Montreal’s disappearing rooming houses

DSCF4546Rooming houses on Tupper Street, in Shaughnessy Village

After being viewed for decades as a symptom of urban decay, there is today a movement to recognise rooming houses as an important part of the city’s housing stock. For many people in precarious situations rooming houses constitute the last housing option before ending up on the street, or the first step towards more stable housing. Since rooms are often rented on a weekly basis without the need for a lease, references or background checks, they’re easier to access than traditional housing. For people without a steady income they are often the only affordable type of housing.

Rooming houses have been a part of the landscape of Montreal since the Industrial Revolution when large numbers of people migrating in from the countryside and abroad needed quick housing when they arrived in the city.  In 2007 there were an estimated 180 private houses in Montreal, with around 3,000 rooms available. They are largely located in Ville-Marie and in adjacent central neighbourhoods.

As these parts of the city are redeveloped and gentrified, rooming houses are becoming rarer and rarer. Sometimes the owners sell them or convert them to standard housing units. Others are renovated and turned into up-market bed & breakfast style accommodations. Some have also been shut down as a result of the Quartier des Spectacles project, including the closure of 20 rooms located in two houses that were bought by the Société de développement Angus as part of its Lower Main redevelopment. Slowly but surely the housing stock of rooms is shrinking and those that are remaining are getting more and more expensive.

Despite their important role, there have been many public health problems with private rooming houses. Often the buildings need repairs, are poorly soundproofed, and have bedbug or cockroach infestations. Many rooming houses were once standard housing that was then later subdivided, and as a result they can be cramped and have sub-par sanitary facilities. While roomers do have some protections under the Régie du Logement, many aren’t aware of their rights. Residents hesitate to denounce poor conditions out of fear of ending up on the street it the house is closed down.

RAPSIM, a coalition of organizations that serve the homeless, has recently issued a report on the state of rooming houses in Montreal, as well as recommendation to improve the quality and accessibility of such housing. One of their main suggestions is that the municipal government needs to take an active role in enforcing housing code regulations to ensure minimum standards of upkeep in private rooming houses. They also recommend building new single-room public housing units. This would guarantee a stock of affordable rooming houses, without the poor conditions often seen in the private sector.

There seems to be a new acknowledgment from governments of the importance of this sort of housing. While once widely seen by authorities as blight, there is nowadays at least recognition of the social purpose rooming houses can serve. At this point the biggest challenge for housing advocates is to translate this recognition into concrete action.

In its recently released Plan d’action interministériel en itinérance the Quebec government has committed to encouraging the preservation of the existing rooming house stock as well as building 150 new public units. This falls far short of what is needed, but at least it’s a start. For its part, the City of Montreal acknowledges that there is a problem, but no solid commitments have been made as of yet. The City needs to step up to the plate if it’s serious about tackling homelessness and ensuring that gentrification and its own redevelopment schemes don’t reduce housing options for Montreal’s most vulnerable.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for this Devin, it is very interesting. I remember when there were quite a few rooming houses in what is now called the Plateau. Do you know Plume Latraverse’s song “Chambre à louer”? Leonard Cohen also wondered how many people in this city “lived in rented rooms”.

    I also knew someone who was living in a rooming house on St-Denis just south of Jean-Talon, and there were several tiny flats,not much more than rented rooms, on Lajeunesse just north of there. All of these have pretty much disappeared.

    The SHDM did have a project, “ma chambre” and has created some housing schemes for itinerants providing very small studios, a bit better than the traditional room as each has its own sanitary facilities. Your Tupper street pic looks like such a project.

    Of course this can be only a part of a broader commitment to social housing, designed to meet the needs of a broad range of people, from families to seniors to working poor, to the very vulnerable people who need freedom as well as support.

  2. Welp, it’s just like Mr. Smith said, artists are the shock troops of gentrification.

    Devin, I’m excited about our impending merger. It will be an honour to have you working for us.

  3. When the MCM as elected in 1986, one of the first actions it undertook was to have a task force on rooming houses. At the time there were about 10,000 rooms, many of which in fire-traps and not at all inspected.

    The task force report proposed, amongst other things, closing down about half of them for health code violations, and making sure the other half were inspected, maintained, repaired, surveyed, etc. Many of the task force’s recommendations are still on the shelf.

  4. Neu, as artists, what on earth are we supposed to do? We don’t move somewhere with the intention of evicting roomers.

    Yes, artists may make an area “desirable”, but speculators are the villains, not people working (precariously) in the arts sectors.

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