A Canadian city spends months debating whether its buildings should be low-income rentals

The sprawling rooming house across from the Royal York Hotel in Toronto’s Midtown district has long been a hotbed of associations, complaints and building decisions. Created to accommodate immigrants trying to make a home…

A Canadian city spends months debating whether its buildings should be low-income rentals

The sprawling rooming house across from the Royal York Hotel in Toronto’s Midtown district has long been a hotbed of associations, complaints and building decisions. Created to accommodate immigrants trying to make a home for themselves in Toronto, the small dwellings have been at the center of a citywide dispute over just how radically to revamp the national housing model.

It also may have decided one of the most difficult battles for Mayor John Tory, who just weeks ago was hailing what he called an unlikely deal among council members to pass the controversial accommodation tax. But after party factions aligned with the liberal versus conservative camp succeeded in overriding Tory’s veto, the rooming house was back at the centre of the debate — this time for all the wrong reasons.

[N]o city or province taxes them. That leaves Toronto council alone to make the tough decision on the double-dipping, and for the most part, they have stuck with a simple solution: close the rooms and preserve affordable housing and curb the neighbourhood population’s transience by not inviting so many people in.

But in what for many was a head-spinning turn, councillors in the liberal camp snuck in an amendment they say will allow the city to regulate rooms that they estimate are crammed with undocumented immigrants. That was a punishment for shutting down the rooming house, which the house’s new owner accused of running a non-profit and not abiding by the city’s rules.

Mayor Tory’s office said the approach was flawed. “This is simply an attempt to discourage refugees and other vulnerable people in Toronto from coming to Canada,” Tory’s spokesman says in an email. “Our federal and provincial governments need to step up and ensure that we don’t stop welcome immigrants by restricting opportunities for them to enter Canada.”

The debate signals that the matter of building units for the neediest immigrants remains mired in misunderstanding, and it underscores that time has almost run out for a nuanced understanding of policy that is needed as the city begins to implement a new city-wide bylaw to overhaul and expand the housing model.

The bungalow at 186-195 Royal York Road, a fenced-in, earthquake-prone building that passed inspection years ago, is covered with wrapping paper and Christmas lights. It’s owned by Vancouver resident Grace Smith, who moved into a unit there last year after having twice tried unsuccessfully to rent it in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto. She took on the investment after Toronto’s bylaw against rooms didn’t prohibit the practice — at least not without close supervision and inspections. Ms. Smith had worried the house would eventually be demolished and the old building torn down and replaced by condos, and she wanted to keep her family, and the cluster of properties next door with apartments that could support them.

“I couldn’t pass it because I was like, ‘It’s just a bungalow with a leaky roof, and now I have $1,000 a month and now I’m homeless,’” Ms. Smith says. “Now I pay $2,200 and they will say, ‘Why do you pay $2,200?’ We get evicted as soon as we live here.”

Melanie Benitez was the first person in the building, and she said that more than half the tenants are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

“My first impression was that there’s not a lot of police presence,” she says.

At the end of the road is someone who has lived in the house for several years: Ron Vito, a Londonan, who says he has managed the neighbourhood with minimal help from the city and homeowners association.

“I have a lot of complaints,” he says, “but it’s been no problem, and that’s all I can say.”

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