The Hamilton Spectator: From one election to the next, Hamilton’s housing crisis in focus
Posted September 22, 2022
In some ways, Darlene Wesley’s life as a tenant in northeast Hamilton resembles a time capsule.
Her rent of $720 a month is less than half of what local one-bedroom units go for nowadays.
During Wesley’s nearly 20 years in the two-storey Strathearne Avenue walk-up, annual provincial caps have kept rent hikes within her means.
But now the 65-year-old pensioner faces the unnerving spectre of trying to find another place to live in Hamilton’s skyrocketing rental market.
After an unsuccessful appeal to the provincial rental dispute tribunal, Wesley has been told to leave by the end of January so her landlord can undertake renovations.
“I’m going to have to put my stuff in storage,” she says through sobs. “And then I don’t know what I’ll do.”
With average rent for a one-bedroom hovering at $1,700, it’s likely all of Wesley’s monthly income will be eaten up by much of what she can find in the private market.
It’s an untenable scenario that mirrors the plight of many other renters in Hamilton amid a wide-reaching housing-affordability crisis.
With a relentless surge in real-estate values — along with rents — housing has been the focus of recent federal and provincial elections.
Keeping a roof over one’s head has also spurred pledges of action from candidates in the city’s Oct. 24 vote.
Mayoral hopefuls have made a variety of pitches, ranging from an overhaul of CityHousing to tackling delays in development approvals and providing municipal land to non-profits to build affordable units.
If there’s a silver lining, the deepening problem seems to have the attention of those in power, says Graham Cubitt, a director with Indwell, which builds deeply affordable housing.
“The positive side is that the housing crisis is no longer something that we can ignore and therefore, federal, provincial and municipal governments are all agreed that there’s a crisis.”
‘Way too slow’
A crisis — it isn’t the first time Darlene Wesley has faced one.
Three decades ago, a violent episode forever altered the course of her life.
At 33, she spent weeks in hospital after her boyfriend attacked her with a knife.
“It was so horrific,” Wesley says, recalling waking up in care after a coma.
She lost a lung and to this day struggles with a chronic condition that makes it hard for her to breathe.
This is why Wesley, who also has a severe back ailment, is determined — albeit reluctantly — to move out before the cold weather sets in.
“I don’t know what the weather’s going to be like.”
If Wesley’s rent seems trapped in time — compared to rates for vacant units in the open market — so was her monthly disability pension of roughly $1,200 before she turned 65.
Social assistance has lagged far behind the cost of living, advocates have long pointed out.
For instance, between 1994 and 2020, inflation was nearly 61 per cent, but the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for singles only rose by 26 per cent, Open Policy Ontario, a social policy consultancy led by John Stapleton and Yvonne Yuan, has noted.
Meanwhile, rent control in Ontario only applies to occupied units, but once tenants leave, landlords can hike rates as high as they like, which critics argue incentivizes evictions for renovations.
Rental policy largely resides with the province, but Wesley and fellow tenant advocates with Hamilton ACORN have urged the city to tackle “renovictions” through targeted regulation.
This past term, council has bolstered and widened the application of a tenant defence fund that offers grants to help pay for struggles before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB).
City politicians also hoped to strengthen tenant conditions generally through a ward-limited, rental-licensing program; aimed to tame rents through a tax on vacant homes to coax more units onto the market; and tried to weed out tax-grant applicants who displace renters.
But any move toward a suite of local anti-renoviction policies — potentially modelled on regulations in New Westminster, B.C., that oblige landlords to find homes for displaced tenants — remains a topic to be studied by a consultant.
“The outcome of this work has been delayed due to both the legal complexity of the work, and also pandemic response within the housing sector limiting staffing resources,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email.
Staff expect to represent that analysis to the new council — whose term starts in November — for consideration in early 2023.
“It’s moving way too slow,” said Wesley about the city’s pace on the file.
In Ontario, tenants have a right to return to units at the same rate once they’re renovated, but in a tight market and requirements to sign one-year leases, staying afloat to eventually reclaim homes can be tricky.
Wesley says she’s in no condition to couch-surf like one ex-tenant is doing. Even if she were healthier, she’d have few options.
“I have three close friends and they’ve all passed in the past few years. I have no one that I’m close to anymore.”
In late 2020, Wesley’s landlord left notices advising tenants that electrical and plumbing upgrades to “ensure the safety” of occupants in the aging building would require vacancies of roughly six months.
She and others who have already left the small apartment building dispute that their units needed to be vacated to do the work and questioned if it was necessary in the first place. But the LTB disagreed.
The tribunal, which is “a joke,” got it wrong and should be held responsible for their unjust eviction, argues Herman van der Meiden.
Without work at the time, but under pressure to leave by the end of July, the 59-year-old trucker put down $15,000 for a year’s worth of rent for a much smaller apartment. “Twice as much … for half the size.”
His “hole in the wall” doesn’t have a living room, van der Meiden says. “I had to throw away two couches, a chair and a desk.”
As for Wesley, the walls of her modest but comfortable apartment are closing in on her as she packs up her belongings — still with no particular destination lined up.
“Like I said, I have to get out of here before the snow flies.”
Before the snow flies was also the city’s goal for the demolition of 91 vacant CityHousing townhouses in the North End.
Jamesville is fenced off, but the derelict homes still stand in the way of a planned 447-unit, mixed-income community.
While critics have lamented the project’s delays — the last tenants moved out in 2019 — its partners hope to start construction in 2023.
With a plan to build 114 units with rent around $550 a month, Indwell is part of the mix. CityHousing will retain 46 rent-geared-to-income apartments in a new building; 45 are to be replaced through a project planned for Bay and Cannon streets.
The redevelopment project forms part of the cash-strapped and repair-backlogged municipal social-housing provider’s strategy to leverage its assets through deals with private partners.
The approach has sparked at least one sharp exchange between municipal election candidates.
Sparring over tents in downtown parks during a recent televised debate, Ward 2 hopeful Cameron Kroetsch took incumbent Jason Farr to task over CityHousing’s property sales.
“You’ve taken off the market or sold off more units than you’ve ever built,” Kroetsch argued, to which Farr, who’s president of CityHousing’s board, responded, “whole lot to come.”
Municipalities have struggled to maintain social housing ever since Mike Harris’s provincial government downloaded the responsibility onto them, notes Steve Pomeroy, a policy research consultant who focuses on urban planning and housing.
In fact, much of a city’s housing funding is allocated to simply maintaining the subsidies for existing units, Pomeroy points out.
“Which leaves very little room for the municipality to actually find funds to invest in expanding supply.”
And while there are “limited levers” cities can pull to influence the rental market overall, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to encourage affordability, Pomeroy suggests.
For instance, cities can provide municipal lands to private developers and non-profits with the condition of providing a certain percentage of affordable units.
Encouraging secondary units through residential zoning in concert with incentives to encourage affordable rates is another approach, Pomeroy notes.
But pledges to improve affordability by expediting the local development approvals process alone won’t yield much in practice, he observes.
“The market will charge what it can even if it builds faster.”
What the candidates say
At least some of these ideas have made their way onto the platform of Hamilton’s mayoral candidates.
During an announcement in July, Keanin Loomis pledged to lead a council that would see through a plan to create 50,000 homes in an effort to ease a supply crunch.
His 10-year “Homes for Hamilton plan” would “double the pace” of residential construction by expediting the development approvals process, said the former chamber of commerce CEO.
“If this means that we need to hire more city staff to move things along, so be it.”
Loomis also aims to “modernize” residential zoning to allow for more co-op housing, apartments, duplex and triplex buildings, and in-law suites.
He endeavours to help non-profits “overcome the roadblocks” of landing financial support from senior levels of government.
Rival Bob Bratina’s housing pitch also mentions reaching out to the Ontario government: for instance, to make provincial property in Hamilton available for housing developers “at discounted rates” if they “maintain a large percentage of affordable” units.
Moreover, the former Liberal MP and one-time mayor says he’d “work to discount and defer development charges” for builders who commit to “real affordable housing.”
Bratina also suggests an “inclusionary zone” that would stipulate 30 per cent of all new or renovated housing along Hamilton’s future LRT line fall into that category.
“Affordable housing is housing you can afford, first of all,” he said during a news conference earlier this month. A precise measure is yet to be determined “because that number is changing every day.”
(Loomis says the city must “modernize” what it considers affordable. Fellow mayoral hopeful Andrea Horwath points to a commonly cited marker that housing costs shouldn’t exceed 30 per cent of one’s income.)
On CityHousing, Bratina proposes a review “and if necessary, restructure the organization,” noting “too many” of its properties are “underutilized” with some units sitting empty.
As well, he aims to “supercharge” the construction of new homes through a “complete overhaul” of the city’s development approvals process mired in “red tape.”
In an “action plan” unveiled earlier this month, Horwath also focuses on approvals, proposing a dedicated city department that relies on expert staff to help expedite the process.
Private developers and non-profits alike have aired frustrations over delays, the former Ontario NDP leader told reporters. “And people are waiting not months, but years to get these things approved and done.”
Horwath also hopes to help non-profits access funding from senior levels of government to build more affordable units and “revitalize” CityHousing to improve living conditions and tenant services. Her action plan calls for affordable housing on city-owned land.
The affordability crisis is touching many walks of life, including those with solid jobs that once paid the bills, Horwath said.
“I’m talking to people who earn $60,000 a year, which used to be a good salary, who are saying I can’t even afford my rent anymore.”
‘A great example’
For the first time in more than 20 years, David Totten has his own place.
“Life is great. I love it here and wouldn’t give it up for nothing,” he says of his brand-new apartment at The Oaks, a 108-unit oasis of deeply affordable and supportive housing Indwell opened in July.
Before he moved into the East Avenue complex — once the site of the Royal Oak Dairy — Totten says he lived a motel in Stoney Creek.
The 53-year-old ODSP recipient says he also spent a few years with a roommate and struggled to pay market rent.
But now Totten, about a week into his tenancy, pays no more than 30 per cent of his income to keep a roof over his head.
“I can live a better quality life and afford better food.”
The roughly $38-million project — with 22 townhouse units still to come — is Indwell’s largest to date.
Partners Sacajawea Non-Profit Housing and the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre provide cultural and other support services for Indigenous tenants in 13 designated units and others throughout the three- and five-storey community.
“It’s a great example of what’s actually possible when we do collaborate,” points out Indwell’s Cubitt.
The Christian non-profit bought the brownfield property in 2018 and welcomed tenants this past July after raising about $5.2 million in private donations. It’s also relying on support from the federal, provincial and municipal governments.
The tenants are drawn from Hamilton’s wait list for subsidized units, which at the end of last year, numbered 5,716 households. Of those, 916 were already in rent-geared-to-income housing and waiting to transfer to other units.
“So we can do that many times over with that kind of co-operation,” Cubitt says.
But this past summer, a coalition of non-profits including Indwell, called Hamilton is Home, flagged a vexing funding obstacle that threatened 19 affordable projects — or 1,434 units — over three years.
“These units will positively impact the housing crisis facing our community,” Tricia Lewis, director of operations for Hamilton East Kiwanis Non-Profit Homes Inc., told council.
But without breaks on tens of millions in city development charges — or equivalent financial support — the projects wouldn’t fly, she and others warned.
The upfront municipal commitment is crucial to securing federal co-investment funding through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).
City finance staff noted municipal coffers are already strained due offering exemptions on development charges but committed to reporting back on a housing investment plan in 2023.
Hamilton is Home launched in 2020 with the goal of building 3,000 affordable units in three years by pooling capital, leveraging assets, sharing expertise and co-operating on funding applications.
But the COVID-19 pandemic — which eventually lead to runaway construction costs and hiked interest rates — threw a wrench in those plans, Cubitt notes. The funding obstacle further sets back the coalition’s goal.
But “it’s not too late” for the municipality to come up with a “proactive investment strategy” to help put Hamilton is Home back on track.
“We say we’d love to be in front of council every month with a decision for yes on another project.”
As for Totten, he’s upbeat about achieving stability and looks forward to landing work.
“This is the ground,” he says standing in the courtyard of the Oaks. “That’s how you normally do things. You find a place to live and then you get a job.”