The rooming house debate pits socialist golf-shirters against free-market hippies
by Paul Dechene
There are a couple criteria I try to apply when I’m faced with an issue that’s new to me and I need to pick a side. First, who are my friends going to be once I choose?
And second, who’s going to get fucked over if my side wins?
Those two questions have served me pretty well over the years. And I found them useful when I showed up at Knox Metropolitan Church for a meeting to discuss possible directions for their upcoming rooming house policy.
The pews filled up with two distinct groups. The largest were older people, mostly couples — the men in tidy, tucked-in golf shirts and tasteful man-jewelry; the ladies were in expensive prints. They conveyed casual respectability.
On the other side of the room, there were fewer grey hairs and the clothing was more informal. Some of the guys sported facial hair. At least one woman had dreadlocks. I recognized some faces from the People’s Housing Summit in April.
At five past seven, the meeting — which had been scheduled by the city’s planning department — got underway and one of the first speakers was Yves Richard, the Regina’s manager of neighbourhood planning. He ran through the background research on rooming houses the city had conducted and as he spoke a golf-shirted man sitting in front of me started to fidget in his seat and sigh loudly.
Richard has a slight French accent and this golf-shirted man found this so bothersome that he leaned in to his wife and said, “The guy’s not even Chinese and I still can’t understand him.”
He and his wife left after that.
Based on my first criteria, golf-shirt tribe lost a hundred points.
Next up, Fred Searle, manager of current planning, laid out the three options for dealing with rooming houses the city’s considering.
The first was basically to deregulate them — that is, remove the definition of “Rooming House” from the zoning bylaw and just enforce bylaw violations as they would with any other house or multi-unit dwelling. The second option was to limit the number of boarders allowed in a house — up to four would be permitted but to take in more you’d have to apply to council for approval.
The third option was not only to limit the number of boarders but also institute annual licenses and inspections for all rooming houses.
Once the presentations were done and people began lining up at the microphone, it became clear which options our two tribes preferred.
The tidy side was worried about rooming houses. They were home owners concerned about the way all these renters were taking up parking spots and how shabby these rented buildings looked. They wanted the city to intervene. They wanted option three with its licenses and penalties. It was socialism all the way with this crowd.
The other side of the room comprised renters and housing activists, and at least one rooming house owner. A rooming house wasn’t a problem to them — it was either part of a solution to the rental crisis or the place that they call home. They wanted option one and stood up to argue for property rights and deregulation.
And as the evening wore on an odd thing happened. As the renters and activists rose to defend the wisdom of the free market, the home owners in the golf shirts and animal prints started to heckle them.
This isn’t how things are supposed to work. Normally, it’s the older folk in the tidy clothes politely demanding smaller government while tsking their disapproval at the hippies who’re causing a ruckus and calling for higher taxes.
What. The. Hell.
And next thing I know, I’m starting to like all this talk of deregulation. These unkempt free marketeers are my people. I look like a twit in a golf shirt, anyway. I don’t even want to be caught hanging around with anyone who’d back option three.
At the same time, this is all rather disturbing because I’m usually the one arguing the merits of a well-funded and professional civil service that’s liberally armed with laser-precise legislation.
I’m a fan of Big Government.
But this time, thanks to my second criteria — who will get fucked over if my side wins — I find myself thinking the licenses and monitoring will only cause more harm than they’re worth. By placing strict limits on the number of boarders, I can’t see how you’d do anything other than reduce the number of rooms available to renters.
And rooming houses are homes for students, new immigrants and temporary workers. It’d be profoundly immoral to fuck these people over. Doubly so if you’re driving these people out of their homes over selfish and trivial concerns like parking or an unkempt yard.
Plus, if we wind up with rooming house licenses on the city’s books, that’ll also be hypocritical as all hell.
I’ve been to other meetings on housing issues, meetings where you won’t see a golf shirt unless it was purchased at Value Village and is being worn ironically. These are meetings like the People’s Housing Summit which attract renters and people with low or no income. The idea of landlord licensing has been raised at these meeting too as a way to prevent the abuse of tenants and as a way to make sure that landowners maintain their properties.
And yet, when this idea is raised by poor people, it’s ignored by council and administration and ridiculed in the media by landlords.
But once a group of comparatively wealthy home owners who’re worried about their property values and parking spots want to inflict licenses on landlords who only cater to people needing the least expensive housing, all of a sudden that becomes one of three options considered for a city policy? Seems a tad unfair.
As the meeting drew to a close there was no clear consensus on which of the three options would be the one the city would go with. If anything, the room was more divided at the end of the night than it was at the start.
And we won’t find out which side wins until September 23, when the rooming house policy goes before council.
DEFINING A ROOMING HOUSE
Part of the problem with rooming houses in Regina comes from the way they’re defined. According to the city’s manager of neighbourhood planning, Yves Richard, the definition isn’t broad enough.
“I think the intent was good originally. A rooming house [in our bylaws] is where the owner is living there but he rents some extra room to other people. The only problem is that we have a situation where if the owner is not there, suddenly the definition did not apply and you realize it doesn’t make sense. The common definition of rooming house was well understood. It’s that somebody has some extra bedrooms that wants to rent them out. Suddenly we realize we have to change that and fix that because it’s not fair for some people where the owner doesn’t live [in the building],” he says.
To remedy this, the new policy will be dropping the term “rooming house” and using the broader “single room occupancy units” to refer to any situation where people are renting single rooms in a building but sharing amenities like kitchens, bathrooms or living spaces.
MENTION IT AND THEY WILL COMPLAIN
This whole controversy over how to regulate rooming houses began when the city released a draft of its Comprehensive Housing Strategy which contained provisions to encourage the development of rooming houses as they are a good rental option for people who can’t or don’t want to spend much on their housing. But according to Richard, the purpose of that part of the strategy was to foster the growth of purpose-built rooming houses. Not houses that have been turned into rooming houses on the sly.
But just the mention of the rooming houses tapped into a motherload of discontent. As it turns out, people all over the city, but especially home owners in the university area, were supremely disgruntled about the informal rental accommodations that had existed in their neighbourhoods. And when rooming houses became a “thing”, they picked up the phone.
According to Yves Richard, the number of complaints about rooming houses shot up dramatically immediately after the release of the Comprehensive Housing Strategy.
“We were surprised by how obvious it was. In 2010 we got eight [complaints], 2011 we got 11 service requests, 2012 we got 18. And in 2013 up to May we received 65. And really, most of them were after April when we introduced the housing strategy to council.” /Paul Dechene