Tenant Testimonial: Kaleb

Kaleb* was trying to get out of an abusive relationship and bad living situation. Surviving on Ontario Works, he found it impossible to find an affordable apartment in Hamilton that he could move into to escape the situation. Eventually he decided to move into a vacant Metrolinx apartment on King Street, staying there for several months, rent-free.

*Names have been changed upon request.

What’s your experience been like as a renter in Hamilton, trying to find an affordable apartment?

It’s ridiculously hard. Everything is so expensive. I get half of the amount [through Ontario Works] that it would cost to get the cheapest 1-bedroom apartment in Hamilton. Yeah, it’s stressful. There’s times when I need to leave a situation and I can’t because it costs too much. So then like if you get in a bad situation or something bad happens, you’re pretty much screwed. That sucks. It shouldn’t be like that.

And even the cheapest apartment that you will find, it’s not guaranteed to bed bug or cockroach free, it’s not guaranteed to be safe, or have the landlord take care of it. You’re guaranteed to pay that amount, with no expectations from anyone else. And that’s shitty, knowing that you might spend so much money, just to end up in a pest-infested house or apartment.

Do you want to talk about how you’ve been able to survive, what you’ve done to find housing?

I lived with someone I probably shouldn’t have for a year, and that didn’t go too well. It was a bad situation in the end. He was fine at first but in the end it was bad. And so I had to leave there but didn’t have enough to pay for rent on my own. I only had enough because we were splitting the rent and because he had been there for 15 years paying ridiculously low rent. So when I had to leave, I ended up living in a car, because I couldn’t afford anywhere. And then I was staying at a friend’s place for about a month. And then I still couldn’t afford anything.

I was living in my vehicle for a year and a half. Unable to save money, because I’m not making enough to save any money. And then finally I found this apartment on King Street. it’s in the proposed path of the LRT and the construction. I have to pay hydro still but I’m not paying rent, and I can adjust the hydro based off usage. I like it here.

What has been your impression of Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton through the LRT planning and evictions process?

Well, the LRT is a bullshit idea in the first place. I’m not sure why we need that. We have the B-Line bus. Kicking people out of their homes for something we don’t need, seems super unreasonable.

And I don’t know where all those people are going to go. If they’ve been there for a long time, they might have a grandfathered rent that may be helping them be able to afford a place. And if they get kicked out of there, where do they have to go now? It’s really upsetting. Nobody should have to feel like their living situation is at risk and nobody should have to be kicked out of their living situation because someone wants to build something that’s going to make real estate people money, make more condos. They should have had a real plan for the people before sending them out to the street.

The willingness to put so many people at risk, to hurt so many people, for the sake of a transit project—that doesn’t sound like anything I want my city to be thinking about. That is not the kind of city I want to be part of.

What would your message be to other tenants, either on King Street who were evicted by Metrolinx or tenants in general in Hamilton that are struggling?

If you’re still in your apartment along the LRT, stay there. Let the King Street Tenant organizing group know if something kicks off. Basically it is way better to stay in your home than to let them kick you out, if you’re still in it, if they haven’t already kicked you out.

In general, talk to people, talk to your neighbours. You are not the only one that’s struggling. Get together with the people that are struggling and figure out what options do we have as a united front. The more people that get together and talk, and not just talk but also get organized. I think people think oh jeez, I have all these bed bugs, all these roaches, I gotta deal with that. I bet you over half of the city of Hamilton is probably also thinking that today. So if there’s that many people who are living in poverty and facing eviction and at risk of losing their homes, then we should be able to do something about it. If that many people are having such a hard time. Talking is one thing, but how can people do more than that too? Get involved in stuff that’s already going on, if you can’t figure out what to do.

If your neighbours are getting evicted, get everyone in the community together and stand outside their door and don’t let anyone through. If someone has to go to the Landlord Tenant Board in your community and you know because you’ve talked about it as a community, then show up to the Landlord Tenant Board and get mad at the judge. Don’t let it happen.

I’ve been thinking recently….In a true democracy, every community, every street, every block would have to have meetings, once a week or once a month or whatever. People would talk about what is going on for them, what do they need from people in the direct community, not just friend groups, but the direct people around you, but the direct people around you. What do they have that they can give to you? And what do you have that you can you give to them? Not even just physical things, but what do you need and what do they need and how can we support each other in this community. I think that could go a long way for a lot of things. I was thinking about that lately from a mental health perspective, but it doesn’t just need to be for mental health. Maybe there used to be more widespread tenant organizing or community organizing. I think the world could benefit from communities getting together and having conversations, especially about things that affect people’s quality of life.

What would you say to people who need a place to stay and are curious about doing the same thing as you?

Do it at your own risk, but it’s a good option if that’s where you’re at. Have some backup spots that you know are okay. When you’re starting, you want to make sure that you look less suspicious. You can wear a high vis orange vest. Check out what screws there are on the boards that are boarding the building up. You don’t want to be seen. So use the door with the least visibility. Figure out what screwdriver or bit you would need to use. Then if you want to have no one know you are staying there, I guess you could leave the boards up. If you are staying for one night or a short period of time, just take the back board off, and then lean it up against the door so you still have access. Sometimes there will be hydro on or water, but generally there’s not. But can always bring water with you to put in the toilet to flush things down. Call the hydro company and say whatever your name is, I’m so and so, I need the hydro turned on. They might come out and check to confirm it’s occupied, so be there when they get there. Once you’re paying bills at that address, it’s a lot harder for them to kick you out. You’ll want to make sure you change the locks, because the landlord will have access otherwise. If you don’t want them coming in and out to check on it, then changing the locks is really important. Getting any other mail sent there, like bills in your name sent there.

There are a lot of empty buildings on King Street. There are a lot of empty buildings everywhere in Hamilton. Some of them have been sitting around for a long time, some of them haven’t been. The reality is those could be made into affordable housing units. All of them, why not? Like every abandoned house in Hamilton, let’s make it affordable housing. There’s so many people in Hamilton that don’t have homes. And we have enough homes sitting there waiting for people. Maybe there are some that really aren’t livable. But for most of them, I think they just say that. Like, landlords rent out apartments in worse conditions for years and years—I mean, worse conditions than these vacant buildings that city officials deem unsafe or say must be condemned. I’m not a building inspector, but it seems like most buildings are perfectly fine.

Things are way worse now for homeless people, with the pandemic. What they are doing right now is the tent cities have to be—you can’t have tents on any main streets, like most streets anywhere downtown, and they are forcing anyone who is homeless to undergo a needs assessment and if they qualify for shelter they have to go there. I don’t think that’s fair. From all reports I’ve heard, shelters are more dangerous than jails. I don’t think we should be forcing people into those situations, just because they are living on the street. If someone is living on the street and that’s okay for them right now, let them do it. Who gives a fuck? Well, obviously some people, but you know, is it just because it looks gross to you? I don’t think this person’s life’s worth is dependent on what you think of them, but it turns out that way because that’s how our society works. If something doesn’t look good or we don’t like it, we have to make it disappear. No matter if that’s a human life or not. I think there’s lots of space for using these buildings, that they want to demolish for the LRT—they’re saying they are being graffitied or broken into, so they have to tear them down. No, how about let’s open them and let people stay here for free? Let’s not even charge them anything. Let’s just let them stay here. Why do you think they are breaking in in the first place?

Tenant Testimonial: Anna

Anna* and her girlfriend were having a tough time finding an affordable apartment in Hamilton. They decided to move into a vacant Metrolinx apartment on King Street, staying there for several months, rent-free.

*Names have been changed upon request.

Could you describe your time living on King Street?

Sure, so I lived on King Street in an apartment. The apartment was purchased from the original landlord by Metrolinx. The apartment was empty. The original tenants had left, due to some shady stuff with Metrolinx and being pushed out. So I moved in. I set up the utilities accounts and paid that, but I didn’t have to pay rent. Immediately when I moved in I changed the locks, just in case. I moved in but I kept the outside appearing like it was abandoned. I meticulously maintained that. The outside was dirty, grungy, the same way I came into it. That helped with keeping it subtle. I kept to myself. The place didn’t have a lot of windows. The windows were covered. I kept that up. There were some leaks from the ceiling. I had to get a dehumidifier and that actually solved a lot of the problems. There was a little bit of mold in the place, but I kept on it. I kept it clean. Over the course of my tenancy there, if you want to call it that, we had a few run ins within DMS/Metrolinx. Most of them were just posturing. We called on some friends to support us whenever we had to deal with Metrolinx. Eventually, my partner and I decided to move somewhere a little bit safer, that met both of our needs. So we gave the apartment to someone else. But it served us really well during that time. And it was just sitting there, empty, perfectly habitable. I think everybody is deserving of housing. It should be a fricking right. When you think of all of the people Metrolinx forced out, it’s terrible. Shame on Metrolinx. Now those people are paying high rents, crowding in with roommates, or maybe on the street. All because of Metrolinx.

What would I say to people who need a place to stay and are curious about doing the same thing? If you can get into a place and you can make it yours, it’s much better than staying on the street. Find somewhere you can feel safe. Definitely do a bit of research if you can. Talk to people you know who you trust. See if you can get some sort of information. New locks are super important and definitely go a long way to making sure you feel safe. Taking over the utilities if you can. Doing what you can to get your name on the mailing address. Keep on top of the mailbox. Definitely make sure you have some sort of friend group in case of a problem. If you do end up running into trouble or you need to leave the place for a bit to wear off the heat, having some friends with a couch to crash on or going back to that tent or something just as a temporary backup is beneficial.

What has been your impression of Metrolinx and City of Hamilton planners and politicians through the LRT planning and evictions process?

Well the LRT idea was always a noble one. Sure, you put in transit. It will be for the people. Quick, easy, cheap transit for everyone. You can get to work, whatever. That’s what the government always says. But when you actually look at it, you start to see problems. We’ve going to buy up 60 odd houses downtown along the corridor, that were rent-controlled housing, evict the people out of that, and then several years later put in this LRT line. Rip up the entire infrastructure. Change all of these things. Push everybody out. You end up hurting a lot more people than you intended to help, just like with Jackson Square in the ’70s.

The main people pushing for the LRT are the government officials, Fred Eisenberger and the Ford government or whoever. But who benefits? It’s actually the landlord companies, the managing companies, the real estate investors, all of that shenanigans. All of them are the people who are really involved, who really make all the money.

I can see the city in real time being squeezed like blood from a stone. Yeah it’s really sad. It happens a little bit everywhere as the city invests more money into building it up, and then companies with dollar signs in their eyes see money to be made and slowly buy up everything and then next thing you know, rent that was once $500 or less for a basement apartment is now $1,200. Definitely uncomfortable.

What advice would you give to tenants in Hamilton, who are facing eviction by Metrolinx or at the hands of any other landlord?

That’s tough, especially during the pandemic. But I would highly, highly recommend being part of some sort of group. I myself have been to King Street Tenants United meetings and talked with people, with other people from the neighbourhood and people there to support. Become a part of it. Learn about it. Going to meetings or demos or talks is good. I sometimes wish I had gone to more, but I only have so many spoons. If you have the time to do so, it’s definitely helpful. You find out you are not alone. You learn a lot of things. I didn’t realize I had half so many of the ability or the laws on my side at least sometimes that I did. I just didn’t know these things. It’s helpful to talk to people who do. The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic can also help.

And to the people who have already been pushed out by Metrolinx: If you can, if you have the ability, get mad. This is bullshit, right. You had a home. Everything was good, hopefully good, you were planning on living there for a long time, and then next thing you know, you’re evicted for this LRT. You should get some sort of reparations for it. You’re good people. Stand up and fight.

Tenant Testimonial: Sharon (Part 2)

Sharon, her husband Bill, and her three cats – Speedy, Monkey, and Baby – live in a triplex house on King Street near East Bend Avenue. She has lived here for more than 20 years and pays $550 in rent. Along with many other King Street tenants, Sharon is facing eviction from her home by Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton for the Hamilton Light Rail Transit project.

What do you like about living downtown, living in this neighbourhood?

Well, I have a bus stop right out front. If I walk half a block up to Main Street there’s a bus stop there, right at the top of the street. I am close to shopping. Even if I am buying stuff like cat food which is heavy, bulky, it’s under ten dollars for a cab to most of my shopping. So yeah, I don’t want to move. The neighbours are nice. Yeah it’s a good place to live.

What did Metrolinx offer you to leave your home?

They offered me assistance in finding another place. They said that they would pay the difference between the rent I pay now and the rent I would pay there, for one year. Which was absolutely ridiculous because even then after a year, it’s on me. They didn’t seem to get that. I think they should pay for it permanently. It’s not my fault that the housing crisis has gone through the roof, that rents have gone through the roof. Even my phoning around to places that I thought might be in my price range, the cheapest one was $1,200. That is almost my whole cheque! Like, am I not allowed to eat? And a lot of my medications and my husband’s medications are not covered, they are over the counter. I couldn’t afford it.

What has it been like having Metrolinx as a landlord?

Metrolinx bought my place in June 2018. I told the guy when he first came about my oven not working, my dryer not working, about the cockroaches. He said, oh I don’t deal with that side of things. Well, who does?! Then in January the furnace broke. In the middle of winter, we were without heat for eight days. I kept calling but no one would come to fix it. Then we got bed bugs. I called about the spray, went to the office, submitted work orders. This went on for months, with no response, no action. I was getting eaten alive, my husband too, our cats were anemic. I feel like they did this on purpose, to try to force us out. But we had no where to go. Eventually we contacted the top guy at Metrolinx, the CEO. Then we got a response right away. I asked for some months’ free rent so I could use the money to get a new mattress, couch, sheets, clothes. I got a few sprays. I got rid of the bugs. I got what I wanted. But doing all of that shouldn’t be necessary, chasing these people around.

The other thing, after the LRT was cancelled [in December 2019] the Metrolinx and DMS [property manager] people disappeared. There was no one to get any information from, no one to do repairs. The DMS office closed at the beginning of COVID. When I called the number Metrolinx gave me, the DMS girl said “DMS doesn’t do any repairs for Metrolinx tenants; we only collect rent.” That’s crazy! She gave me a 416 number to call for the Toronto DMS office. I called, left a message, never heard back. So we were totally on our own, abandoned. What if something bad had happened? What if my furnace broke again?

And then of course we have to deal with the bullying from Metrolinx. At the beginning, I had that guy David Derbyshire [Metrolinx “tenant support specialist”] bothering me all of the time, phone calls, knocking on my door. I don’t deal with him anymore, I couldn’t take it. He’s not allowed to come here. He is so rude, what a nasty man. I went to high school with him, you know. I can’t believe he would take a job like this. You couldn’t pay me enough. Imagine, getting paid to kick people out of their homes! Maybe that’s not what he would call it, but that’s obviously what it is. The Housing Help Centre people are useless too. I told them, I have PTSD from before, from a tragedy, I can’t live in a high-rise. And they wanted to put me in First Place, on the nineteenth floor or something. They don’t care, they don’t listen. With the LRT back on [in summer 2021] I’m getting phone calls and letters again. The Metrolinx girl called me to warn me I’d be getting a letter but “Don’t worry! No pressure!” [Laughs] Yeah, we want you out of your home, you’ll be homeless, but no pressure! These people are ignorant.

How did you get connected to King Street Tenants United?

I saw a poster for the first meeting so I went. It was at the union hall. I told my neighbours, and they came too. I wish more of the people that were still here at the time, I wish they had come out to meetings. I wish some of the ones that we know were put out, some with no money, one guy with $250 – like what did that give him? Moving money? But I think going through what I’ve gone through with the bullying, the intimidation, having services withheld, I think some people are too scared to speak up. Or fear losing whatever deal Metrolinx gave them.

I have to say, I used to be a member of ACORN, but they are useless. Paying fifteen bucks a month when you’re on Old Age isn’t nothing. And then when I needed help, they were nowhere to be found. They wouldn’t return my calls. I’ve heard that from other people too. And then I learned ACORN supports the LRT! And they got their members to campaign for Nrinder Nann, who voted for the LRT and is the biggest LRT champion! So I’ve distanced myself from them, I took my fifteen dollars a month out, because they certainly weren’t going to help me at all. They misrepresented themselves. I’m very disappointed in them. They just want money. I wouldn’t support them for anything.

Sharon celebrating with her friends on the day Doug Ford cancelled the LRT (December 2019).

What has been your impression of Metrolinx and City of Hamilton planners and politicians through the LRT planning and evictions process?

A lot of us were blindsided. We had no idea when they started talking LRT, which is actually fifteen years ago, that any houses would have to be taken out. I think they should have bought some buildings and had the people pay what they were paying all along, which obviously is what they could afford. I mean you’ve bought so many, why couldn’t you have bought one more and put the people there?

I do think most of the problem stemmed from Mayor Eisenberger and city council. Not just him but he exacerbated the whole thing. This has been an ongoing controversial subject for fifteen years. That not one single city council or mayor had a housing plan in place. They knew we would be displaced. They’ve known all along. And didn’t care. I remember a city that cared. It’s certainly not like that now.

Nrinder Nann [Ward 3 Councillor] has cut herself off from everybody. I used to phone her with my concerns. “I’ll put you on the call list.” I’m so sick of hearing that I finally gave up. She said she would meet with me but then her assistant cancelled the meeting at the last minute. Because obviously she doesn’t want to talk to her constituents, she doesn’t want to know what the problems are. She never walked down King Street, she never once knocked on my door. I remember Bernie Morrelli, he would knock on doors. I had his number, I could call him day or night. He actually knew the people in his ward. Not Nrinder Nann. She says she wants to build affordable housing, she wants to help homeless people. She does realize all of us LRT victims, we’re all getting evicted under her watch?! Most of these Metrolinx evictions, these demolitions are in her ward. But she doesn’t care. She only cares about the homeowners, the people moving from Toronto. Rich people. She’s a hypocrite. She talks out both sides of her mouth. She just wants to collect her pay cheque and be done with it. It’s a job. It’s a seat. She’s collecting a pay cheque.

You know another thing that bothers me. Why did Metrolinx paint the boarded up buildings? It’s a joke! Like what is it? Carnival town? It’s stupid. They’re boarded. Painting them these obnoxious colours is not making it any better. That was somebody’s home, and they were forced out. They should be painted black if anything. Really, the death of a community.

Have you noticed the neighbourhood changing since the LRT was announced?

Some landlords in the neighbourhood when they heard the LRT was going to happen, threw tenants out, revamped their apartments, and doubled the rent. That’s sleazy landlords that get away with it because governments allow them to. The government changed the rules to allow landlords to increase the rent however much they like between tenancies – sometimes 50% or 100%! Plus there will be condos. Whatever Metrolinx didn’t need for the train was going to be sold to developers and we all know that they would be building condos. We have too many condos now with empty units because nobody can afford them, unless they are from Toronto.

What advice would you give to tenants in Hamilton, who are facing eviction by Metrolinx or at the hands of any other landlord?

Anybody that has been having a hard time with getting the basic things done in their apartments, or having their landlords put their rents up, we’ve got to come together. We’ve got to stand together to get anything done. To put caps on housing, like the rents are ridiculous. A one bedroom for $1,200? Please people. That’s so exorbitant, that’s like a usury tax. They are nothing but loansharks. We’ll loan you our apartment but you gotta pay this. Everybody has got to stand together because people at city hall think they can just crush us, we’re not a big deal. And landlords that do not do repairs in a timely manner should be fined, I mean big time. I don’t mean panny aunty $500. I mean $20,000 or $30,000. Hit them where it hurts the most and that’s their pockets.

If you were evicted by Metrolinx, you need to come forward. We can still fight. I’m sure that some of the people that were already displaced are in places that they would not have gone to if they had had a choice. Some are probably struggling with the fact that they are paying market rent. They need to come forward. It’s only me. There are many advocates out there that are willing to fight for them. But we need to know who they are and what their circumstances are since Metrolinx displaced them.

Sharon speaking at a King Street Tenants United press conference (January 2020).

Tenant Testimonial: VK & JB

Thanks to Anthony Haley for this portrait.

VK and her boyfriend JB lived in a mid-rise building on King Street East near Stirton Street. She was displaced from her home by Metrolinx. Her original landlord sent a letter to the tenants telling them to vacate as Metrolinx was planning to buy the building. The landlord did not follow a legal eviction process or provide any compensation. Some of VK’s neighbours were scared by the letter and felt they had to move. VK provided assurance to her neighbours and encouraged them to stay put. She and her neighbours attended King Street Tenants United meetings, learned their rights, and were supported in making demands and negotiating as a group with Metrolinx. VK and her neighbours agreed that not one person would sign a lease termination agreement with Metrolinx until everyone’s demands were met – this included extra supports for seniors and low-income tenants in the building. Metrolinx tried to isolate tenants and negotiate with each household one-by-one, but VK and her neighbours succeeded in acting as a group and applying collective pressure, to ensure the most vulnerable neighbours were not taken advantage of and were properly taken care of. VK and her neighbours won all of their demands: assistance finding new apartments, advanced priority for social housing, rental subsidy, moving costs covered, utility reconnection fees covered, bus tickets for a year.

VK feels for other King Street tenants who weren’t so fortunate. The people who got scared and left their homes upon receiving a notice from their landlord. The people who held out until Metrolinx bought the building, but were given only a couple hundred dollars in compensation for moving costs. The people who were a little better off – given a 12-month rent subsidy by Metrolinx, the difference between old and new rent – but may be at risk of eviction and homelessness now that the subsidy has expired. VK feels Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton treated people terribly through this process. Even though she depends on the HSR and would like to see improvements to public transit, she argues no train is worth uprooting so many people.

Read on for her full story.

When did you first hear that you would need to move for the LRT?

The first notice that we got came from our landlord and it said that our building had been sold – or was about to be sold – to Metrolinx and that we had to leave because of this. And they had given us a date…. And it turned out that everyone in my building had gotten it. So after the conversations with our neighbours and conversations with other people who had a little bit more knowledge about the legal process of evicting people and how that all works, we realized that this notice didn’t really mean anything. And we decided to ignore it….This was just something that the landlord had written up on a piece of paper. It wasn’t an official form of any kind. It just basically said ‘We are about to sell this building and you need to leave.’ One person was going to leave the building when we got that first notice, even though it wasn’t the official one, because they were worried and scared about what that meant and they really wanted to get ahead on finding apartments and they didn’t realize that this notice that we’d gotten had no legal basis whatever. After talking to them as a building [as a group of tenants], they decided that they would also stay there and they felt a little less worried because we passed on some information to them about their legal rights in that situation. So they ended up staying there with us.

What did Metrolinx offer you and your neighbours to leave your home?

They [Metrolinx representatives] would come over and try to talk to us individually about what they could do for us….I think they offered to pay for moving expenses and that’s about it. And they were willing to give us some time to try to find a place. And for everyone that we talked to, that just didn’t feel like it was enough. Like, we were asked to leave our house, where we lived. I hadn’t lived there for a very long time but other people in my building had lived there for a very long time. Two people were seniors. They were expecting to live the rest of their lives there. They had been there already for ten years, I think, and were paying rent that was a lot less than what apartments are going for now. And it worked for their budget, because they were on fairly limited budgets….Because I had moved into my apartment not that long before we got the notice, I knew how hard it was to find an apartment in Hamilton. I knew how much the prices had gone up. I knew how competitive it was. All the different things that landlords would ask you to do. The hoops that you had to jump through to even be considered a candidate. So I felt that I really needed to be compensated a lot more than just getting my moving expenses paid for, because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

How did you get connected with King Street Tenants United?

Eventually I attended some King Street Tenants United meetings that were held in the neighbourhood where different people who were affected by this came together and we were brainstorming all the different things that we could ask for from Metrolinx. I brought some of those ideas back home with me to my neighbours. And we also brainstormed other things that we could ask from them. Most important for us was a subsidy that was the difference between our current rent and whatever future rent we would be paying. And for two of the women who lived in the building who were seniors who weren’t as computer savvy, and hadn’t looked for apartments for a long time, they also asked for more support in looking for apartments. We asked to get our moving expenses covered. And to get any fees that were associated with transferring over our utilities accounts, cable, and things like that – we asked for coverage for that. We asked for a year’s worth of bus tickets for public transportation. We made these demands.

How did you organize with your neighbours and negotiate collectively with Metrolinx?

Metrolinx insisted that we do this on an individual basis, unit per unit, which we did. But we all kept each other in the loop as to what Metrolinx was saying to each of us. We made sure that none of us would sign anything until everyone was getting what they needed…. Metrolinx did agree to all of this, but only after they realized that they weren’t going to get anywhere with us if they didn’t play nice with us. They did really try hard to individualize the issue and not let us work together. Because it was easier for them to isolate each unit. I don’t think they realized how close we were as neighbours. And this process had brought us closer together. We were checking in on each other on a daily basis or at least once a week to see how things were going. And over time, I think when they realized that we were not going to just do what they want us to do, they did meet all of our criteria. They also did it on a timeline that worked for us because they did want this to be done and over with as fast as they could. Even though I had found a suitable place to live, the two women in my building who were older and on more fixed incomes, they couldn’t find a place, so we all decided that we wouldn’t move until everyone had found their next place that they were going to live.

What has been your impression of Metrolinx and City of Hamilton planners and politicians through the LRT planning process?

Everyone, including myself and everyone who lived in my building, uses transit. They are people who ride the bus to get to their appointments and their jobs and all of that. It’s not that we were against having improved public transportation. We are actually the people who use it the most. But at what cost? We weren’t really treated with any respect. It was sort of like we were treated as people that just needed to be dealt with, pushed out of the way, so this project could go ahead. It didn’t really seem like the way Metrolinx and the city was going to deal with us was really thought out. I think that what they initially thought was that they would give these notices to landlords or to whoever, make some sort of agreement to have the buildings all emptied…. I don’t think that any project is worth uprooting so many different people in so many different communities, especially if there’s no plan as to where those people are going to go and who is going to live there after these projects are done too.

I read in the newspaper about someone who had gotten, I don’t even know, something like $100 for his moving expenses. And it was a big building. It had several units. It was very close to where we lived. I imagine in their situation, most people probably just vacated right away, as soon as they got the notices to do so, even though they weren’t legal notices…. They probably didn’t realize exactly that the minimum they could ask was probably a lot more than they had gotten. And that Metrolinx as giving them pennies in comparison with what they deserved or what they could afford to give. I imagine it was a very confusing process. Especially when you’re given legal documents and talking to people using very inaccessible language—and they are trying to intimidate you to leave your home.

What advice would you give to tenants in Hamilton, who are facing eviction by Metrolinx or at the hands of any other landlord?

You should aim high with their demands. That this is your home that they are trying to kick you out of and that is worth something. That they need to talk to their neighbours and talk to other people in their neighbourhoods and their communities who are affected by this…. Together they can fight to achieve some of these things and really set a precedent for how these companies treat people in these situations.

Hamilton is a city that working-class people have lived in for a long time – have built this city, have worked here, have raised their kids here, have made communities and neighbourhoods. People like us should be allowed to live and stay in the neighbourhoods that we helped shape and create.

Basically what we’re seeing now is there’s all sorts of people who are making money off the backs of working-class people, whether it be your landlords, or your bosses, or whoever. And there are speculators and bankers. And they are profiting, while people like us are struggling to have something even as basic as a house over our head.

This is not something that we should take. We need to come together, and together figure out creative solutions as to how we’re going to deal with this and how we’re going to push forward. And not just deal with this issue with the LRT and Metrolinx but also the general unaffordability in this city around housing. This is something that we can’t really do individually. We need to join all of our forces and experience and knowledge and figure something better out.

Tenant Testimonial: Sharon (Part 1)

Thanks to Anthony Haley for this portrait.

Sharon, her husband Bill, and her three cats – Speedy, Monkey, and Baby – live in a triplex house on King Street near East Bend Avenue. She has lived here for more than 20 years and pays $550 in rent. This is affordable to her and her husband, who survive on Old Age Security and Ontario Disability Support Program payments. Along with many other King Street tenants, Sharon is facing eviction from her home by Metrolinx and the City of Hamilton for the Hamilton Light Rail Transit project. Sharon is determined to stay in her home until Metrolinx agrees to appropriate compensation and long-term housing security, rehoused in an apartment she can afford. Sharon tells her story of organizing with her King Street neighbours and fighting back against Metrolinx.

Video transcript:

When Metrolinx bought my place I told him about my oven not working, told him about the cockroaches. He informed me he would have nothing to do with that. Then I had bed bugs and it took me three sprayings. January we were without heat. Finally they sent somebody. Said he’d be back. He never came back. That Friday I was without heat again and this time I went for eight days without heat! We’re depressed. We’re like at sea. We don’t know what’s going on. They tell us one thing and then you hear nothing.

Hi, I’m Sharon Miller. I live at King Street East and East Bend. I pay $550 a month, inclusive [of utilities], including free laundry. I am right in the middle of the LRT corridor.

Metrolinx bought my house in June of 2018, and to date they have nothing appropriate for me to go to. It’s where we are now. They do nothing. They talk a good story and then there is nothing to show for it.

I’ve lived here 20 years. I’m perfectly happy here. I’m close to buses, I’m close to shopping. And being in a walker, that’s a biggie. And then they just came and ripped the rug out from under me, without I don’t think, even caring. It was just, oh yeah well, we’ll give you this, this and this, and that should make you feel whole. No it doesn’t! I’m staying here until they find something appropriate for me, and I don’t care if they like it or not. What are they going to do? It’s October. Throw me out on the snow?

Their deal with me, supposedly, is that they will pay first and last month’s rent. They will pay me what I pay here now, one month, for my trouble — $550. And that they would pay for all moving expenses and if the rent was higher than what I pay now, they would pay whatever was over and above the $550 for a year. Well that’s all good, but at the end of the year, I’m still stuck with that increase.

And I’m on Old Age. I don’t get a lot. I get less than what people get on ODSP. I’d be having to decide whether I eat, or whether I can watch TV, or whether I get to have a phone, or whether I paid my rent.

[The LRT] is for the people that are gentrifying downtown, landlords are throwing people out, putting rents up, and it’s for the gentrification of downtown Hamilton. It will be for the people that come in here with money, not for the people that worked to build this city.

If I see another sign like the one at the Queenston Traffic Circle that says “future low-income housing” I want to scream. How far in the future? Twenty years? Thirty years? I guess sticking those machines there makes it look like they’re about to start. Yeah, right. Doubtful. Hey, maybe I’ll be pitching a tent there next summer if they throw me out. No, because I’m not leaving.

It’s not just going to be us. We’re just a small portion at the moment. This is going to go all the way to Eastgate. And it’s not going to be just the ones that are exactly on the corridor. Because the developers are going to move in like vultures. And then the houses that are just off [the corridor], are going to be swallowed up too so they can build condos and restaurants and high-end everything. And there will be no place for those of us who used to call Hamilton home.

Dig in your heels. Make sure that what you already have is what you’re going to get when the dust settles. Don’t let them bully you or give you false promises. In fact, if you find a tenant meeting, or a flyer that says there is one, please come out. There is a larger voice in numbers than just one or two of us. To them, we’re just like a couple of cockroaches that they can just step on. They can’t step on a swarm. So the more people and the more voices we have, the more we are going to get what we are entitled to.

“Thanks for Nothing” Film Screening at Gage Park: Thursday, September 9, 2021, 7pm

King Street Tenants United will be hosting a free community screening of the short documentary film “Thanks for Nothing” at Gage Park on Thursday, September 9, 2021 at 7pm. Please invite your friends, family, neighbours to attend. Meet at the bandshell.

Film will be followed by a community conversation with the audience about how the LRT will affect housing in Hamilton and how we can organize against gentrification and displacement pressure caused by the LRT.

Share the Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1454617328238669

Watch the film trailer below:

About the film:

“Thanks for Nothing” follows Hamiltonian Sharon Miller as she fights against displacement, trying to stay in her apartment and home despite numerous maintenance and pest issues. The transit agency Metrolinx became Sharon’s new landlord when they purchased her building to construct a Light Rail Transit system and have been trying to evict her from her unit without offering appropriate compensation and an alternative place to live. With nowhere affordable to move to within the increasingly gentrified city of Hamilton, Sharon fights back against displacement pressures and against a city that sees her as dispensable.

Read more about Sharon and other King Street tenants’ struggles against Metrolinx in this article “Light Rail Transit Brings A New Wave of Gentrification to Hamilton” by filmmaker Taras Hemon, published in the Downtown Sparrow.

Light Rail Transit Brings A New Wave of Gentrification to Hamilton

We are reprinting this article by King Street Tenants United supporter Taras Hemon, originally published on August 28, 2021 in the Downtown Sparrow.

Sharon Miller, a tenant who lives along the LRT corridor, on James Street North – photo by Taras Hemon

The empty and boarded up buildings along the King Street corridor have become a familiar, if not heartbreaking, sight for many Hamiltonians. But what about the people who once called them home? What of those who stayed? To explore these questions in response to Hamilton’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, I made a short documentary film called Thanks for Nothing, which takes a critical look at the LRT as a city-building project and how it affects low-income communities.

Thanks for Nothing follows the experiences of Sharon Miller, a tenant who lives along the LRT line in a building now owned by Metrolinx. With nowhere affordable to move, Sharon fights against displacement and housing instability, trying to stay in her apartment and home despite numerous maintenance issues, pest issues and eviction uncertainty.

Due to the evictions brought on by Metrolinx, there are few tenants left on Sharon’s street, making her feel as if she is living in a “ghost town,” and unable to connect with other tenants who share her experience. She feels disenfranchised, powerless, and alienated in her situation; what used to be a city she felt cared about her, now seems more interested in attracting wealthier residents.

While the content of the film may sound hopeless, what was extremely important in making this film was that I did not represent Sharon as a powerless victim, but a strong person with agency. The film shows her will to push back against a violent and oppressive system that is threatening her ability to live in the city.

Sharon Miller in front of the Hamilton sign in the City Hall forecourt – Photo by Taras Hemon

Sharon is angry and outspoken; she knows that the LRT is not a project designed with her in mind, nor other people of her socioeconomic status, and she is not afraid to share those thoughts. In representing Sharon’s battles with maintenance and pest issues, I focused on the effects Metrolinx’s negligence has had on Sharon (losing sleep, financial difficulties, loss of a “feeling of home”).

But I also displayed how Sharon was able to resist this violence, eventually eliminating a bed bug infestation, a long-standing pest issue she struggled with. Despite living through difficult conditions, Sharon is able to raise her voice against the violence she experiences, successfully pushing back against Metrolinx and improving her living situation.

Apart from supporting Sharon, the film was important to make because of the way it documents the violence that gentrification presents. In the case of the LRT, this violence is apparent in the destruction of a whole neighbourhood and the harmful effects that has on the community. With Thanks for Nothing, I was able to relate how a large-scale public work would both affect Sharon on an individual level and how it would affect the wider Hamilton community.

To me, the boarded-up and eventually demolished homes of King Street East were just as much a character of the film as Sharon was, and they provide a visual record of how the LRT is already beginning to shape the city. This film functions as a visual document over the physical changes to King Street East caused by the LRT, it provides a face to gentrification throughout Hamilton, and it reflects how this violence manifests itself in the experiences of an individual, in this case Sharon.

Boarded up housing along the LRT corridor – Photo by Taras Hemon

The film challenges the idea of the LRT project as a universal public good and shares Sharon’s perspective of how this project poses a threat to her and other lower income communities across its route.

In my view, the LRT signifies to investors and developers that Hamilton is prepared for the next phase of gentrification. Most of the train route will run through primarily low income communities, some of the poorest sections in Hamilton and, with its construction, the surrounding property will rise in value and attract housing and real estate development.

It has already displaced hundreds of tenants from affordable housing, and the LRT is projected to attract billions in investment in Hamilton, which to Sharon represents the construction of even more condos, homes and businesses that will remain prohibitively expensive for her.

Hamilton does need a major overhaul of its public transit system that is affordable and accessible for all Hamiltonians, but many of the residents who would have benefited from having a stronger transit system have been evicted or face pressures of displacement from the steady gentrification encroaching within their communities.

The lower city, with some of its industrial lands in the background, as seen from the escarpment – photo by Taras Hemon

Effectively, with this documentary I aim to criticize and attack the systems of gentrification, and inaccessible housing, while providing a framework for other affected citizens to resist against the violence of these systems.

In filming and screening Sharon’s situation, I am demonstrating the violence of these systems and how they can affect an individual, at the same time highlighting Sharon’s determination to stay in her home, revealing a strategy that could build communities or movements of resistance.

I plan on showing this film throughout the LRT corridor as a part of a series of accessible, community-oriented screenings. The goal of these screenings would be to better educate tenants and and to organize tenant unions that would help tenants protect themselves from similar violence.

One of the themes of the film, and what causes Sharon a lot of grief, is how alone she feels; there is no one left to assist her in her fight, and she was one voice fighting against a large corporation.

While it will be important to advocate and fight for affordable housing to officially be included as a part of the LRT plan, as Hamiltonians, we have seen how difficult it can be to receive any concession from City Council when it stands against business interests.

With better organization and more numbers, tenants will have a better chance of pushing back against further gentrification efforts and will have more power to fight to stay in their homes and communities.

Taras Hemon is a film and image maker based in Hamilton, Ontario; his latest film Thanks for Nothing, follows the experiences of a tenant facing eviction threats and displacement due to gentrification; Hemon has previously worked with short form fiction, and his film Grozota screened at festivals internationally; Hemon continues a promising career of documentary filmmaking, creating films that push for systemic change.

Hamilton’s Light Rail Transit And Displacement, A Comic By Simon Orpana

We are reprinting this article by King Street Tenants United supporter Simon Orpana, originally published in The Hoser on June 28, 2021.

After many ups and downs, Hamilton’s light rail transit line may finally be getting the green light. But in the midst of a severe housing crisis, what can be done to prevent tenants along the proposed development from being displaced? The Hoser worked with Simon Orpana to illustrate what kind of awareness needs to come with these developments, for Hamilton, the GTA, and more.

For more information about displacement along the proposed LRT line, see: Survey of Displacement for Light Rail Transit
For further background about the activism of King Street Tenants United, see: Tenants demand vacant properties along LRT route be turned into affordable housing
For information about the Hamilton Community Land Trust, see: Hamilton Community Land Trust
For one of Parkdale Community Land Trust’s recent projects, see: Thirty-six units of affordable housing secured by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust
For the Kensington Market Community Land Turst’s recent win, see: City council votes to give $3M to land trust to keep Kensington Market building as affordable housing
For more information on resisting REIT’s, please see: ACORN’s Rein in the REITS

Planning Hamilton for who? LRT and the Rental Housing Crisis: Part Three

By Shawn Selway for King Street Tenants United

Because we are not reproducing at the replacement rate, and because the Canadian state participates in American wars for control of strategic resources that produce great disruption and loss of life, we need to bring in voluntary immigrants and refugees. And they would benefit themselves as well as us by coming in because many would have greater physical security, and may be able to send some earnings home. They will not do as well as rapidly as those who came before, but that is of no matter to those who determine Canadian immigration policy. They are holding the gate open because they want the children of those immigrants. 

The City of Hamilton’s population growth is approximately 1% per year. In 2016-2017, almost two-thirds of that was attributable to immigrants, who numbered about 3700. Source:  “A Demographic Profile of Immigrants in Hamilton”, Hamilton Immigration Partnership Council, March, 2019.

The chart above is from a statistical compilation which tells us, among many other interesting things about the languages and ethnic origins of incoming Canadians, that:

Among recent immigrants living in Hamilton in 2016, 35.2% had a university certificate, diploma or degree at the bachelor level or above. Recent immigrants had significantly lower earnings than both immigrants and non-immigrants across all educational levels, and their low-income rate (43.0%) was almost three times higher than the population overall (15.3%).

We need to settle these people here, but where are they to live when they first arrive?

We need also to retain some portion of the students who graduate every year from McMaster and Mohawk. 

The McMaster undergraduate student body is about twenty-seven thousand strong these days. Alongside them are about 5,000 graduate students in masters and doctoral programmes.  Each year the university confers seven thousand degrees, five thousand of which are Bachelors of Arts, Sciences or Engineering.  We would like to settle some of these individuals here, but again, where are they to live? Where is the affordable rental housing for young people just beginning their careers and earning comparatively little, whatever their potential may be? 

Finally, there are the members of that “flourishing local arts community” whose existence McMaster flacks feel important to mention on the university’s brochure page. These individuals have been coming from other parts of Ontario, chiefly Toronto, but also from abroad.

Artists and musicians are the voluntary portion of low income earners, if I can put it that way. These are people who are often highly educated and therefore economically mobile if they wish, but who feel, rightly or wrongly, a vocation and are prepared to act on that conviction. They are not excluded, they choose a special form of participation: life in the art world, which is either a decadent playground for permanent adolescents or an anticipation of a utopia of non-alienating work, depending on who’s judging. For some, artists are the “footsoldiers of gentrification”, scorned for their pretensions, their aloof abstraction from the bread and butter concerns of the rest of us, and their apparent acquiescence in the condo-ism of the city’s EcDev crew and the marketing slogans of the developers.  In conversation many artists are well aware of their ambiguous position in the local economy, and of their mostly unsought role in the “urbanist” spectacle of real estate promotion. As a group they are as divided as the rest of the city. 

Advertisement for off-King new build.

How much the arts amenity actually influences locational choice is not very clear. It certainly gets lots of lip service, but is this anything more than publicists both private and public recycling each other’s boiler plate? The other week a real live entrepreneur and business owner was invoking the familiar city-building rubrics – at least, according to publicists KGA, who had him saying in a press release that:

“Hamilton offers all the right elements for our employees. It’s affordable, has fantastic restaurants, vibrant nightlife, a great arts scene, and offers active green space nearby. It’s also within close proximity to our headquarters in Toronto, providing easy knowledge-sharing across both offices.”

The speaker was Darrel Heaps, founder and CEO of Q4, on the occasion of the announcement that his firm had leased premises at 59 King East (a Core Urban holding) and would be engaging up to 140 bright young things to frolic in the wellness room, the games room, and the outdoor patio, as well as to savour the cuisine on King William and vicinity – much of which is also owned by Core Urban.

The real draw for Q4 and similar outfits is the chance to retain employees longer while paying them less, because as city staffer Judy Lam told the Spec, “For the first time, some of their employees will be able to start a family and afford a house or condo to live in.” (Hamilton Spectator, 21 January 2020.)

Whatever the importance of the “art scene” may be, city councillors certainly do not act as if they believe any of the publicity about arts-related “vibrancy” helping to induce investment. True, there is language in the new downtown secondary plan to the effect that proposed residential development close to an existing live music venue must be built with noise attenuating measures (so the new residents don’t start campaigning against the venue) but the destroyer of Toronto’s live music scene is not neighbour complaint but rocketing land values.  There is no talk at city hall of any provision to make a special tax class as Toronto was able to arrange with the province when it seemed that 401 Richmond, a commercial rental building occupied mostly by arts organizations, was headed for forced shutdown. The problem was that assessment based on “highest and best use” of the land, e.g. a condo tower, was yielding a tax bill in excess of the tenants’ means.  The solution was the establishment of a new property tax class for Creative Co-Location Facilities, with the rate set by the city, and the drafting of a set of criteria for inclusion in the new class. 

Again, as with the other lower income groups discussed above, housing affordability is the chief difficulty facing artists and musicians in Hamilton. It doesn’t much matter if venues survive and studio space is attainable, if you can’t find a place to live anyway.

No Big Money coming in? Little Money providing shelter, food, drinks, “eternal beauty and well-being”, and coffee on King. There’s also a corner variety store.

Almost every large city is a global city now, inhabited by people with nested identities. And many of the inhabitants of cities in the hinterland of a metropolis are undergoing the same impoverishment by a rentier class who own more and more and produce, well, nothing really. It is suicidal to allow still more land to pass into the possession of this vampiric class, unless you are a revolutionary or an authoritarian reactionary, in which case everything is developing just fine.

Rise of the residential REITS. Source: Martine August, “Canada’s Rental Housing Goldmine: The financialization of multi-family rental apartments”, 2017.

For an account of the growth of one of these outfits from rooming house owner to billion dollar operation, see last year’s article from the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network. The trusts, whose business model is essentially to bleed lower and middle income earners and send some of the money on to their middle and higher income shareholders, are now being joined in the Canadian market by giant private equity firms. (Tim Kiladze, “The rental rush”, Globe and Mail, November 30, 2019.)

In a 2015 article for the “The Journal of Urban Affairs” Gillad Rosen and Alan Walks draw the outline of the current mechanism of “city building”, in which financialization has replaced industrialization as the driver of capital flows, and explore what this has produced in Toronto. 

Third-wave urbanization has likewise involved a spatial shift from suburbanization and urban dispersion toward concentration, gentrification, and intensification, which bring with them profound changes in urban social life. We argue that in cities like Toronto such shifts are tightly intertwined with the rise of what we term condo-ism. The latter refers to a particular mode of development rooted in a nexus of, on the one hand the economic interests of the private sector development industry and the state, and on the other new urbane yet privatized residential preferences, lifestyles, and consumption interests among consumers. This has resulted in a new structured coherence of political and economic interests. . . dependent upon continued intensification and real estate development in the city, with mortgage credit displacing industrial expansion as the primary driver of the urban growth machine. In the context of financialization and globalization, condo-ism has thus usurped the role of industrialization in urban development. Toronto is an exemplar of this process. (Rosen and Walks, “Castles in Toronto’s Sky”)

Renters have the most difficulties under this regime, and not only lower income renters but those of middle income as well, as is evident from the fact that both have been coming here for some years seeking relief.  This would seem to imply the possibility of a broader coalition directed at a non-market solution, but somehow this seems not to occur to the struggling children of the lower middle classes – probably because they are so alarmed by the unexpected prospect of downward mobility that all their efforts are aimed at grabbing a rung on the home-ownership ladder. The odds against them are lengthening.

Hamilton, November 2019, first snow. With permission.

I’ll give the second last word to City of Hamilton planning staff, who after all are the experts in these matters.

The Downtown Secondary Plan contains this stirring affirmation: Diversity of Housing Housing is fundamental to the economic, social, and physical well-being of Downtown’s residents and neighbourhoods. Housing is a basic human need and is the central place from which people build their lives, nurture their families and themselves, and engage in their communities. Downtown’s livability and prosperity is connected to the provision of housing that meets the requirements of a diverse population with varying housing needs. Downtown offers various built form housing options, including grade-related, mid-rise, and tall buildings with a variety of ownership and tenancy. Providing housing to a wide range of residents that is affordable, secure, of an appropriate size, and located to meet the needs of people throughout their life is the goal of an inclusive Downtown and essential to the creation of complete communities.

Fine words. Surely this is intended as a manifesto,  a statement of principle which ought to be endorsed, but in fact is silently rejected, by city council, the chamber of commerce, the developers and their architects and lawyers, the leadership of the construction trades, LIUNA, the health care principalities, and the strategists of all three major political parties.

In fact, almost nobody but tenants in rental housing and the homeless in their camps actually feels the need for their right to housing to be met – affordable, secure, adequately sized and located housing, that is. Everybody else thinks it is somebody else’s responsibility. Or no-one’s. 

Meanwhile those buildings all along King Street East are sitting there, intact and empty, and the next logical step is obvious to all. Whether anyone will take it remains to be seen.

This article is the third in a three part series. Read Part One (“Time to Turn”) here and Part Two (“Urban Renewal Then and Now”) here.

Urban Renewal Then and Now: LRT and the Rental Housing Crisis: Part Two

By Shawn Selway for King Street Tenants United

York Street after widening. Source: Hamilton Spectator, November 1976, Hamilton Public Library Special Collections

Margaret Rockwell’s 2004 M.A. thesis, “Modernist Destruction for the Ambitious City”, recounts the hopes and disappointments of the urban renewal episode in Hamilton.

As early as 1957, the Hamilton Downtown Association recognized the potential which federal urban renewal dollars could offer a city wanting drastic change. Hamilton’s businessmen began to lobby for an urban renewal study to be carried out as required under the National Housing Act. They believed that the money Hamilton spent on urban renewal would be regained through increased tax revenues due to the modern buildings’ higher assessments and the fact that the services for development were already in place. They were convinced that they could fight the allure of the malls of suburbia by bringing pedestrian shopping centres into the urban inner core. (Rockwell, 104)

Over the next decade, this appetite for drastic change led to the destruction of houses in the North End and elsewhere, a vast downtown demolition and reconstruction programme that crashed twice, put half of the long established concerns out of business and left large empty lots for years. (Rockwell, 110). It also entailed the total reconstruction of York Street.

The reason that the city needed to destroy the street, the planner Murray V. Jones told the Ontario Municipal Board at its hearings in April 1974, was “to meet traffic demands of the future.” He told the board that he had originally chosen to widen York St. back in 1964 because “of its historic and functional role as an exit and entry to and from the city.’ The street was going to have to succumb because the modernist need to create efficient transportation corridors was considered more important than the citizens who lived along the streets. The Barton Street freeway which had seemed so essential in 1964 was cancelled in 1970 because of the cut backs in federal urban renewal funds and the realization that the city couldn’t destroy hundreds of homes. The perimeter road along Strachan Avenue in the North End [100 houses removed ] was still expected to be built and would be linked to the York street freeway. [This road stayed on the books until 2012; even then, the Chamber of Commerce objected to its removal from the area’s plan.]

The opposing voices had their say during the eight days of OMB hearings in April 1974. . . An NDP brief suggested that the city wanted to build the expressway “to woo commercial development to the civic square” and didn’t want low income people living along the route to their prestigious development. . . However the city’s decision to make York St. into an essential western link in the cross-town street system prevailed. The Ontario cabinet upheld the OMB decision and the Spectator wrote that it was too late for the city to turn back. . .  

The city expected to destroy 249 properties and relocate approximately 500 families. Some people refused to move. Harry Mitsui who operated an upholstery business and lived above his store had to be physically removed by police. They handcuffed him and carried him out of his house in red boxer shorts with a blanket over his head to the police cruiser. His house was destroyed in 1976. “I went to jail for five days on a matter of principle,” remembered Mitsui, “because I was fighting to stay in a home I lived and worked in for 28 years.”  (Rockwell, 131)

The urban renewal campaigns, particularly in the downtown, have left the city centre looking very bare today, especially when one considers how old Hamilton is and how prosperous it was for so many decades. The central city should be a dense, varied and layered landscape – and indeed it was; but much of the core was simply bulldozed during the sixties and seventies.

Ten years after the widening of York Street, there were new buildings in the corridor. Forty-five years later there are a few more, but nothing at all comparable to the historical density of the mid-twentieth century has appeared and the “pedestrian realm” remains very underpopulated. The obvious comparison is with James North, which in 1975 very much resembled York Street before its destruction.  Because James was “left behind” its commercial life continued to evolve and the ebb and flow of investment was on a much smaller scale. Particularly in the last ten years, those flows and the turnovers that result have become more rapid. But they occur one or two buildings at a time, that is, in small increments within a more stable context, without the wholesale destruction wrought by grand plans imposed by experts enacting the ideology of the day. This does not mean that the outcome of incremental change is necessarily the most desirable. Personally I find James North’s steady conversion to restaurant row regrettable, but perhaps the new condo dwellers on the street would not agree. 

The churn on James North. Two new restaurants coming soon. February 2020.

However, council’s love for the Big Fix is a deep and lasting love, as shown most recently by projects like the stadium build, the LRT, and the current proposal to re-raze the core that was already flattened and trucked away fifty years ago – probably because the bigger the project the better the chance of pulling in provincial or federal money to supplement city resources insufficient to do the job. Insufficient also to heal the wounds when the outside funding is withdrawn.

But at least this time the momentum has been interrupted before the demolitions have occurred, so that Metrolinx has been left with a large stock of buildings, and under-developed or vacant lots. However,  the structures are now boarded up and undergoing demolition by dereliction in the time-honoured Hamilton way, which usually leads in short order to a vacant lot that remains so for a very long time. We have seen this at Queen and King, on James and Jackson where the site of the former Baptist church looks like the building was felled by a missile, and others. Some of these desolated areas are quite large – the greater part of the downtown block bounded by James, King, Main and Hughson for example; or the Barton Tiffany precinct which got the bulldozer treatment in the fall of 2011. Thirteen houses were removed from Barton and Tiffany streets, and the premises of seven businesses including relatively new buildings housing a gas station/variety store and an auto-repair shop. An older industrial building in the centre of the Caroline-Hess block was also taken down. Last to be demolished was a large structure with two huge interior volumes which might well be functioning today as a film studio were councillors less dedicated to making rubble and more willing to entertain adaptive reuse. Eight years on, this area is an unofficial construction waste dump. Meanwhile the Tivoli and 18-28 King at the Gore, ostensibly rescued from the wreckers, continue to sit empty, unused and unmaintained while the owners wait for their competitors to increase the land values.

Those small apartment buildings along King and Main are fine examples of the Missing Middle, the term which has become a catch-all for many types of “ground-oriented housing”: row houses, townhouses, apartments in buildings under five storeys, apartments in duplexes, and residential units above commercial. Demolition of these buildings would be doubly wasteful and harmful because it reduces still further the amount of rental housing available outside the high-rises, and those larger multi-residential buildings are now mostly in the hands of REITs dedicated to more or less ruthless programs of repositioning their assets in the market.

Middle range “ground oriented” housing on King.
Mid-range on Wilson in East Central Hamilton.

The Missing Middle has been much discussed over the last couple of years and is the new darling of intensification proponents. It is “gentle density”, so called to distinguish it from tall buildings which can land pretty hard if not subject to strict built-form guidelines that enforce minimum separation and maximum heights, as well as a unit mix ratio that avoids the endless proliferation of monocultural barracks for singles and their canine companions.

And in fact, the city is signalling a preference for the gentle end of the scale with the transit oriented development zoning that has been placed in the LRT corridor.

The transit-oriented development zoning in the eastern LRT corridor.

However, the six-storey (22 metres) height is just as likely to stimulate  negotiations for more permissions than to prompt anyone to proceed “direct to site-plan”, as the phrase is – a point which Vrancor has just illustrated very clearly by asking for 25 storeys on a six storey site at Queen and King already under construction. (“Anger over proposed growth of two core projects”, Spectator, January 27, 2020).

Parking for a six storey building, Vrancor style. Southwest corner King and Queen, February 2020.

A couple of detailed Canadian studies on the desirability of the Missing Middle came out last year, one from Ryerson and another from Evergreen and the Canadian Urban Institute

However, when you read through the Missing Middle reports, it becomes clear that the Evergreen study was prompted partly by the distress of those who find themselves unable to qualify for a mortgage as they enter the family planning years; and partly by an imperative to unlock land value in so-called stable areas zoned for detached and semi-detached dwellings, whose protections threaten to impede the growth machine. The Ryerson study, which focuses on Mississauga, points to that problem, but sets it aside in favour of looking for opportunities for denser infill mostly outside the single detached housing tracts that occupy about thirty percent of the land there. These concerns are coupled with complete reliance for remedies on the private market, whose actors are to receive various encouragements i.e have their profit margins guaranteed. Accordingly, there is nothing in this discussion as currently framed for lower income renters. 

Apart from simply giving developers money, or saving them money by reducing oversight, or allowing them more floor area in return for a few below-market priced units i.e. licensing them to do outright harm by building beyond the plan which defines what is best for all, there is not much to be done to achieve affordability in the market. Reduction in unit size is a possibility, and is ongoing. Except in jurisdictions where a minimum size is legislated, nobody knows how small a unit the market can be made to accept, and legislation is changeable. Inclusionary zoning is frequently mentioned, but apart from other problems, it cannot yield very many units. And finally there is filtering, the process by which newer builds presumably drive down the prices that can be charged by the owners of older builds. But filtering is very dependent on local conditions and in any case takes years to moderate values, years which may pass pleasantly for the generally comfortably housed advocates of filtering, but less pleasantly for the poorly housed who are waiting to inherit.

In short, there is no market solution.

The technical route to housing affordability is probably through energy-efficient building on off-market land with ready access to public transit.  I say “probably” because the practicability of any particular solution has not been adequately studied in the local conditions. It has not been a goal to plan for true and lasting housing security, and this is a political, not a technical problem.

The technical route to housing affordability is probably through energy-efficient building on off-market land with ready access to public transit.

The immediate political problem is to ensure that the land which Metrolinx has now aggregated from a large number of small-holdings is kept intact, and to have the parcel transferred to a public body or a trust, rather than breaking it up and selling it off to individual private developers, which will have the effect of worsening the housing crisis. For the sake of variety of course it might be desirable to lease land to a number of proponents, but long-term affordability depends on retaining the entire parcel in public hands and off the market in perpetuity.

The immediate political problem is to ensure that the land which Metrolinx has now aggregated from a large number of small-holdings is kept intact.

The new owner would begin by rehabilitating the existing vacant buildings, completing deep energy retrofits where possible, and then turn to building stacked townhouses or smaller apartment blocks on the vacant lots, in order to make the new units available quickly.

How this could be done would not be hard to find. The literature is extensive and there is local experience of building to meet passive house standards of energy conservation. The technical problem reduces to establishing the minimum initial cash investment that would be required to get started, and identifying a lender or guarantor, probably the federal government. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives would tacitly resist limiting opportunities for the employment of private capital by taking land off the market, no matter what the public rhetoric they might spout, but a discussion of the political task that this entails is a topic for another day.

But why should a stock of affordable housing be developed, and for whom? Or better, why is it more costly in the long run not to develop such a stock?  Who would we want to attract with this housing? Not priced-out young professionals or property speculators from Toronto, nor retired persons looking for a way to stretch their fixed means, though the first and the last should of course be welcomed and not condemned for their inadvertent individual contributions to what are structural problems. But these people are not enough to give us a future as anything other than a dormitory suburb of Toronto really. Surely we still have more self-respect than to settle for that.

 No, we need the housing not only to provide a floor for people already here, those on fixed incomes and the working poor surviving on pay below a living wage, but equally importantly, to attract new immigrants from everywhere, to retain new graduates from Mac and Mohawk, and to draw and keep artists and musicians — all of whom will need a place to live which they can afford.  Without these kinds of people, stagnation and decline are inevitable, no matter how promising it may seem in the short run to import a batch of computech jobs with workies attached from Toronto. The centres of decision will be elsewhere, and the interests of Hamiltonians will be sacrificed.

In the concluding section of this three part series, I want to look in more detail at who Hamilton would be planning for, if the municipality were to begin to take housing affordability seriously by looking for non-market solutions.

This article is the second in a three part series. Read Part One (“Time to Turn”) here and Part Three (“Planning Hamilton for Who?”) here.