Survey of rooming house tenants finds many scramble to pay rent

December 12, 2017

More from Joanne Laucius

Published on: December 5, 2017 | Last Updated: December 5, 2017 11:36 AM EST

A survey of tenants in rooming houses in west-central Ottawa draws a grim picture.

Some tenants reported paying almost three-quarters of their income for their room. More than half used food banks and soup kitchens. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed had at least one mental health condition.

But the survey also concludes that rooming houses play an important but often overlooked role in providing affordable housing for people who might otherwise live on the streets or in homeless shelters.

“There’s not enough affordable housing. Rooming houses are the only thing people can afford,” said Joanna Binch, a nurse practitioner at the Somerset West Community Health Centre, which sponsored the survey along with the Centretown Community Health Centre.

“People are afraid they’ll lose their only housing,” said Binch, who has an interest in homelessness. “It’s a bit of a tightrope we’re walking. These are people who don’t have other options.”

The survey was followup to a report card released by the same group last year that found a myriad of problems with rooming houses, including rodent and pest infestations, a lack of hot water or garbage removal, as well as intimidation, harassment and illegal evictions on the part of landlords and clashes with other tenants because of intoxication, mental illness and drug dealing.

Conducted by Carleton University students in the master of social work program, the survey released Monday was based on responses from 34 rooming house residents who lived west of Elgin Street and east of Island Park Drive.

The survey, which doesn’t cover part of the city such as Sandy Hill, where student rooming houses are common, found 91 per cent of respondents were on social assistance. Those on the Ontario Disability Support Program were spending an average of 46 per cent of their income on housing. Those on Ontario Works benefits were spending an average of 72 per cent on housing. Ontario counts “affordable” housing as costing 30 per cent of gross annual income. 

There are about 150 rooming house rooms within a two-block radius of the Somerset West Community Health Centre, said Binch.

“As a health-care provider, I have become a housing advocate,” said Binch. “I see the rashes and people who want sleeping pills. They don’t want to drink, but everyone else in the house is drinking. And these are the people who are well enough to answer a survey.

“People who live in rooming houses have the same mortality and morbidity as people who live in shelters. It means they will die 12 years earlier than people in the general population.”

David Yuille, 66, has lived on the second floor of a rooming house on Somerset Street West for two years. On his floor, seven people share a bathroom. There are bedrooms on four floors of the house, including the basement.

David Yuille at the front door of his rooming house.

David Yuille at the front door of his rooming house. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / POSTMEDIA

Rooming houses

The shower on his floor was once not fixed for 53 days, and the front door couldn’t be closed for more than three months before it was fixed, said Yuille. There are fights that keep him up at night.

“Shortly after moving in, I couldn’t sleep. I’ve had a prescription for sleeping pills ever since,” he said. “There are big problems. If it’s not bed bugs, it’s cockroaches. If it’s not cockroaches, it’s mice.”

Yuille pays $480 a month for his room, and can’t afford more. He doesn’t want to move outside of Centretown. He’s on a waiting list for a subsidized one-bedroom apartment, but the waiting list is three years long, he said.

Yuille said he once asked someone to make a complaint to the city about property standards, but nothing was done. “My big beef is maintaining the building. There is supposed to be a cleaner, but no one does anything about it,” he said.

The city is currently reviewing the licensing bylaw that relates to rooming houses and private home conversions. Recommendations are to be made to the community and protective services committee in early 2018.

The report that accompanies the survey calls for the city to invest in a dedicated bylaw officer to ensure that property standards are monitored and enforced. It also calls for a complaint system that supports tenants who make complaints, as well as allowing for approved third-party advocates to make complaints on behalf of tenants who, like Yuille, don’t have a phone.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney is in favour of both measures.

“There are some rooming houses that are problematic, but they’re not all problematic,” she said. “Often, what you hear from residents is that they’re hesitant to make a complaint. If they get kicked out, they’re in a shelter and they know it. We need to be proactive and make some rooming house owners keep up with their end of the contract.”

McKenney agrees that rooming houses have a place in the spectrum of housing in Ottawa, primarily for single people living on social assistance.

“The ones that work are very good. And the ones that don’t work are awful. We have a responsibility as a city to see that rooming house tenants are getting the same attention to their problems as any other tenant.”