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Hamilton's Housing Crisis: Part 1

Blog/FavouritesAugust 17th 2023
Jason Allen

This is the first of a two part article on the housing crisis in Hamilton. Return here again next week to read part 2.

Stopping at most major intersections in Hamilton, whether the lower city or the mountain, reveals that Hamilton has a problem with people not being able to afford anywhere to live. It’s no secret that inflation has dramatically increased the cost of living, but the one item in some people’s budget that has increased the most is the cost of housing.

When we moved to Hamilton in 2005, the cost of a one-bedroom apartment was about $800. If housing had kept pace with inflation, that number would now be $1050 or so. But it’s higher than that. Much higher.

A quick look at the rental market listing in our city shows one-bedroom units renting for $1800 a month or more. And landlords are getting increasingly picky, refusing to rent to anyone who doesn’t make three times the rent in monthly income, or doesn’t have impeccable references. And pets? Forget about it.

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So how did we get to this crisis, and where do we go from here? The problem is very complex, and the answers perhaps even more so.

In Hamilton, we have long been a magnet for people living on ODSP, or Ontario Disability Support Payments. With a lower cost of living than Toronto, but better amenities than London, Windsor or Niagara Falls it meant that people with complex medical conditions or disabilities who weren’t able to work, could afford to live here. If not in comfort, at least not in grinding poverty.

As the price of housing has increased though, that dream of just getting by on ODSP has drifted further and further out of reach.

A single person living on ODSP today receives a total of $1308 a month for living expenses and accommodations. When you consider that a one-bedroom apartment is renting for $1800 a month, and even a room without board can go for up to $1000, it’s easy to see why so many people have fallen through the cracks.

While the cost of housing has virtually doubled in the past 10 years, ODSP rates have gone up about 30% since 2005, and only by $80 this year.

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It’s not only low ODSP rates to blame though. We are in the midst of an opioid crisis that in some months is seeing a dozen people die of overdoses. People can slip into addiction for a variety of reasons. Past trauma can be a trigger, but so can workplace or vehicle accidents that lead to a dependence on prescription pain killers like Oxycontin, that then spiral into opioid use.

Once the cycle of addiction begins, family breakups, job loss and homelessness can follow if someone is not able to get the help they need. And with OHIP sponsored programs experiencing waiting lists of up to two months, getting treatment can be a challenge.

However even for someone who isn’t living with a disability or an addiction, rent can be out of reach. With the median household income in some neighbourhoods in Hamilton being $2300 a month, it’s easy to see how even a two bedroom apartment for a family would leave nothing left over for food, utilities or anything else.

The direct result is fewer and fewer people able to afford rent or somewhere to stay, and being forced out of their homes and apartments and onto the street.

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Yet not everyone who is homeless in our city ends up living in an encampment or a tent in a park.

There a number of ways to be unhoused in our city. The estimate from December of last year is that there were 1509 people who didn’t have permanent housing. Some of those were living in emergency shelters (there are 514 shelter spaces in Hamilton). Some were living in hotel rooms that had been rented by the city for the purpose of emergency housing – usually for families with young children.

Others are doing what’s called ‘couch surfing’ or staying with friends for as long as they are welcome and then moving on. People who have ended up with the last resort of sleeping rough, often at encampments around the city, are tough to count, but are estimated to be around 500 or so.

The question remains though: with rent control in place in Ontario, and landlords generally prohibited from increasing rent by more than 2% a year, why are so many people suddenly unable to afford a place to live? The problem in large part is a thing called renoviction.

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Renoviction is the process where landlords evict a tenant from an apartment because they are going to be doing substantial renovations, and then turn around and rent it out to someone else at a much higher rate.

The law says that the tenant who has been removed must have first right of refusal to the renovated unit at their old rent, but this almost never happens. Most tenants move on and find some other arrangement. For particularly unscrupulous landlords, they are able to drag out the renovations until the former tenant stops asking.

Many of these renovictions are happening in buildings that have been purchased by Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs, which are working to get their investors the highest return on their investment possible. The easiest way to do this is to renovict everyone living at below market rates, complete the renovations and then put the apartment back on the market at the highest rate the market will bear.