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A house of last resort

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

This Spence Street building is rooming house has 18 suites.

There are cockroaches and bedbugs, crack dealers and addicts, but for some at least, a rooming house provides a roof over their heads.

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Rooming House Rundown

How many are there?

It is impossible to know for sure. No one counts — not the city or the province. The official tallies that do exist are not reliable. For instance, rooming houses must register their rents with the Residential Tenancies Branch, but many rooming houses don’t, so any count the RTB has will be too conservative.

On the flip-side, the city licences rooming houses but there are only 184 on their list. That includes some duplexes and triplexes, and the very low number bolsters the suspicion that many have that most rooming houses don’t bother to get proper licenses, ducking city inspections.

About a decade ago, a study by the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies pegged the total number of rooming houses in Winnipeg at about 1,000, and Winnipeg fire inspectors figure that is about right, perhaps even closer to 1,200.

More recently, the IUS did a door-to-door tally in the Spence neighbourhood alone and pegged the number there at 117. Similarly, staff at the West Broadway Community Organization say they have an estimated 75 in their small neighbourhood.

What’s the rent?

Between $350 and $425 a month, depending on the size of the room and whether it has a basic kitchen. Sometimes, some utilities are included.

Keep in mind the basic welfare shelter rate is $285 with utilities. That might get you a closet in the crappiest rooming house in Winnipeg.

How big are the rooms?

Imagine the average bedroom in an old Wolseley house and you’ll have it. The average in the Spence neighbourhood is just under 170 square feet. That’s according to an analysis of more than 100 rooming houses in the Spence neighbourhood done by the IUS.

Where are the hotspots?

West Broadway, Spence, Point Douglas, Centennial and other neighbourhoods in the inner core. There are fewer rooming houses in the North End because the houses tend to be smaller.

How are they regulated?

Lots of ways, but many of those ways don’t work.

Rooming houses must be licensed by the city, but many are not. Licensed rooming houses must follow fire codes and Winnipeg’s neighbourhood livability bylaw, which regulates basic maintenance.

Health inspections, for things like mould and bedbugs, are now done by the province.

There’s also the Residential Tenancies Branch, which regulates rent increases and other rules, but only if the landlord registers with the RTB. Some rooming houses are on the down-low.

Why can’t we just shut them down?

It’s too harsh to call rooming houses a necessary evil, but given Winnipeg’s chronic and widespread poverty problem and its almost total lack of affordable housing, they are absolutely necessary.

The trick is to make them less evil. Rooming houses are bottom-of-the-barrel housing for the poorest Winnipeggers, but if we shut them down or allow them to be renovated and flipped, thousands of people -- perhaps as many as 6,000 -- will be homeless.

Housing advocates and inner city activists say unequivocally: Instead of bulldozing rooming houses, we need to make them better.

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