Hamilton’s planning committee has unanimously approved a motion to look at improving the property standards bylaw to protect tenants who are trapped in unhealthy and unsafe living conditions.
Ward 14 Councillor Terry Whitehead introduced the motion at the Jan. 14 meeting on behalf of tenant advocacy group ACORN.
Mike Wood, chair of the downtown branch of ACORN, addressed the committee on Tuesday, explaining that he’s been told that some major issues faced by tenants aren’t covered by the bylaw as it currently stands.
Those issues include mould, pests, broken door buzzers, essential appliances like fridges or stoves that are broken and left unrepaired for months, cosmetic work, a lack of mailboxes, and filthy vents.
The existing bylaw, Wood said, does not require that landlords regularly clean and maintain ventilation systems.
“My building was over 40 years standing of vents not being cleaned — I had mice feces falling on my stove while I was cooking,” said Wood. “And that’s disgusting.
“If you walk through some of these rentals — no matter if it’s a duplex, a highrise — we’ve seen ventilation that is so clogged with pests, with dust, with whatever, and people are breathing that in every single day.”
A slide with four photos of different rental units in Hamilton, which was presented as part of Wood’s delegation, shows mould that ate away at the wood under a kitchen sink.
It also showed missing tiles on the floor, an electrical outlet taped to the wall next to a child’s bed, and an example of an uncleaned vent.
“It’s terrible that we have a system that’s in place, which is called property standards, and this in front of us is actually happening,” said Wood. “And I don’t understand why.”
Veronica Gonzalez, a member of the mountain branch of ACORN, also delegated before the committee, using her example of living in an apartment on the mountain when she called the bylaw officer in 2018 for a sewage back-up. At the same time, she also pointed out mould in the unit to the officer.
Although they fixed the toilet issue, Gonzalez said she was told that there was nothing they could do about the mould. Around the same time, she said her granddaughter who was living with her developed bronchitis.
“It’s hard to get up in the morning knowing all your income is going to the landlords,” said Gonzalez. “You’re always in debt. Whether you’re asking for repairs, but you fear repercussions for speaking out, many tenants try not to rock the boat. They fill out work orders and wait for repairs to get done.
“And usually, that never happens.”
Wood said many tenants they work with through ACORN have gone to the city’s property standards bylaw officers for help, but have been met with the question, “Why don’t you just move?”
He said that’s not the answer, especially in the midst of Hamilton’s shrinking affordable housing market.
“Hamilton’s affordable housing stock is under threat,” said Wood. “You either have a landlord refusing to do repairs, or you have a new owner using different tactics to push tenants out.”
“We need the city to protect the tenants and the vulnerable in our communities and step up and be the leader of our communities, and show that we’re willing to move forward and make sure that rentals are kept safe and healthy.”
If ratified by city council, the motion will direct city staff to meet with rental property stakeholders and review Hamilton’s current property standards bylaw against other municipalities “to determine best practices and improvement” to existing legislation.
“We need to stay up with the times and ensure that our tenants are living in a healthy environment,” said Whitehead, “that their mental health isn’t being impacted by the quality of their living situation, and we need to do everything we can to ensure that our bylaws are current and reflective, and timely in the context of answering and responding to these very issues.”
The motion will go before councillors during the first meeting of 2020 on Jan. 22.