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Unsafe rooming house issue requires collaborative solutions: Sa’d

Unlicensed rooming houses or basement apartments could lead landlords to jail, says Toronto landlord/tenant lawyer Caryma Sa’d.

Sa’d, founder and principal of SADVOCACY Professional Corporation, says charges have been laid following a fire at a rooming house near the University of Toronto which killed an 18-year-old international student. The landlords have been charged with criminal negligence causing death, criminal negligence causing bodily harm, and nine counts of arson by neglect.

The case is sadly not uncommon, she says. In 2015, following a blaze that claimed the life of a tenant, the owner and operator of another unlicensed Scarborough rooming house, pleaded guilty to fire code violations. The owner was fined $36,000 while the landlord received a two-year probation order.

“The issue in these rooming houses is that it’s often every man for themselves,” Sa’d tells AdvocateDaily.com. “In a family situation, you look out for each other, but in these rooming houses, everyone chooses their own form of exit, and they can’t rely on someone else.”

In some cases, the illegal rooming houses are filled with people who have few rental options because of their economic circumstances, she says.

Sa’d says in other instances, landlords take advantage because there is not enough adequate housing to meet student demand.

Many are international students who may not understand their rights and what the housing standards are, she says.

Sa’d says enforcing fire and building code violations may address a symptom, but at a cost, because landlords often react to fines and citations by removing housing spaces from the market.

“The issue really is a lack of affordable housing,” she says. “We have to look at zoning, and where we can get more affordable housing, work with homeowners and landlords to create space which is compliant with the building code and local bylaws,” she says.

Instead of fire inspectors coming down with a clipboard and fistful of citations, Sa’d says a more collaborative approach would be more constructive.

“Perhaps, they could work with the landlords to make the space compliant. Maybe there could be some funding to help the landlords create safe, affordable housing,” she says.  

At the same time, there needs to be more outreach to current and prospective tenants, informing them of their rights, highlighting the dangers of unlicensed, uninspected, and non-conforming housing that may not have working smoke detectors, fire-resistant doors, and proper pathways to exits for residents, Sa’d says.

While the first line of enforcement is through bylaws and the Provincial Offences Act, she says, landlords should not take lack of compliance lightly.

“The state can and will escalate to the Criminal Code,” Sa’d says. “And that is a risk, not of just financial penalties, but also jail.”

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