Posted September 28, 2018
A pilot project to license rental housing in two student-heavy Hamilton wards has received an initial nod of approval.
After years of deliberation, the city's rental housing subcommittee passed the two-year project in a 7-4 vote Thursday.
The initial nod, however, will still need the approval of next term's city councillors or the initiative will die on the vine.
Still, the discussion at city hall before the vote was heated with some subcommittee members warning the pilot would cause a spike in rents and more homelessness.
However, Coun. Aidan Johnson said the "beauty" of the Ward 1 and 8 experiment is that it would put any predictions to the test.
Johnson, who represents the McMaster area, acknowledged the pilot could lead to a slight reduction in rentals with landlords leaving the market. But the "trade-off" is safer rental conditions in the pilot areas, added the outgoing Ward 1 councillor.
"We just have to accept that the loss of squalid, fire-trap units in a very real sense is not very much."
The licensing pilot would only apply to low-density rentals — five units or fewer — in the two wards, with an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 properties in its scope.
Johnson and Coun. Terry Whitehead, subcommittee chair and Ward 8 representative, have drawn attention to unsafe student rental housing.
Under the pilot, landlords would have to pay a $200 annual fee, consent to inspections, be in compliance with zoning and show proof of insurance.
The fee would go toward inspections and enforcement. Three full-time staff are expected to cost $347,463, which would be funded from a city reserve.
Licensing officer Jim Gordon presented two other options: a more rudimentary registry, also with a $200 fee, or "status quo," with a focus on education for renters and owners.
Gordon called securing consent for entry to inspect units "paramount." As it stands, staff are frequently turned away at the door when trying to conduct inspections, he said.
Whitehead, who's seeking re-election in Ward 14, cited two cases of squalid rentals he visited where new immigrants were too afraid to complain about overcrowding and rats. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."
But the licensing idea — pitched before in Hamilton — has been contentious, with the subcommittee struggling to show any progress on the file for several years.
In addition to the $200 fee, which would be charged per unit, landlords would shoulder other costs associated with upgrades and inspections, the subcommittee heard.
Larry Huibers, executive director of the Housing Help Centre, said he was "very, very concerned" about landlords passing those expenses onto tenants, especially if the licensing were to go city-wide.
Arun Pathak, president of the Hamilton and District Apartment Association, went further, predicting "higher rents" and more "tent cities."
Whitehead said there's no evidence that would happen, noting programs in Waterloo and London haven't led to "astronomical" hikes.
Paul Martindale, of Wink Properties, argued staff ignored alternatives presented in other studies, such as a report by consultant Maple Leaf Strategies, which was commissioned by an industry group. "All I continue to hear ... is only one half of the equation."
Martindale acknowledged there are some bad landlords but argued bad tenants are also responsible for subpar rentals.
Earlier, Hamilton ACORN told the subcommittee there's "urgent need" to change the status quo, calling the city's enforcement of property standards ineffectual. "People don't deserve to live this way ... I hear it every day. Tenants are stressed," chair Mike Wood said.
The anti-poverty organization released a report Thursday that found 47.7 per cent of 130 tenants surveyed had bedbugs in the past two years. As well, 43.8 per cent reported a lack of heating, and 59.2 per cent had trouble getting repairs done.
It's calling for a registry that would see landlords pay a $10 to $12 per-unit fee to fund proactive inspections and enforcements in all apartment buildings.
"We desperately need a solution that just isn't a pilot ... We are in an affordable housing crisis and we can't waste another term dragging our feet on this," Wood said.
Licensing director Ken Leendertse said staffers respond to complaints as they field them. But there are limitations, he said.
"There's a disconnect on what tenants think they can get compared to what property standards allows us to."
Hamilton ACORN says property standard laws must changed to include "all health and safety issues tenants face."
Article by Teviah Moro for The Hamilton Spectator