Gentrification Has Killed Shared Housing. Affordability May Bring it Back, Complete With Benefits

Image of street scene in Parkdale, Toronto
Parkdale - Toronto photo by Axel Drainville is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
The Parkdale district is a last outpost of rooming houses in the shadow of downtown Toronto. Galloping gentrification is visible in the background of the photo.

In Toronto, Ontario, shared housing hangs on stubbornly, like weeds in a well-kept lawn. Rooming houses, boarding houses, single room occupancy hotels and other forms of shared accommodation are a sparse and faded glory of affordable housing alternatives once considered essential to every growing town or city in North America.

In Toronto, forms of shared housing are permitted on a very limited basis. Often ‘grandfathered in’ from earlier centuries, they are disappearing as the city rushes to gentrify affordable neighbourhoods.

In suburban areas, opposition is fierce. The need for affordable shared housing equates with poverty equates with debauched behaviour and crime. There was never a call to build such abominations into the shiny new suburbs of a growing city. And so such forms of housing were explicitly excluded by zoning regulations. Today, even in the face of an affordable housing crisis, the ‘criminal down every alleyway’ opponents resist the call for legalization.

However, shared housing is indeed found in these districts, because affordable housing is sorely needed. It usually exists, needless to say, in violation of city by-laws. But then, so is ragweed, which can be found growing in vacant lots across the city without regard for zoning or regulation. Ragweed, on the other hand, merely aggravates hay fever. Unlicensed, unregulated shared housing can cause death. An example? Read more in the Toronto Star: Hours after an 18-year-old student died in a Scarborough house fire, a landlord tells tenants to leave his houses — now

Shared housing also offers the opportunity for community beyond family. That’s something not so easy to find in the vast sea of single family dwellings that make up much of the city’s housing real estate. Opportunity for a broader community can be particularly meaningful for new immigrants, students far from home, as well as seniors alone in their later years.

Affordability and community offer potent reasons for encouraging the comeback of legal shared housing. Following are two interesting articles which explore its potential. One is a personal story, somewhat gentrified itself, but no less important because of it. Read more in the Toronto Star:  Twelve’s Company: Two Couples Want To Make High Park Co-Housing Dream A Reality

The second article has its own failing: a slightly annoying, horn-tooting ‘aren’t we just amazing?’ quality. It discusses a new project in New York City to address that city’s affordability crisis by exploring ways of encouraging opportunities for shared housing. Read more in Crain’s New York Business: A back-to-the-future remedy for the city’s affordability crisis