Rooming houses, or single room occupancies (SROs), are part of the private rental market in Halifax Regional Municipality. Historically this form of housing was common for both the working class and short-term visitors (Slater, 2004). However, over time, rooming houses have experienced declining numbers, with shifts in market conditions and changing tenant characteristics. Today, rooming houses provide an alternative for those seeking affordable housing. They often house the working poor, the unemployed, and new Canadians (Campsie, 1994; Freeman, 2014).
Lack of higher-level government investment in social housing has resulted in increasing reliance of low-income tenants on the private market for housing (Gaetz, Gulliver, and Richter, 2014). Rooming houses tend to be the least expensive private market option (CMHC, 2002). This form of housing faces many challenges such as market pressures, aging housing stock, fires, and development renewal efforts (Kaufman and Distasio, 2014). Thus many Canadian cities, Halifax included, have seen significant losses in rooming house units.
Deteriorating quality and the loss of rooming house stock are major policy concerns. Tenant safety may be threatened when rooming houses are not kept up to standards, while loss of rooming houses limits the availability of one affordable housing option. At the same time that Halifax has lost licensed and unlicensed rooming houses providing accommodations for low-income tenants, the city experienced a significant increase in the presence of “quasi” rooming houses -- defined as properties that have 6 or more rooms to rent but that are not licensed, advertised, or otherwise labelled as rooming houses, and which typically house university students (Lee, 2016; Freeman, 2014). The growing presence of quasi rooming houses demonstrates the continued demand for single-room occupancies, but also reflects a shift in the markets that landlords may be targetting.
Municipalities often monitor housing stock and conditions through licensing programs. Halifax introduced a minimum standards bylaw with provisions for licensing rooming houses in 2003. Monitoring rooming houses helps ensure safety, yet housing advocates recognize a need to balance safety and affordability when considering regulatory intervention (CMHC, 2000). Beyond ensuring basic standards, zoning is commonly used to regulate the location of rooming houses in cities. In Halifax, rooming houses are generally permitted in zones allowing multi-family buildings (SHS Consulting, 2015). HRM staff recognize that current zoning for rooming houses may contribute to the decline in numbers, as owners often opt to convert the houses into more profitable uses (SHS Consulting, 2015). In a survey of rooming houses in Halifax, Lee (2016) found that over one-third converted to apartments over the last two decades.
Following the study completed by Lee (2016), the research team conducted interviews with community members to explore the social and policy context of rooming houses in HRM. The goal of the study was to discover community experiences and perspectives on this form of housing and its policy context. Through the interview process, we gained better understanding of the challenges and opportunities for rooming houses in Halifax and begin gathering ideas for appropriate strategies to protect and encourage safe and affordable single-room housing. The research reported here contributes to an ongoing study of rooming houses in Halifax.