By Chinta Puxley
A proposal to check the growth of rooming houses in Centretown and Sandy Hill is drawing accusations of discrimination against low-income renters.
A motion, put forward by Sandy Hill Coun. Stéphane Emard-Chabot on Feb. 19, asked council to impose a minimum separation distance between rooming houses. The motion does not apply to existing rooming houses.
“The rational was to avoid the concentration of rooming houses in one area,” says Emard-Chabot. “When they take up an entire city block, they change the character of the street.”
A city rooming house team will study the motion and mike recommendations.
Emard-Chabot says council will likely vote on the recommendations in late April or early May.
Emard-Chabot says his motion would get rid of the “ghetto feel” created with a concentration of rooming houses.
The motion follows a drug-related murder in a Sandy Hill rooming house Feb. 12. The murder sparked debate among some Sandy Hill residents groups who support enforcing the separation of rooming houses to lessen their impact on the Sandy Hill community.
Emard-Chabot also made a motion Feb. 19 to allow the construction of rooming houses in wards other than Sandy Hill and Centretown, but it was defeated.
City zoning bylaws only allow Ottawa’s 240 rooming houses to operate in Sandy Hill and Centretown. Half of those rooming houses are in Centretown.
But Coun. Elisabeth Arnold, says the separation distance idea is discriminatory and won’t address the complaints of residents.
“I just find it is an unacceptable way to deal with a problem of a minority of rooming house properties being poorly managed,” she says. “We should be dealing with the problem in the appropriate way as opposed to discriminating against poor people.”
Arnold says a better solution would be to have a registry or licensing system allowing the city to keep tabs on rooming houses not meeting minimum standards.
This isn’t the first time the rooming house debate has surfaced. Nancy Walker, head of the rooming house study team, says a zoning study was conducted in June 1996 that examined the separation distance idea.
“It basically said it would be discriminatory to dot his kind of zoning for rooming houses because it’s assuming that people living in rooming houses are like people with special-needs housing,” Walker says.
“That may be the case with some rooming houses but certainly not all of them.”
She says the study also found imposing a minimum separation distance between rooming houses was a misuse of zoning bylaws.
“Zoning is not supposed to be people-zoning,” she says. “It’s supposed to be based on structures and buildings, as opposed to who is living in them.”
Catherine Boucher, executive co-ordinator of the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corp., which operates a rooming house in Centretown, says there isn’t anything wrong with having a high concentration of rooming houses.
“What’s inherently wrong with that?” Boucher says. “Do you go into Alta Vista and say there’s too many single-family homes here? We better put in some rooming houses?”
But Arnold says she doesn’t expect the rooming house team to recommend separation distance as a solution.
“I would expect that we’re going to get the same information back which is that it doesn’t address the problem,” Arnold says. “I would hope we’re not going to vote on something that is ineffective.”