Tuesday’s Hamilton City Council Planning Committee witnessed the ugly politics of intensification, rental housing, and how the City of Hamilton operates as 15 feudal wards instead of one city with a wider vision.
Council considered two identical applications to convert existing illegal multiplexes into legal units meeting code. Both were recommended for approval by the City’s planning staff.
The application in Ward 3 was approved. The application in Ward 2 was denied.
The Ward 2 application will eventually be approved by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. Farr acknowledges this, stating “they got a pretty good case going into a LPAT appeal. They have a staff report that’s obviously supportive.”
Farr moved to deny the application, and authorize the hiring of outside lawyers and experts to argue against the City’s professional staff at LPAT.
The cost to taxpayers of the LPAT process, with its inevitable outcome of approval, will be around $25,000 at the low end. Around a dozen neighbours are known to be opposed to the Ward 2 application.
For Farr, spending $2000 per vote is money well wasted, so long as taxpayers are footing the bill.
Victorian Homes, Illegal Multiplexes, and the Complexities of Legalization
The applications, 95 – 97 Fairholt Road South in Ward 3 and 130 Wellington Street South in Ward 2, both involve large Victorian three-storey single detached homes.
There are an untold number of Victorian homes in Hamilton which are illegal multiplexes. They were converted in recent decades while the old City of Hamilton turned a blind eye.
The ownership of these house recently changed. The new owners are seeking to maximize their profits by legalizing the houses and adding more units in the process. [These two separate applications have with no connection with each other, they coincidentally ended up in front of Council at the same time.]
The City of Hamilton wants owners to legalize existing illegal multiplexes and to bring them up to both building and fire codes. There are significant concerns about the safety of illegal multiplexes. They were converted without the inspections conducted during a proper building permit process.
In a perfect world, the City could punish the scoundrels would illegally converted these homes.
The reality is that the large number of illegal multiplexes make this impossible. Enforcing zoning laws would remove thousands of rental units at a time when Hamilton is experiencing a shortage of available units.
The Carrot and Stick to Encourage Legalization
The City wants illegal units brought into conformity and legalized. To achieve this, the City is using a carrot and stick approach.
The carrot is allowing houses which legalize to gain an additional unit or two. For the owner, this increases their revenue per square foot enabling them to both recover the costs of legalization and to gain increased profits in the medium-to-long term.
The stick? City bylaw regularly patrols for signs of renovation construction. The City’s Building Department quickly issues stop work orders and issues fines.
The status quo works for bad landlords. They do not need to do anything to improve their existing illegal multiplexes. So long as the bad landlord keeps the status quo, and does not conduct construction, they can keep operating their illegal units without the costs of meeting standards and code.
A tenant who complains to by-law regarding their living conditions risks losing their rental unit.
A by-law inspection is likely to find serious deficiencies, and the owner can manipulate the situation into getting a declaration that the house must be vacated to make it safe.
The result is a renoviction. The tenant is left to fend for themselves. The landlord can renovate, legalize, and charge above market rents to new tenants.
The bad units tend to be slightly cheaper than a decent unit, and if the tenant has lived in their unit for any length of time, their rent is significantly lower than the present market rate.
It is a bad situation with no obvious solutions.
Legalization costs tens of thousands of dollars. Owners must pay for rezoning. This involves consultants and applications fees. The houses then have to be brought up to building code, and for many of these houses it means extensive renovations to meet fire standards for a multiplex.
In exchange, the City allows for additional units when safe and possible.
The reality is in lower Hamilton, the Provincial Growth Plan effectively requires approval of medium density conversions because of the planning Light Rail Transit project. Thus, the carrot is something the City must now provide anyway.
Resident Homeowner Opposition to Rental Units
Both the applications were opposed by nearby residents as over intensification and adding rental units to their neighbourhood.
“The neighbourhood already has numerous rental options in the area affordable options”, Jesse Razaqpur told City Council in opposition to the 130 Wellington Street South application.
“We also have the Ontario Works offices at the corner of Wellington, this neighbourhood is doing its fair share of heavy lifting with respect to mixed land use and access to housing for all income classes.”
“I submit it is resident homeowners who formed the bedrock of such neighborhoods. They’re the ones who have children in the area. They are the ones who take pride in their properties, and maintain their homes and gardens. They are the ones that ensure the neighborhood is a vibrant place. There are people who actually know and talk to one another, socialize together and share the same concerns”, Razaqpur continued.
“As noted in our previous meeting, you can walk down the street and visually, you can know which properties are resident homeowners and which are absentee land or owners renting to various parties.”
“And to be blunt, it is the resident homeowners who actually vote here in the city!”
Councillor Farr praised Razaqpur’s presentation, and Council unanimously denied the application.
The Ward 3 application was opposed by neighbours with similar concerns.
A letter to Council, which Hamilton City Clerk Andrea Holland granted the writer anonymity, from the Unified Home owners association of Fairholt Road South, stated “absolutely not” to the application.
“No more rental units on our street … we are already busting at the seems with rentals and parking … we say no to becoming another Hamilton Ghetto”, the letter reads.
Ward 3 Councillor Nrinder Nann does not sit on Planning Committee, and did not comment on the file during the meeting.
Ward 8 Councillor John Paul Danko voted against the application stating he opposes the carving up of detached homes into multiplexes.
“This could be any single family home in Ancaster, or the South Mountain or anywhere in the city,” Danko stated. “There is no way that we would approve a six unit conversion of a similar size house on the South Mountain. So I’m going to stay consistent and be opposed to this.”
Ward 1 Councillor Maureen Wilson joined Danko in opposing the application.
“We have an outstanding item on our list for a family friendly policy”, Wilson stated. “It seems to me that the same neighborhoods are taking the same brunt of intensification with a house that could be family friendly with two legal units.”
“We’re putting six into it in a neighborhood that has it’s doing its share and carrying the load of multiple units in what were once single family dwellings”, Wilson continued. “So similarly, I won’t be supporting the staff recommendation.”
The decisions need to be ratified next Wednesday during the City Council ratification meeting.