KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – There is this notion that rooming houses are bad news, but this is unwarranted. Often they’re the only affordable option for single people on income assistance or a federal disability pension. If not a rooming house, then homelessness and a life in shelters is the next logical step.
The bad news is that rooming houses are disappearing from urban HRM. In 1995 there were 156 rooming houses in Halifax and Dartmouth. In 2016 there were fewer than 20 left.
A partial explanation is the mechanics of gentrification, there is more money to be made from tearing a rooming house down and selling its replacement, one condo unit at the time.
As this video points out, there are other drivers as well. The narrator mentions planning policies that make it difficult for rooming houses to operate, reinforced by a consistent media narrative that equates rooming house populations with the presence of crime, vermin, and every other platitude associated with poor bashing.
In June 2019 I interviewed Jill Grant, the lead author of a study, Regulating marginality: how the media characterises a maligned housing option, co-written with Janelle Derksen and Howard Ramos. This is the study the video alludes to.
See also: Halifax’s disappearing rooming houses and the role of the media – an interview with professor Jill Grant
So check out this 2017 video, it’s a good quick look at the complex issue of the disappearing rooming houses. The video was produced by Planifax, directed by Uytaye Lee, with funding by the United Way.
See also: Planning the gentrification of the North End, an interview with Ted Rutland
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In a pandemic, rooming houses are potentially disastrous as one is touching surfaces that are touched by many others, such as door knobs, light switches, taps, appliances, toilet flush handle, etc., and you are in the kitchen with others at the same time. It is interesting that nothing has been mentioned in the media about people living in rooming houses during the pandemic.
The purpose of the bylaw was to make sure that rooming houses met minimum standards. I found a copy of the bylaw online and there was nothing in it that was unreasonable. The video and this article wish to dispel the stereotype that rooming houses are dumps. The fact that so many closed down after this bylaw was put in place would suggest that a lot of rooming houses in HRM did not meet these minimum standards. According to the video, “…most rooming houses were fine to begin with.” Then why did so many of them disappear after the bylaw was implemented?
“Landlords often struggle to keep up with the cost of meeting legal requirements and decide to shut down the rooming house altogether…” Perhaps the mistake was not the bylaw but that there was no consideration given to the fact that landlords don’t make a lot of profit from running a rooming house. There should have been a grant or loan program in place to help landlords upgrade their properties so that the much-needed rooming houses would still exist.
I can’t help but wonder if the bylaw was created to cause a lot of these rooming houses to disappear as the city would have known that most landlords could not afford to make the necessary changes. A very sneaky way to further push away the undesirable poor.
For the first few years I was on income assistance, my cheque was so tiny, I could only afford rooming houses. Most of them were below my own personal standards and a few were horror stories. Rodent infestation was the most common problem. Ancient appliances that did not work properly, old, nasty furniture, drafty windows, poor heating in winter, smell of mildew, filthy carpets, and in need of general repairs, such as painting. My biggest issue with living in rooming houses was how disgusting it was to have to share a bathroom and kitchen with a bunch of strangers. You can be sure that any rooming house I lived in was very sanitary as I spent a great deal of time cleaning the common areas. A few of the rooming houses I lived in were kept quite clean by the super, the appliances were fairly modern, and there were no mice.