The Hamilton Spectator: New tenant-protection bylaw on Hamilton’s horizon
Posted January 15, 2024
Staff propose renovation licences among rules to combat ‘renoviction’
Michael Hinds is one of a handful of tenants resisting their landlord’s bid to evict them for renovations in an older Hamilton walk-up apartment building.
Hinds, 50, worries about finding another place he can afford if he’s forced to leave his roughly $900-a-month Sanford Avenue South home of eight years.
He relies on a meagre disability pension to make ends meet after a truck hit him on his way to his job as a security guard at a local shopping mall a few years ago.
“It’s going to be very difficult for me, very difficult,” says Hinds, whose hearing before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) is Jan. 17.
This scenario of desperation — tenants girding against the spectre of homelessness after losing their apartments — has become a familiar one in Hamilton’s escalated rental market, where the average rate for a one-bedroom now eclipses $1,800 a month.
To help, city staff are recommending a newly drafted bylaw designed to weed out unscrupulous evictions for renovations — or “renovictions” — after tenant advocates urged stronger regulations and city politicians sent them back to the drawing board in October.
In Ontario, landlords are able to evict tenants for renovations that require building permits, but tenant advocates and housing experts have condemned underhanded tactics as a main driver of displacement and hiked rents.
Under provincial legislation, once units are vacant, landlords are no longer limited by annually capped increases and can charge new tenants whatever they want.
The proposed bylaw before council next Wednesday (Jan. 17) would require landlords to file applications to the city for renovation licences within a week of issuing N13 notices to tenants to vacate units.
The application must include a building permit, a report from a “qualified person (engineer)” to confirm that the apartment must be vacant for the renovations and a copy of the N13. The recommended fee for a renovation licence is $715 per unit.
Another key provision not featured in staff’s previous version of the bylaw is that landlords must offer tenants “comparable” accommodations or compensation during renovations if they opt to exercise their legal right to return to their homes once the work is done.
If landlords can’t arrange for alternative accommodations, staff “may make an exemption … impose conditions” on it. Landlords who don’t follow the rules could be subject to city orders or set fines, which staff note must be approved by Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General.
The draft policy steers clear of the provincial Residential Tenancies Act, which deals with tenant rights and landlord responsibilities, while positioning its regulations under the Municipal Act, staff say.
Nonetheless, because it’s a “first-of-its-kind in Canada,” the proposed bylaw “may be subject to legal challenge,” the report advises, adding it also may have to be tweaked to reflect changes ushered in by the province’s upcoming Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act.
If approved by council, the city would start accepting renovation licence applications in January 2025.
Funding for the recommended program, which carries a total cost of $942,850, including for eight full-time staff and three vehicles, is to be discussed during 2024 city budget talks.
Other measures to protect tenants, including a safe apartment buildings bylaw that requires landlords to register buildings that have at least two storeys or six units, that council discussed last year are also on the horizon.
The property manager of Hinds’s building at the corner of Sanford and Main Street East didn’t respond to The Spectator’s request for comment this week.
Hinds is one of five tenants trying to stave off eviction with the help of Hamilton ACORN in the three-storey, 12-unit building where others have accepted buyouts to leave.
But whatever’s on offer won’t last them long in Hamilton’s skyrocketing rental market, says Erin Fabello, whose LTB hearing is in March.
“I’m terrified. I have no support. I don’t have a family that I can turn to. I don’t have couches to surf,” says Fabello, 54, who works from home.
Likewise, Michael Hart worries about what could be next.
“I have schizophrenia, autism, lots of social problems,” said Hart, 28. “The thought of moving out scares me more than almost anything else … I don’t think I could survive if I did move.”
Instead, the tenants argue the planned renovations, including to kitchens, bathrooms, plumbing and heating, could be done without “without permanently displacing tenants,” Fabello said.
They are urging government, including the city, to step in with regulations to prevent displacement.
The Hamilton and District Apartment Association, meanwhile, opposed city staff’s earlier version of the bylaw and also objects to its latest draft.
“Such issues (are) provincial jurisdiction and ample protections already exist within the (Residential Tenancies Act),” the association told The Spectator via email.
“We always like to note that the more a municipality regulates rental housing the less investment it may see in rental supply.”
Local landlord Adam Kitchener also argues tenants already have recourse through the LTB, which is running delays for hearings of more than a year.
“This single step will secure their housing until their hearing,” Kitchener said, noting a “competent adjudicator” then examines permits and renovation plans to decide whether evictions are necessary.
“For the city to come out with this, it is unnecessary,” he said of the proposed bylaw.
But Kitchener is also critical of the delay-plagued and “broken LTB,” which he notes has fuelled “the rise of ‘cash for keys’” deals between landlords and tenants.
“It is cheaper to pay a tenant to move out,” rather than “wait it out and fight” before the tribunal, he said.
But the LTB also presents many pitfalls for tenants, who are at a considerable disadvantage compared to better resourced landlords, says Karl Andrus, who leads the Hamilton Community Benefits Network.
“There is a power imbalance inherent in the landlord-tenant relationship and the LTB does little to address that.”
The city’s “innovative” and “imaginative” proposed bylaw helps fill in those gaps, Andrus said.
In addition to preventing tremendous hardship for tenants displaced by renovictions, the new policy also promises to save the city money by preserving steadily eroding affordable market units, he added.
“This is like a finger in the dike.”
Article by Teviah Moro for The Hamilton Spectator