shell and getting me to make animal sounds, play outside and be silly. You had no idea I was writing a dissertation and I loved it. I also want to thank The Runcible’s for the continued and unending interest in my work.

All of your congratulations, encouragement and questions during the small hurdles of this degree were more helpful than you may realize.

I want to thank my friends for their enduring patience during the time of my ‘Great Refusal.’ Every time I resurfaced from my writing nest you were there and I really appreciate it. Thanks for encouraging my work, collaborating on creative ideas and generally just being there when it seemed like I would never emerge. A big thank-you goes out to Tara, Nrinder, Aylwin, Jiselle, Darren, Fifi, Niiti, Ali, Lamble, Rashmee, Dahlia, Dawn, Gitanjali, Zulfiqar, Kimiko and Angie. An especially big thank-you goes out to Fiona, Sarah and Martin, who jumped in during the final process offering incredible (and much needed) editing and map-making skills.

My gratitude goes out to Rafaela, who always wrote my name on her dance card. With you my house was filled with music, dance and laughter. You pulled me onto the kitchen dance floor at just the right moments. Your encouragement in my writing process, contributions of “why don’t you start your next chapter like this…” and patience in listening to “just one more paragraph” were essential. You opened my eyes to the musings of the Dadaists and Surrealists, always providing a refreshing intellectual curiosity I admire. Thank-you.

–  –  –

The romantic representation of the rooming house complete with nurturing landladies and artistic characters engaging in intellectual discussions in the parlor, as seen in film and literature, has all but disappeared from the North American urban landscape. The occasional rooming house run by an older widow who regularly cooks dinner for her roomers, many of who are temporary workers, may still exist. However, rooming houses filled with writers and entertainers as depicted in films such as Cabaret (1972), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and literature such as Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) are few and far between. The majority of rooming houses today are much different than these romantic representations.

Common characteristics of present-day rooming houses include cramped rooms, bed bugs, filthy kitchens, cockroaches, drug use, tenant disputes, unannounced evictions and negligent landlords. Certainly, occasional good rooming house stories exist that tell of houses in clean condition, attentive landlords, student housing and friendly neighbours;

but they are a noticeable minority.1 For the past 40 years, rooming houses in Toronto and other large North American cities have been associated with vagrancy, substance abuse, crime and poor living conditions. Consequently, they have been the target of neighbourhood associations protecting the moral integrity of single-family dwelling 1 Inc., Oriole Research & Design. Shared Accommodation in Toronto: Successful Practices and Opportunities for Change in the Rooming House Sector: Executive Summary and Recommendations.

Toronto: East York Toronto Family Resources and the Rooming House Working Group, 2008; Inc., Oriole Research & Design. Shared Accommodation in Toronto: Successful Practices and Opportunities for Change in The Rooming House Sector. Component 1: Good Practices in Toronto's Rooming House Sector.

Final Report. Toronto: East York East Toronto Family Resources & The Rooming House Working Group, 2008.

2 2 neighbourhoods and have been the focal point for governmental initiatives and municipal bylaws regulating low-income housing.

Rooming houses are a disappearing form of affordable housing in inner cities in large North American cities. Toronto is no exception. The number of downtown rooming houses has been on a slow decline since the implementation of the rooming house licensing bylaw in 1974. Since 2005, however, rooming houses have been increasing in numbers and visibility in Toronto’s inner suburbs of Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke. The presence of suburban rooming houses provides a unique regulatory problem for the City of Toronto. Rooming houses are only licensed in the downtown and prohibited in the majority of the inner suburbs. This inconsistent municipal regulation of rooming houses in the downtown and suburbs is part of the larger problem of increased suburban poverty and the lack of affordable housing in Toronto.

Rooming houses play a very important role in the affordable housing spectrum in Toronto − a city with few residential hotels, overflowing emergency shelters and lengthy waiting lists for publicly funded social housing. They provide temporary and permanent housing for single individuals and are often the first housing option for newcomers to Canada. The decline of downtown rooming houses and increase in unlicensed suburban rooming houses presents a problem for providing affordable housing for low-income individuals living on government assistance, especially when we consider that Toronto does not have large concentrations of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels like San Francisco, New York and Vancouver. Yet, the need for and regulation of rooming houses is not just a ‘big city’ phenomenon.

2 3 In smaller industrial Ontario cities like Kitchener and Hamilton, rooming and lodging houses are licensed but threatened by municipal planning initiatives intending to ‘clean up’ the city by prohibiting single-person households (rooming houses and halfway homes) in certain downtown neighbourhoods.2 On the other hand, in smaller cities with limited supportive housing and a growing homeless population, rooming houses could provide much needed housing relief; for example, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, a regional hub in the Canadian North, is experiencing an increase in homelessness amongst First Nations communities. Rooming houses would be a welcome addition to Yellowknife’s affordable housing spectrum, as they would create permanent and temporary housing for people living in emergency shelters or in extreme overcrowded situations.3 However, given the inflated real estate market in the Canadian North, purpose-built rooming houses are unlikely to become a reality despite being needed desperately.

Even though rooming houses are common in many large North American cities, a uniform or standard definition of a rooming house does not exist. This lack of uniformity stems in part from the fact that rooming houses are technically a living arrangement not a built form. Consequently, different terms are used to describe the same type of rooming house accommodation. Depending upon the city, region or country in which they were built, rooming houses may be defined as a residential hotel, boarding home, flop house, 2 Dear, M & J. Wolch. Landscapes of Despair: From Deinstitutionalization to Homelessness Princeton University Press, 1987; Mifflin, E & R. Wilton. "No Place Like Home: Rooming Houses in Contemporary Urban Context." Environment and Planning A 37.3 (2005): 18; Associates, Social Housing Strategists in association with Richard Drdla. Background Report One: Description of the Rooming House Sector.

Toronto, 2004.

3 Dr. Julia Christenson. Northern Housing Researcher. Personal Communication. February 2012.

2 4 lodging house, half-way house and/or group home.4 Still, rooming houses are distinguishable from these various forms of housing in terms of tenure of rent, support services, number of residents and the provisions of meals. Boarding houses, for example, usually offer meals and were traditionally situated within a family home. Yet, there are also Personal-Care rooming houses in Toronto that provide room, board and medical services (usually provision of medication) to former psychiatric patients. Flop houses, unlike rooming houses, have multiple beds in one room, do not include any shared common space and are rented by the day, not by the week or month.5 Though rooming houses provide the same single-person accommodation as residential SRO hotels, they vary considerably in number of rooms and residents. Even with all these similarities between single rooming accommodation dwellings, there are particular characteristics specific to rooming houses.

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