Tenants resist renoviction as affordable housing across Canada dwindles

Tenant David Galvin is leading me on a tour of the cavernous hallways of 1083 Main St. East here in southeast Hamilton, in the older lower city. This is a forlorn three-storey complex which has seen better days.

Except for a single wall carrying the words “Delta Candy Shop,” and highlighting its “ice cream and hot and cold drinks,” there is nothing left of the auditorium which housed the old Delta movie theatre, gutted in 1984 to make way for apartments. 

Today, only seven of the 60 units in the building are occupied by tenants. Living in one of them since 2004, Galvin says tenants have lived with a series of neglectful owners, whom he calls “slumlords.”

“Rats are literally eating holes in the wall to get into my apartment. Public health says they’re still busy with COVID and can’t respond to pest complaints. [The] landlord is doing next to nothing,” stated Galvin.

Yet for all its faults, 1083 Main St. East is a deeply affordable place living on borrowed time. The tenants tend to be older or disabled and have few other alternatives in an increasingly expensive city and housing market.

Galvin himself has lived here for 20 years and is paying close to $900 for a two-bedroom which includes utilities. Most of the units are renting in the $700 to $900 range while one specific unit is between $1,200 and $1,300 because of some unique circumstances, he explained.

Although all of the tenants had been here for about 20 years at low rents, one of the units was singled out and renovicted on its own by a previous landlord, explains Galvin. The tenants in that unit moved across the street to another place and experienced renoviction there too. They returned to 1083 Main and were hit with higher rents.

Threat of renovictions

Now, residents face a new landlord seeking to use renovations to legally force tenants out and turn their units into luxury apartments for a classier clientele and a greater financial return on its investment. Hence, the word “renovictions” to describe the process.

The tenants and the Hamilton chapter of ACORN, a tenants’ rights organization, have learned from the paralegal representing the new landlord, 1083 Main Street Inc., that the new rents will be in the range of $2,500 to $3,000 per unit.

Dylan Suitor, president of 1083 Main Street Inc., refuses to talk to the press.

Galvin has never met Suitor but provides the following insight. “Suitor’s ownership stake in the corporation is unknown. It appears from everything I’ve heard or read that he uses money put up by investors to purchase properties,” he says.

Vents, an online magazine, goes further: “The acquisition [of 1083 Main St. E.] was deemed the highest-value real estate transaction in the city that month, totalling close to $10 million.”

What is happening at this address is part of a major trend of investors big and small putting their money into existing low-cost rental housing stock across Canada to generate much larger returns and leading to the disappearance of affordable accommodation.

In most provinces, the protections for tenants are too weak to act as a deterrent to renovictions.

Galvan and the other tenants at 1083 Main St. E. have refused to move out even temporarily during any renovation pursued by their new landlord because they fear they will not be allowed back into their apartments. 

Hamilton City Councillor Nrinder Nann argues that many of the renovations to remove tenants are dodgy and should not be used to evict them.

The renovations requested by landlords backed by real estate investors are most often minor and include activities like floor work, she explained. Nann says they should “never” be used to say to tenants in a legal proceeding that they should find another place to live.

Landlord bungles plans

Fortunately for the tenants, the landlord at 1083 Main St. E. made a rash move that upended its plans.

Last December a winter storm resulted in the bursting of copper pipes in the plumbing because they were exposed to the open air and the freezing temperatures during ongoing renovations.

So, the landlord promptly removed the plumbing and the seven habitable apartments were suddenly lacking water for basic necessities like baths, showers, cleaning, consumption and cooking. The city took legal action under its property standards bylaw to order the restoration of the water by 1083 Main Street Inc., which then appealed the decision.

In most cases landlords do comply with the initial order but this did not happen at 1083 Main St. E., stated Councillor Nann.

It appeared the landlord was using the damaged plumbing as another rationale for the removal of the tenants.

By the time of the provincial Landlord Tenant Bureau (LTB) hearing on March 8, it was hard to escape the negative media coverage about the months without water at the former movie-theatre-turned-into-apartments.

At the March 8 hearing, the LTB indicated in two of the individual cases involving tenants that the requests for the evictions cannot be heard while the landlord fails to fulfill its responsibility to provide water under the Residential Tenancies Act in Ontario.

Today, some of the eviction notices are withdrawn and the tenants have water with the plumbing connection restored. The cavernous hallways also look brighter and cleaner than they have for some time, courtesy of the landlord.

Still, 1083 Main Street Inc. can restart the eviction process from scratch, stated Councillor Nann. “A state of limbo exists for the tenants, not to know what security they have.”

Better protections needed

Nann, who also heads Hamilton’s city housing corporation, is working on stronger protections against renovictions.

The challenge for a city is that many of the most significant improvements can only be made at the provincial government level.

And that is not likely to happen in Ontario, headed by the developer-friendly government of Doug Ford.

Nann assures that the city can still support the organizing of tenants at 1083 Main St. E. by financially assisting them in their legal battle with a landlord before the LTB.

“What the tenants at 1083 are demonstrating is the power of being informed of your rights, the power of being committed to doing something together as a group of tenants, and the importance of connecting with organizations like ACORN and as a result of that, [being] connected to resources from a legal perspective,” she stated.

What about the city using its expropriation powers to take over 1083 Main St. E.?

Nann has examined this option and discovered it is potentially a two-year process to implement, which is far too long as a response to an immediate problem. 

Also, she added, the financial resources of Canadian cities like Hamilton are limited when it comes to the strategic acquisition of existing housing stock and preserving them as affordable non-profit or co-op units.

Short-sighted response to larger problem

A fund to support that kind of strategy as part of the current National Housing Strategy by the federal government is being pushed by the Co-op Housing Federation of Canada.

Housing specialist Steve Pomeroy has also gone to bat, talking to sympathetic officials in the federal government. Standing in the way are the fiscal hawks at the Department of Finance who have nixed the idea over two federal budgets, he stated.

“I think the officials [working with the Minister of Housing, Diversity and Inclusion Ahmed Hussen] are quite convinced that they need to create a new funding scheme to enable non-profits to do acquisition, as a partial solution to this issue [of a shortage in affordable housing],” said Pomeroy. He heads Focus Consulting Inc. and is a senior research fellow for the Centre of Urban Research and Education at Carleton University.  

Pomeroy says the federal government is being short-sighted in the face of the disturbing numbers detailing the disappearance of affordable, non-subsidized market housing. “It is absolutely frustrating. It is not an evolution problem. It is an existential threat. “

His research in one paper shows that based on the 2021 census, 230,000 units renting below $750 were lost in Canada at an average 46,000 per year between 2016 and 2021. Another 322,000 similar low-cost rental units were lost in the previous five years.

At the same moment, the much-vaunted National Housing Strategy is pledging to provide under 20,000 new units on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, there is also a personal side to the story of renoviction in Hamilton.

David Galvin is grateful for the level of local media coverage about his building. And yet you can hear the weariness in his voice about the whole situation and a desire for it to end. 

“Appearing in the media made me feel like I was in a circus. Step right up, folks, two bits to see the Waterless Man!’ But I doubt we would have gotten as much help from the city without the publicity, so I guess it was worth it,” he added.

Media miss bigger picture

The focus in media stories is on the awful conditions of the rental building and the impact on its residents, not on the bigger political picture, says Ricardo Tranjan, the author of a newly published book, The Tenant Class.

“Even very serious journalists sometimes tend to emphasize an individual case; they start the story with: meet Mary, the poor tenant…” says Tranjan, a political economist and senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

He cannot comment specifically on 1083 Main St. E. in Hamilton but says that such reported stories typically pay less attention to the social class reality of the third of the Canadian population who are permanent renters.

The media consistently fail to appreciate the power dynamics of the rental housing market, where generally lower-income tenants are at the legal mercy and financial clout of landlords who can make their lives miserable, says Tranjan.

His book covers the inherent bias in Canadian politics towards homeowners and the efforts by politicians of all partisan stripes to focus almost exclusively on making the task of acquiring a home, especially for younger adults, much easier in an expensive real estate market.

Tranjan outlines that renters are viewed with disdain and that renting is considered a temporary step before one grows up and becomes a homeowner.

Yet, the activity of real estate investors gobbling up and amassing housing stock in cities like Hamilton as long-term investments is making home ownership a more elusive dream.

“[The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau] cannot stop promising the white-picket fence dream,” Tranjan observed.

“I am of the view that the problem is not money. It is more ideological; we believe in the market blindly. The market keeps not delivering and we say, give more market incentives, ” he added.

This article originally appeared on rabble.ca.