On Thursday March 20 there was yet another rooming house fire in Toronto. Two people were killed and ten others were treated for smoke inhalation.
As I sit here waiting for the other shoe to drop I can remember my own experience with rooming houses. When I first arrived in this country it was common to see 'Room for Rent' signs all over some neighborhoods in Toronto. At the time it was quite a respectable way for a family to manage the mortgage on a house. The family would live on the lower floors while the roomers would live upstairs. In my own case, I once had an upstairs room next to a park in St. Anthony's parish. Since the owners and I were of the same national descent, they regarded me as some sort of long lost relative. I remember sipping some aqua vita in the kitchen with the grandfather who spoke not a word of English. It was quite a pleasant experience.
Today this is no longer the case. Real estate speculators will buy up houses and rent them out to all comers at exorbitant rents. I have seen windowless basements subdivided into rooms at $400 each. I have lived in a rooming house with a crack dealer living upstairs and the days following check day a living hell. What is driving this downward spiral?
The answer ought to be obvious... greed. Back in the 70's it was possible for a family of relatively modest means to afford a home in the city. This is no longer true and the city is becoming increasingly polarized between the haves and the have-nots. Take a look at the following graphs...
The white areas are the middle income neighborhoods, lower income is red and high income is blue. Notice the shrinking middle income areas. Also notice the effects of gentrification. My own neighborhood, the Beach, was distinctly middle income back in the 70's but by 2005 has become solidly high income. The graphs paint a disturbing picture of a city that is heading towards where New York City is... a place for the extremely rich or the extremely poor with nothing in between.
What does this have to do with a rooming house fire? Simply this... as low income housing passes from families and homeowners to real estate speculators we can expect more and more of this abuse. The other shoe dropping I mentioned earlier is that I expect our local government to enact bylaws which will protect the real estate vultures at the expense of reducing low income housing. Outlawing rooming houses, multiple family dwellings and basement apartments might protect real estate values and prevent block busting but it will do nothing to bring home ownership within reach of middle income earners. It is these middle income earners who will provide decent housing of the kind I lived in back in the 70's. You cannot expect the value of your property to continually escalate without causing serious problems across the board. Do we really want this city to become islands of penthouses and mansions surrounded by tenements and slums?
Three Cities Within Toronto