Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rooming houses 'on our radar': NDP

After problem festers for years, government forms a committee

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Rooming houses have been a problem for decades, their slow decline documented for years. Now, the NDP government has done what it does best: formed a committee.

"We have a lens on rooming houses more than we've had in a number of years," said Housing Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross. "They are very much on our radar."

The province has set up a new cross-departmental committee to tackle the problem, said Irvin-Ross.

It's looking at how better to help tenants and what options might be available to bolster potential buyers or spur renovations. That could include offering loan guarantees to landlords willing to buy rooming houses but who can't get mortgages from conventional banks, which deem rooming houses too risky.

Irvin-Ross was less enthusiastic about another idea housing advocates and researchers have proposed -- setting minimum standards for rooming houses governing things such as the minimum square footage per tenant and a proper number of bathrooms.

Irvin-Ross said the city should play the largest role in any such rules, and raised concerns minimum standards could ultimately shrink the number of rooming-house units, which are a critical, if maligned, ingredient in Winnipeg's affordable-housing mix.

The committee may also consider properly counting the number of rooming houses in order to get a handle on the issue.

Rooming houses must register their rents with the Residential Tenancies Branch, but the branch can't count how many have done so. It's widely assumed many rooming houses don't register their rents and fly under the radar.

Similarly, about 185 rooming houses are licensed by the city -- only 20 per cent of the estimated 1,000 rooming houses that exist in Winnipeg.

It's also impossible to know how many rooming houses have been lost in the last decade to more upscale development. In Spence, a painstaking house-by-house survey by the Institute of Urban Studies and the Spence Neighbourhood Association suggests that number is 20 per cent.

Several agencies and departments are nominally responsible for rooming houses -- the city's community services, fire and zoning departments, the province's residential tenancies branch, its housing department, its health inspectors and many neighbourhood agencies. The system of rules and inspections is geared toward single-family homes and apartments, not rooming houses.

The province does have a grant program for rooming-house landlords that offers up to $18,000 per suite for basic repairs. But only three rooming houses in the last six years have received funds, in part because the application process is onerous. Inner-city housing activists joke the application form is 46 pages long, and one landlord said the process involved 10 government visits to his property and an 18-month wait before he won a grant.

The province was prepping a pilot project that housing experts hoped would address the bricks-and-mortar issues of repair and renovation while also tackling some of the social issues inside rooming houses that can make life there volatile. At the last minute, the pilot project was scrapped because government cash can't rightly be invested in the rooming houses that probably need it most -- the ones whose landlords refuse to follow the rules and get licensed and registered.

"We were waiting and waiting and waiting, so we just did our own," said West Broadway Community Organization head Greg MacPherson, whose agency is doing outreach with residents of two rooming houses. "We're going to lose some of these places, and we're just watching people live in misery. There has to be a response."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2013 A4

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