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Rooming Houses: Not Just a Room

Monday, November 21, 2016

By Anna Claire Ryan, originally published in the Centretown Buzz.

Housing is a key social determinant of health and wellbeing. We know that living in unsafe, unaffordable or insecure housing increases the risk of many health problems. Yet access to safe and affordable housing in central Ottawa is a challenge for many.

The release of Canada’s National Housing Strategy on National Housing Day – November 22, 2016 – highlights the importance of housing issues in Ottawa. Using research conducted at Somerset West Community Health Centre (SWCHC) by social work masters students from Carleton University, the Centretown Community Health Centre (CCHC) and SWCHC have collaborated with partners to report on the health and housing in West-Central Ottawa.

The report, to be released on November 29, 2016, focuses specifically on rooming houses. A rooming house is a building with multiple rooms that are rented out individually, with tenants sharing a bathroom and/or a kitchen.

Rooming houses are usually owned by private landlords, and should abide by the municipal government’s standards and regulations. Because they are affordable, rooming houses fill an important need in communities where high rental costs plague the housing market. They are one option to meet the desperate need for low income housing options. They also create shared community space, are accessible and are located in central areas of the city. In Ottawa, over half of all rooming houses are located in the West-Central area.

Yet, despite requiring an operating licence, rooming houses frequently fail to meet minimum standards for health and safety, affordability and maintenance. Many of the units are in poor condition with reports from tenants indicating issues such as broken windows, exposed pipes and electrical, broken floor boards, mould and unsanitary common areas, broken locks and lack of proper heating during the cold weather. Further, there is a lack of privacy due to the physical composition of the houses with no private bathrooms or kitchens. One tenant said, “I can’t do this anymore. There is an 11 to one bathroom ratio.”

Tenants’ safety, security and sobriety can also be further challenged because of harassment, invasion of privacy and unequal power dynamics between landlords and tenants. Although rooming houses are fraught with many issues, they nevertheless provide housing to people who have few affordable options and may face homelessness otherwise. There is no official report on average rooming house rent. But anecdotal reports show that renting a room in a rooming house costs $400600 a month.

All of this points to the lack of decent and affordable housing options available to low-income and marginalized populations across Canada. Rooming houses too often present potentially harmful environments for tenants who are already vulnerable, marginalized and isolated. But literature shows that rooming houses that are in better repair and of higher quality often have healthier tenants. Furthermore, having rooming houses in neighbourhoods that have a family atmosphere and where families have been present for generations provides a sense of safety and security for tenants.

At Centretown and Somerset West Community Health Centres, we believe that safe, secure, and affordable housing is essential for the health and well-being of all Ottawa residents. Together, let’s raise awareness about the housing issues in our community and work to create safe and healthy communities where everyone matters.

This column is a collaboration between the Centretown Community Health Centre and Somerset West Community Health Centre. We are local non-profit, community-government organizations that provide health and social services to the residents of Centretown and the Somerset Ward. We believe every one matters and every one contributes to a healthy community.