“It could have been me” Why rooming houses must be legalized – Guest blog from Yvonne Yuan

In the middle of a mid-summer night in June 2013, I was forced out of a rooming house.  I had nowhere to go.

I was an 18-year-old sophomore at the University of Toronto, Scarborough campus. Two girls I knew had found the house and invited me to live there.

Judging from the outside, it was a perfectly maintained detached house that sat near an intersection within walking distance to the campus.  I shared a washroom with 2 other girls and a shower with 7 other girls. The basement also housed more tenants and all of us shared a kitchen and three fridges. My rent was $450 per month. I paid cash.

We each signed one-year contracts with the landlord that still had 2 months to go. Then something unexpected happened.

One morning in June 2013, when I was leaving the new house for school, I was stopped by a man wearing a uniform.

 “Ma’am – I need to ask you a question.”

“You live here?” He pointed to the house. “How many people live in there right now?” 

“Ten…I guess” I said.

“You guess?” he said. “You don’t know how many people live in the place where you live?”

He raised his voice as he asked the question. I felt like a criminal.

Later, on that June night so etched into my memory, the landlord and his wife banged on our doors imploring us all to leave the premises immediately.

This was ridiculous, I thought. It was in the middle of the night! I had just moved from the first floor to the second floor less than a week before at the request of the landlord to “pass a city’s inspection”. He had emptied all the bedrooms on the first floor and moved elegant furniture into each of the vacated rooms.  

The landlord’s wife then stepped into my room, assembled several paper boxes and started to grab my belongings and put them into the boxes.  She said: “I will help you pack. Please help us. You have to leave. There’s no time to explain. You have to leave right now.”  She escorted us to another large house.

My new landlord greeted us in Mandarin and told us “to stay as long as you like”.

But 3 days later, she asked if I had secured a new place to live.  I then moved twice within 5 days. I didn’t say anything to my parents until later. I stayed less than a year. I couldn’t wait to get out.

Five years later, I heard that a house near the UTSC campus burnt down due to an electrical fire causing 1 death and 3 injuries. The deceased was an 18-year-old Chinese student. The owner of the house was my previous landlady.

It could have been me! At least I was thrown out and not burned to death.

I said to myself: ‘this must stop’.

Rooming Houses should be legalized.

Legalization in my mind would bring four major benefits. 

1) With clear instructions for building construction, legalization would help ensure that rooming houses are not firetraps.

2) With   appropriate inspection, both rooming house tenants and landlords would be recorded in City databases. This would assist Scarborough to record its actual population for a variety of planning purposes.

3) Based on a correct accounting of a landlords’ income, legalization would result in greater tax fairness.

4) With a transparent appeal system, landlords and tenants would be able to better secure their rights and responsibilities

We have witnessed the ineffectiveness of banning rooming houses which only drives them underground and makes tenants more vulnerable. Access to affordable housing is a demand that will continue to exist so the need for them is clear.

Newcomers need a place to start.  Students who want to save money while living close to campus may turn with confidence to a legal shared residence. With the shortage of community housing units and dormitories, a rooming house becomes the only option for many.

A versions of this blog appeared in Inside Toronto on June 21, 2021: https://www.toronto.com/opinion-story/10418850–it-could-have-been-me-here-s-why-rooming-houses-across-toronto-must-be-legalized/