Health centres raise red flags on city’s rooming houses

Residing in an Ottawa rooming house could mean living amongst cockroaches, bed bugs and broken appliances while facing lower life expectancy and poor health.

A new report published by the Somerset West Community Health Centre and the Centretown Community Health Centre shows many rooming houses in Ottawa are failing to meet minimum health and safety standards – and tenants are suffering.  

The report’s authors are appealing to the City of Ottawa for better enforcement of regulations and for the provincial government to address the need for more affordable housing options for those forced to turn to rooming houses.

“It’s essential that as a city we are protecting our most vulnerable residents,” said Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney. “It really is our responsibility as a city to ensure that rooming houses comply with standards that are set out.”

Rooming houses are defined as buildings with multiple rooms that are rented out individually with common living spaces.  

As part of the private sector, landlords do not receive the same funding for repairs as government owned social housing, making maintenance in rooming houses a significant issue.

Experts say a combination of a lack of affordable housing and reduced community resources have resulted in tenants being left with no other option but to accept sub-standard conditions.

“They’re in their last resort place. They don’t want to be on the street, they don’t want to go back to a shelter and they’re in a place where they say, ‘I should probably not complain, hold my head low and just survive,’” said Simone Thibault, the executive director of the CCHC.

Despite rooming houses being monitored by municipal government regulations and receiving yearly inspections, Thibault said a lack of follow-up after the filing of complaints often leads to issues never being resolved.

“Bylaw might be coming, but are they following up after the fact to ensure that it’s been done,” asked Thibault.

The report’s authors see the implementation of “a single unified licensing bylaw” alongside a complaint tracking system as a way to solve inspection gaps and to hold landlords accountable for issues.  

Craig Calder, the program manager of environmental health protection for the Ottawa Public Health, the city-funded preventive health agency, said that if public health inspectors find a serious issue, a follow-up visit to make sure it is resolved is guaranteed. 

He added that OPH has never had to issue a full closure of a rooming house.

With many tenants suffering from physical or mental illness, access to healthcare for rooming house residents is an important factor in helping solve current issues.

Thibault said that most landlords are not trained to deal with crisis situations and are often unsure where to direct residents if health concerns arise. 

Community health centres provide outreach by sending nurse practitioners and social workers to rooming houses, but often find it challenging to connect with residents.

Joanna Binch, a nurse practitioner with the SWCHC, said many people are reluctant to visit doctors or connect with community health workers about their living conditions.

“Vulnerable people are hesitant to speak out,” said Binch.

Budget cuts have also affected community outreach to those living in rooming houses.

“Our demand has grown exponentially but our resources have stayed the same,” said Thibault. 

Despite current difficulties, experts said rooming houses will not be phased out, as they are a necessary part of the solution to the city’s affordable housing crisis. 

“Rooming houses are an option that needs to stay,” said Thibault.  

“We need all options when it comes to affordable housing – we really can’t afford to get rid of one option.”

Rooming houses provide 1,328 affordable housing spaces, mainly located in the downtown core. 

But Ottawa currently has more than 10,000 people waitlisted for subsidized housing and only 34 new affordable housing units were opened in 2015.

The report calls for the implementation of a rent-supplement program provided by the provincial government that would help low-income families afford rental payments.

McKenney echoed the need for new affordable housing to be built in Centretown alongside funding initiatives. 

“We need single-family housing, condominiums, we need rentals, we need social housing and we need rooms that are up for rent for those that can’t afford more,” said McKenney.