Posted October 16, 2019
There are 15,400 people across Hamilton waiting for a spot in subsidized housing.
Gather them together and you'd pretty much fill the FirstOntario Centre arena.
It's a shocking number of people and they represent some of the city's most vulnerable residents.
Talk to any civic leader or anti-poverty advocate and the response is the same — Hamilton's housing situation is in dire straits, or worse.
To house all those people on the waiting list, the city would need another 6,400 subsidized housing units, a number that's climbing monthly. Given that would mean a 50 per cent increase to the nearly 13,500 social housing units in Hamilton, it's easy to see why some people have to wait years for a spot.
"We're in the midst of a housing crisis," said Edward John, the city's director of housing. "The irony being we've known about it for 30 years. We've been talking about it without putting the money where the issue is."
"Housing is absolutely a human right, in my opinion, and we should all share the burden of making sure our most vulnerable people are looked after," said John.
Keith Alarie is one of the many thousand waiting in Hamilton for a subsidized apartment.
The 57-year-old had been on the wait list a few years ago, but feeling discouraged, let his information lapse. Three months ago, he decided to give it another shot. "I know it will be a while yet."
Alarie, who gets by on a $1,166 monthly disability cheque, rents a basement room in a home on Wilson Street for $600.
He struggled to get the landlord to fix leaks in his unit and has to use a kitchen in the main-floor unit. "I'd like to be able to do things on my own, cook my own meals and that."
There are worrisome pressures rippling through all parts of the housing ecosystem — from the steady increase in house prices, to sharply rising rents, to the lack of government-subsidized rental housing, to the lack of new rental units being built.
On top of that, there's been the gentrification of older, inner-city neighbourhoods that were traditionally a source of more affordable housing.
But as with most social problems, the brunt of the burden is borne by those at the bottom of the pyramid, in this case low-income people either in subsidized housing or trying to get into it.
"The whole continuum of housing is in crisis," said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.
"People are getting on those waiting lists and not being able to get off them," said Cooper. "Without the access to social housing, people are staying in some really rotten conditions, putting their health at risk, putting their safety at risk."
In the second part of this series, we look at the massive imbalance in the distribution of subsidized housing units between the city's poorer and richer areas that has led to a concentration of poverty in the inner city.
The third story will look at the deteriorating condition of city-owned subsidized housing units and the tens of millions of dollars in unbudgeted repairs needed just to keep existing apartments safe and livable.
In the final part, we look at the struggle non-profit housing providers face in maintaining their current stock and building anew after years of declining government funding.
How did we get here?
Hamilton's housing crisis was born decades ago when several factors collided to create a perfect storm.
In the 1960s, rental apartment buildings sprouted like mushrooms across the province to accommodate the postwar baby boom. From 1962 to 1973, 60 per cent of all building permits issued in Canada were for multi-family dwellings.
In 1975, Ontario introduced rent control legislation, which coincided with the bottoming out of the rental construction market.
Rental construction starts went from 40,000 in 1972 to just a few thousand in 1975. By 1996, there were only 931 rental units built in the entire province.
That represented just two per cent of all housing units built that year, according to University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski. This came at a time when 36 per cent of Ontario households were renters.
Through the 1980s, single-family homes dominated the residential construction market, followed by a later boom in apartment condominiums and townhouses.
Not long after, governments of various political stripes started getting out of the social housing business.
In 1993, the federal Liberal government withdrew funding for new social housing and later passed that responsibility down to provincial governments.
A few years later, the provincial Tories under Mike Harris downloaded the cost and ownership of existing subsidized housing to local governments like Hamilton.
In more recent years, we've seen what Edward John calls the "commodification" of housing.
A house — or a condo, or a townhouse — is no longer just a house. Home ownership has become an investment strategy and perhaps the easiest and most direct way for people to dramatically increase their net worth at a time when wages have remained relatively stagnant compared to inflation.
In the past decade, the average sale price of a Hamilton house doubled from $287,500 in 2008 to $575,500 in 2018. "We have commodified housing and that has driven up the value of land," said John.
Real-estate investment trusts, which are responsible to investors, have emerged as a force in recent years in Hamilton by buying up older apartment blocks. Some have been accused of vacating existing tenants to renovate and jack rents.
Tenants at Stoney Creek Towers, a highrise complex just east of Centennial Parkway, launched a rent strike last year to resist hikes tied to renovations.
At the same time, the rising cost of land has made it difficult for non-profit corporations and charities to acquire property and build projects that can be affordable after years of government withdrawal from the sector.
"We cannot help the most vulnerable who are in the deepest need because you cannot make the numbers work," Lori-Anne Gagne, executive director of Victoria Park Community Homes in Hamilton.
Meanwhile, the collapse of rental construction has had three outcomes — it has left a stock of older units, it has kept vacancy rates low because home ownership has become less attainable, and supply and demand being what it is, it has caused rents to jump sharply.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Hamilton went from $684 in 2009 to $1,240 this year.
On top of that, the ongoing gentrification of older, inner-city neighbourhoods by Greater Toronto Area ex-pats has had the potential of knocking more renters out of affordable units.
And finally, construction costs for developers are rising rapidly, making it all the more difficult to build affordable housing.
According to John, construction costs are increasing 10 to 20 per cent a year and a delay of six months can sometimes be fatal to a project.
The crisis in housing comes at a time when health and employment have become more precarious in Hamilton. It's not surprising the three are connected.
Earlier this year, The Spectator's 10-year sequel to the original Code Red project showed that 10 of 13 health markers had worsened in Hamilton over the past decade.
In the last 10 years, there was nearly a 60 per cent jump in the proportion of psychiatric-related emergency room visits. More concerning, there were increases seen all across the city.
A 2015 McMaster University study showed that nearly 60 per cent of Hamilton's workers are employed in precarious jobs.
Nearly a quarter of Hamilton's millennials — those born between 1982 and 1997 — live with their parents, in part because they're being squeezed out of the housing market. A report this summer suggested it would now take 21 years of full-time work for a millennial in the GTA to save up enough money to purchase a home.
Meanwhile, Hamilton's poverty rate has dropped only slightly between 2006 and 2016 and there remain vast differences in poverty rates between the inner city and the suburban communities.
According to the last census, there are three inner-city neighbourhoods with poverty rates greater than 40 per cent and five suburban neighbourhoods with poverty rates less than two per cent.
Finding ways to break concentrated poverty and improve the mix of incomes is essential, according to Jim Dunn, a McMaster University social sciences professor who studies housing, health and neighbourhoods.
"Concentrated poverty is quite bad for people," said Dunn. "Over and above a person's socioeconomic status, there's an added risk and added harm that comes to them from living in concentrated poverty."
"In other words," Dunn said, "being a low-income person in a mixed neighbourhood is better for your well-being than being a low-income person in a concentrated poverty neighbourhood."
Finding a better way to mix incomes — indeed, just finding a way to build any more subsidized housing units — is going to be a tricky thing, Dunn said.
"The bottom line is that everybody for the last 25 to 30 years has been trying to do something with nothing."
Article by Matthew Van Dongen, Teviah Moro and Steve Buist for the Hamilton Spectator