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Halifax’s disappearing rooming houses and the role of the media – an interview with professor Jill Grant.

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – These days there are fewer rooming houses in Halifax than say twenty years ago, and that’s a real problem for people who rely on them. 

Jill Grant is a retired professor at Dalhousie’s School of Planning who’s been interested in the shifting urban landscape of wealth and poverty for a long time.

Recently she published a paper, Regulating marginality: how the media characterises a maligned housing option, co-written with Janelle Derksen and Howard Ramos. 

The study considers how local media reports on rooming houses, and how that in turn affects policy making in City Hall. 

The authors looked at 272 stories written in local print media  between 1995 and 2015 and found that coverage of rooming houses is overwhelmingly negative. 

Only nine stories had a predominantly positive tone, with sources quoted suggesting that well-managed rooming houses provided a viable affordable option. Thirty stories were neutral and about 85% of stories presented a negative tone, critical of rooming houses, the study found.

“Words linked with rooming houses in the stories included condemned, squalid, derelict, decrepit, unlicensed, rundown, substandard, eyesore, monster, dilapidated, low-income, disgusting, controversial, seedy, illegal, deplorable, slum, blight, jungle, and overpriced,” the paper states. 

“Multiple stories contained stock negative phrases such as not fit to live in, Cockroach Hotel, poorly maintained, crack house, drug house, student ghetto, slummy, transient feel, murder house, and scourge of the neighbourhood,” the study’s authors found.

We talked with Jill Grant about the study, and how journalists without realizing it help shape city planning policies. 

How did you come to look at the issue of decreasing  rooming houses in Halifax, and what did you find?

We were doing research on neighborhood change recently, and  some of the people who are involved in the homelessness housing needs assessment were telling us how so many rooming houses were disappearing. They flagged that as a really important concern, so we decided to try to update the inventory and find out what exactly was happening.

We started researching the issue, going through City directories and newspaper advertisements trying to find places that were identifiable as rooming houses. We found over 200 addresses that at some point in time during the period between 1995 and 2015 were listed as rooming houses.

We found that over that period rooming houses for people with very low incomes had mostly disappeared, while by the year 2000 we started to see evidence of rooming houses that were clearly aiming at a student market. There was an influx of students from Ontario, and some landlords in neighborhoods around the university started to subdivide some of the big old Victorian houses and turned them into apartments and single rooms for rent. Students are able to pay a bit more in rent than people who are living on social assistance or other very low incomes.

By the time we did our study there were some 70 or 80 rooming house left and 50 or more of these were student-oriented. We’ve lost hundreds of rooms that used to be available for low income people.

How low income assistance rates, city hall policies and gentrification contribute to  rooming house shortages

Part of the problem is that the province hasn’t increased shelter allowances. The number of people who can pay the kind of rent that landlords might want for a rooming house are just not there. People can’t afford the rents anymore, they have to go out panhandling or do other things to supplement their income, because the province gives so little for shelter allowances. 

Municipal policy and the new Center Plan all encourage densification and redevelopment of the central parts of the city, encouraging people to move downtown. New developments have come in where we used to have rooming houses. 

For example, if you look at downtown Dartmouth in 1995, there was a cluster of rooming houses in the downtown area of Dartmouth. They’re all gone now. Some have been demolished, some have been renovated for other uses. But downtown Dartmouth has been quite extensively gentrified.

See also: We’re friends, we’re just sharing a home. Residents fall victim to rooming house bylaw

What did you find when you looked at media coverage of rooming houses, and what’s the take away for journalists?

Our research focus was just on trying to understand what was happening with rooming houses, and what factors were reducing availability. It’s only as we pursued that question and looked at news sources that we started to notice the way that rooming houses were.described in the media. 

At that point we started to systematically analyze a collection of stories that we had found, looking at the adjectives and other things that were associated with the descriptions of rooming houses.  We recognized that there was a very negative tone to describing rooming houses and while I don’t think the media is necessarily responsible for that perception, it reproduces it. 

The media’s message often was that rooming houses are dangerous and dirty, they’re fire hazards and the kind of people who live there don’t really want to be there.  

That message coming from the media has made it easier for the authorities to say that we have to regulate these rooming houses, and then that we have to close them, without considering what the social implications of those choices are. 

Now we have fewer people who have to live in places with bedbugs and leaking plumbing and so on, but people still need to live somewhere. If we don’t want people to have to live in those kind of conditions we have to make sure they have the resources to live in better places.

Journalists of course are part of society, and so they bring that social understanding to the work they do. I think all of us do that, it’s really hard to get away from that. Until we started working on analyzing the data that we published in this paper I really hadn’t thought about it myself, and it hadn’t occurred to me that this kind of framing was going on. 

As reporters you make choices every day about what is a story, what isn’t a story, and how you tell the story. Those choices ultimately have an impact in society in terms of what people pay attention to. 

See also: Halifax’s shifting landscape of wealth and poverty

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