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.