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Maclean’s: Why this Ontario city is passing an anti-renoviction policy - ACORN Canada

Maclean’s: Why this Ontario city is passing an anti-renoviction policy

Posted February 5, 2024

“Average rents in Hamilton went from $700 a month for a one-bedroom in 2019 all the way up to $1,500 by the end of 2023”

In Ontario, the dreaded N13 eviction notice—also known as a renoviction—informs renters that they must vacate their home because the unit needs major renovations. Between 2017 and 2022, the number of N13 eviction notices rose by a staggering 986 per cent in Hamilton, Ontario. Under Ontario law, renters can move back to the same unit at the same price they were paying before, but many people aren’t aware they can exercise that right. Landlords often then rent out the renovated unit at a new—and much higher—price.

In 2018, when city councillor Nrinder Nann took office, she noticed an uptick in reports of renovictions across the city. Nann’s ward is in Hamilton’s east end, home to many renters and economically disadvantaged people. She saw firsthand how renovictions and unaffordable rent were pushing them out of the city where they grew up.

Nann partnered with Hamilton’s branch of ACORN, an organization advocating for the rights of low-income people, and began pushing for an anti-renoviction bylaw, modelled after policies already deployed in British Columbia. Finally, after five years of advocacy, it passed in January. Under the new bylaw, anyone issuing an N13 will be required to apply for a renovation permit for $715. The application will require landlords to share information about the scope of work, the number of units involved and verification from experts that vacancy is required. The city’s bylaws and enforcement team will be able to assess if tenants really do need to move, and help educate landlords and renters about their rights and obligations during renovations.

We spoke to Nann about this first-in-Ontario bylaw, her years-long battle and how the policy will protect Hamilton’s renters.

As Hamilton’s population has surged, so have rental prices. How have renovictions played into this? 

Renovictions and rising rental rates are very much part of a larger issue in Canada: the commodification of housing, and investment companies deliberately using housing as a wealth-generating tool.

Let’s say you’ve got a three-storey walk up with 12 units in it built in 1915. The boiler system has been well maintained, it still works—no problem. I’ve heard landlords saying, “Nope, this building needs to be completely overhauled.” But the overhaul isn’t actually happening. Instead, the landlord makes aesthetic, surface-level changes, then relists the unit with jacked-up rent.

How has this phenomenon affected prices?

In Hamilton, we’ve seen astronomical, skyrocketing increases in the price of housing—rental as well as ownership. It went from $700 a month for a one-bedroom in 2019 all the way up to $1,500 by the end of 2023. Landlords are literally doubling their profits on a monthly basis.

The result is that people who’ve been living here for generations are being priced out of their neighbourhoods and communities. For five years I’ve served as a city councillor in a ward with a high number of renters, and one of my most heartbreaking jobs is writing letters to landlords to say, “Can you not evict? Can you come up with another solution here?”

The Residential Tenancies Act in Ontario has protections against illegal evictions and rent increases. How do landlords get away with increasing the rent so much, whether through renovictions or other processes? 

I don’t know why they keep getting away with it. But there’s a role here for the city to play. We’re going to make sure that things are happening in a way that requires our property owners to dot their i’s and cross their t’s.

I know real estate investment companies have been criticized for above-guideline rent increases. Are they the main ones doing the evicting?

The city’s Planning and Economic Development Department estimates that 34 per cent of Hamilton rental units are owned by investors. And Hamilton ACORN, a community advocacy group that receives lots of testimonials from tenants, has data showing that it is primarily these investment landlords engaging in these bad practices.

I’ve seen very little empathy from some of those investment landlords, compared to the folks who are landlords who live in Hamilton—the folks who have owned a small walk-up apartment building for a couple of generations, or those who are renting out their basement suite as a supplementary income. Those folks are responsive to the issue. But the people who have been using Hamilton as an investment portfolio absolutely are non-responsive.

What qualifies as a legitimate N13 eviction?

The work would have to be renovation that requires vacancy to take place. We’re talking replacing the plumbing, replacing the windows. Anything that would make this space uninhabitable while that work is going on.

But landlords are not being forthright with their long-term tenants about the degree of work and renovation that they’re engaging in. They just offer a general explanation: due to extensive renovations, we need you to vacate the premises by this date.

What kinds of renters are being pushed out of their homes in Hamilton?

It is every demographic group, from the single mom who’s raising her kids to the seniors on disability to full families. We’re seeing a tremendous impact. I was talking to one resident who was paying about $700 for her one-bedroom apartment. She’s on ODSP. She received an N13 and was told she had to leave because her unit supposedly needed major renovations. After she vacated, she kind of kept an eye on the place and, pretty soon, found it relisted: the landlord was asking for over $1,500. When she looked at the ad, she noticed all that had changed was some new paint and vinyl flooring. That doesn’t qualify as a major renovation. She should not have had to vacate the premises in order for that work to take place. So now we have a senior on ODSP priced out of her community, living with stress and financial burden. She says the fear of being homeless is the most debilitating experience she’s going through.

It’s taking a huge mental, emotional and spiritual toll on so many Hamiltonians. We have over 200,000 people who rent in the city. And renting is an absolutely vital housing option, since for many people, homeownership has become eradicated as a possibility.

My parents live in Hamilton. When I visit, I’ve noticed there are many unhoused people. Do you think there’s a connection between what is going on with renovictions and rising rent, to this increase in unhoused people in the city?

Without a doubt. We don’t have data on this population, but the city of Toronto has been keeping a very good record of folks who are entering their emergency shelter system. They have noticed that 30 per cent of folks who are accessing emergency shelters for the first time are doing so because they were evicted from the apartment that they were renting. When I talk to housing providers, folks who are doing community outreach, folks who are living in encampments, as well as my neighbours who are living in encampments in the ward, I’ve heard that eviction is a growing reason why people are now living in tents and living on the streets, or going sofa to sofa.

We know there’s a direct correlation between a person’s housing precarity and their movement toward self-medicating with harmful substances. We need to be looking at the interconnection of these issues, and we need the feds and the province at the table to help municipalities contend with this issue.

You’ve been involved in advocating for this bylaw for a long time—what inspired it?

It was first implemented in New Westminster, British Columbia. A few years back, with ACORN and a few other community partners, I met with the councillor who initiated the bylaw there, as well as their bylaw staff, to learn about its structure and implementation.

There was absolute clarity from their data that the bylaw helped folks return to the units that were being renovated, and that the city could play a better facilitator role by making sure that the tenants whose homes were being renovated were able to go back in. And the numbers of people accessing emergency shelters had also reduced. Subsequently, Burnaby, B.C., took the New Westminster model and improved it. Municipalities across British Columbia were contemplating setting up their own bylaws, at which point the province stepped in and integrated these measures into the provincial legislation.

How big a fight was getting a majority vote in favour of the bylaw? 

In 2019, when I started asking these questions at the council table and requesting staff reports, it did seem like we were biting off way more than we could chew. The response was, We’d love to be able to do something, but this is the realm of the province. Not to mention the developers who were threatening us and saying, “If you try to do anything about this, we’ll just choose to invest in different places.”

From there I started moving for information reports: I asked for an analysis of what New Westminster was able to do, an analysis of whether or not that’s possible in Ontario. If we were to pursue this as a municipality, what would that have to look like? Those reports helped my council colleagues better understand this program. We’re now in the budget process. All the policies and bylaws are approved. We’re in the process of funding it for 2024 and onward. And it will be ratified in February

The bylaw puts in place a financial penalty for landlords who do not follow the rules. How are you going to enforce that? What’s to stop a landlord from skipping the required steps and just doing it the way they were before?

We’ll slap them with fines, and we’ll keep slapping them with fines. And if they continue to not pay it, we’ll start adding those fines to their property taxes. At some point we’ll have to have a conversation as a council, when we get a report back on how the program is going and if staff are identifying these kinds of issues occurring at scale or a pattern that is worthy of a more coordinated strategy.

How will the bylaw preserve affordable-housing stock?

We can’t build fast enough to maintain the amount of affordable housing that we need in our city. Preserving the units that currently exist at an affordable rate has become a necessary tool in our toolbox. We’re anticipating that we’ll be able to maintain more of those affordable units and that folks will keep their residency in a unit that’s being renovated. And it’s in the interest of good landlords to have tenants who can afford to stay there long-term. If I was a landlord, I’d definitely want to make sure that I had a tenant who could afford to stay in my available unit, and commit to a multi-year lease, because that would take so much stress off of operating the business.

This renoviction bylaw is absolutely about preserving the affordable housing stock while also taking care of our residents who rent, and letting them know that we see them, we’ve heard them, and they’re right—cities can do something about this.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity


Article by H. G. Watson for Maclean’s