The closing of a rooming house forces us to deal with the terrible conditions single occupants often live in. The argument is not whether or not these hotels should remain in existence, but what we are doing and should be doing for residents of this type
By Anders Knudsen
Published March 08, 2010
this article has been updated
Last Thursday the Roomers and Boarders Committee organized a showing of Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel, a documentary about the eviction of tenants of the Gladstone hotel in Toronto, followed by a discussion about affordable housing in Hamilton, and specifically issues relating to single-occupant housing. This is not a new issue around here - see Bob Wood's article for a good background and discussion on the Roomers and Boarders Committee.
The documentary follows the sale of the Gladstone - the oldest continually running hotel in Toronto - in 2000 to a pair of developers. The developers claim to want to retain the tenants, slowly renovate, and even bring services into the hotel.
But room rates quickly go up $10. A legal dispute between the two developers involved is settled in favour of the Zeidler family, who say they have the tenants' interests at heart, and seem actually to believe they will be able to transform the hotel to an artist colony, hip nightspot, and a model for affordable housing.
Fast-forward a few months and the tenants are gone. The Gladstone is now a boutique hotel with plasma screens and $150-300 room fees. What happened, according to the Zeidlers, was that the hotel was in such disrepair that they could no longer afford to keep tenants at $50 a night.
Strangely enough the film-makers take no strong moral or political stance.
The documentary follows one tenant, an elderly woman named Maryanne who is evicted after she can no longer afford the rates. Her interviews are the heart of the film, and I couldn't help but think that her story was far more honest and revealing than the claims of the developers.
One of the Zeidler family even has the gall to claim the old tenants are, in some cosmic way, part of the hotel, and so not really gone. She may have been right that they had no choice, but the result is the same - residents are evicted from their homes and property values rise.
Following the film a panel of speakers discussed the situation of rooming houses (technically a dwelling where three or more unrelated people rent rooms)in Hamilton, from the bad - the closing of the Regal hotel and eviction of its tenants - to the good, such as the plans [PDF link] of Homestead Christian Care to turn Rookies Tavern on Main into affordable housing for single individuals.
One speaker discussed his own experience living at a rooming house, and the challenges tenants face from absentee or neglectful landlords. Much good is being done, including efforts by city staff and various agencies and organizations to inspect rooming houses, address complaints, and enforce laws against abusive landlords.
A major challenge is the lack of access tenants often have to their rights within the complaints-based system, based out of distrust, social isolation, mental illness, and threats or manipulation from landlords. This is exacerbated for single occupants, who already suffer from social isolation, and are often in no mental state to seek out or understand their rights.
A number of solutions were discussed, such as more frequent or proactive inspections, better coordination between departments, and the posting of significant sections of the Residential Tenants Act in rooming houses.
The hard fact, however, is that the need for single dwellings is much greater than the supply, so even the unlicensed dwellings fulfill a critical need. My impression was that issues around affordable housing lie latent until a breaking point, such as a large-scale eviction or a tragedy.
The closing of a hotel such as the Gladstone forces us to deal with the terrible conditions single occupants often live in. The argument is not whether or not these hotels should remain in existence, but what we are doing and should be doing for residents of this type of housing.
Update: The Gladstone was sold in 2000, not 2001, and the tenant's name is spelled "Maryanne", not "Marianne". RTH regrets the error.
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