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Hamilton strengthens bylaws to stifle renovictions, steady tenant supports

Tenants rights group ACORN rallying in front of Hamilton city hall in August 2020, calling for councillors to implemena bylaws to prevent renovictions. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

A pair of initiatives to beef up bylaws in Hamilton, Ont., to help renters exposed to crumbling apartment buildings and renovictions have been passed by city councilors.

The recommendations were brought forward by the city’s licensing and bylaw services division Thursday with the highlight being a “Safe Apartment Bylaw” which will see some $3 million annually put into preventive inspections of complexes starting next year.

The legislation draws from rules that have been in effect for about five years in Toronto and Mississauga calling on inspectors to licence landlords and inspect buildings to make sure they meet property standards.

It’s set to replace an existing protocol requiring tenants to reach out to bylaw whenthey have problems.

Owners of purpose-built apartment buildings two storeys or greater and those with six units or more will now have to obtain a licence to operate, pay a mandatory annual fee and undergo an evaluation from city officers.

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Plans for waste and pest management will have to be filed with licence applications, as will electrical maintenance and vital service disruption protocols.

Buildings scoring low in a licence evaluation will be subject to a comprehensive audit inspection which includes engaging tenants via a “door knocking” campaign.

The premise is to employ pre-emptive inspections, at no cost to taxpayers,  to diminish mass renovations and the vacating of tenants due to long-term neglect.

Karl Andrus from the Hamilton Community Benefit Network supports the measure but suggests timing is a factor since the adoption of the bylaw isn’t expected until after the 2024 budget.

He says that will mean initial one-time inspections of some estimated 50,000 households that need to be registered will take several years.

“We’re not looking at this possibly starting until about 2025, and it’ll take the city about a year and a half to inspect all the buildings,” Andrus explained.

“So for tenants across Hamilton, it’s really not going to have an impact on their lives to around 2027.”

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Meanwhile, the Property Standards and Vital Services Bylaw was rejigged, allowing the city to charge back recovery costs to a landlord should the city have to compensate for a required service, like distributing potable water.

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The latter was spurred on after tenants lost their water at a Main Street East apartment that went 86 days without any running water this past year.

It also allows city staff to warn landlords of orders electronically, and not exclusively through paper notices, should an essential amenity not be available to tenants.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for a “Renoviction Licence and Relocation listing” bylaw obligating landlords to obtain a licence from the city and pay a fee for renovations that require an N-13 – notice to end a tenancy due to a desire to demolish, repair or convert a rental unit.

That idea has been sent back to the Emergency Services Committee in October.

The new rule sought to identify renovations, either initiated by a landlord or a city order, and notify tenants of their rights under Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act allowing them to return after work is done.

However, staff acknowledged it was problematic since the legality of it could be challenged in accordance with provincial laws, particularly if the city denies issuance of such a licence to a landlord.

It also had hoped to require landlords to provide three listings of comparably priced dwellings to a departing tenant upon issuance of an N-13 notice.

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Damien Ash from ACORN’s downtown chapter says that stipulation was not realistic since most rents for new listings in Hamilton are much higher than the low market rates being paid by those renting in buildings built before 2018.

“That doesn’t exist in the city,” said Ash.

“If there were three affordable listings for every one that’s being renovated, this wouldn’t be an issue, we wouldn’t need a licensing regime.”

Last April, staff estimated the city is losing some 23 affordable units for every new affordable unit being built, equating to the loss of around 16,000 rental units priced below $750 per month.

Some 132 applications by landlords were made in 2022 seeking to evict tenants, an action that can go unnoticed by the city since the process is managed by the province.

City staff suggested the most vulnerable to N-13 notices are those residing in some of Hamilton’s 40,000 rental units located in single detached complexes, townhouses and duplexes.

In a statement following the ratification of the new bylaws, ACORN characterized them as “wins” following their six-year campaign to start a proactive apartment inspection program.

“The victories at committee are a substantial step forward in City of Hamilton programs and policies to protect and support tenants in keeping their affordable homes and ensuring landlords keep their buildings in good repair,” said ACORN.

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City's Housing Services seeking more investment in Tenant Support Program

The city is also referring an increase in financial support for its Tenant Defence Fund to the 2024 budget.

The aid program balances the legal representation between tenants and landlords that go before the province’s landlord-tenant board (LTB) amid a dispute.

Similar to one in Toronto, it will give some $300,000 to the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic to allow dedicated legal staff to work specifically on N-13 notices and defend tenants at the tribunal.

In all, the program runs at about $1.2 million annually and includes five full-time Housing Services staffers with the potential of getting a bylaw officer as well, if approved through the Licensing and Bylaw Services budget process.

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