BY Jason Brock
There has been a considerable buzz as of late about the rapid pace of gentrification in this city. Heeding calls for an ambitious re-branding of Steel City by its cultural, political and business elite, an influx of private investment is currently reconfiguring Hamilton’s urban landscape. The resulting discussions have produced a mixed bag of recommendations on how the city’s development can best incorporate the interests of its current and future residents: from city-sponsored Neighbourhood Action Plans that advocate for meticulously constructed, mixed-income communities, to condo moratoriums and citizen-led calls for inclusive zoning and high-density “intensification” as a means of mitigating the steady loss of affordable rental units. All of these solutions speak to the desire to manage the worst aspects of gentrification, while making the most of the city’s rising reputation as an attractive alternative to Toronto’s overpriced housing market.
But one thing that is strikingly lacking in many of these macro-level discussions of “sustainable urban development”, is a proper understanding of how gentrification actually occurs on a micro level – and the central role that tenants play in the process.
Hamilton currently has the fastest-rising rents of any city in Canada
Hamilton currently has the fastest-rising rents of any city in Canada. This rather unsettling fact is simultaneously a cause and effect of increased private investment. Gentrification is a self-perpetuating, cyclical process: increased investment in a neighbourhood raises rents, which puts pressure on poorer tenants to leave the neighbourhood in search of more affordable housing, which in turn attracts more investments… and on and on it goes.
The main choke-point in this cycle is the displacement of existing tenants. This is because one of the few stabilizing factors in the Ontario housing/rental market is the existence of state-imposed rent controls. Vacancy controls once placed restrictions on landlords’ ability to jack up rents in between tenancies, but they were eliminated during the neoliberal assault of Mike Harris’ so-called Common Sense Revolution. In their absence, landlords have been given a strong incentive to push out long-standing tenants – whose rents are often much cheaper than the city-wide average – in order to bring in new tenants, who they can then charge whatever the market will allow them to get away with.
landlords have been given a strong incentive to push out long-standing tenants
There is a cold, calculated logic to this, which becomes even more starkly apparent when corporate landlords enter the fray, and begin buying up high-rise apartment buildings in areas where they expect a sizeable rate of return on their investments. This has been taking place across Hamilton for some time now, and it generally follows a similar pattern.
Between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, Toronto-based real estate conglomerate Greenwin Inc purchased the buildings at 181 John St, 192 Hughson St and 44 Robert St. This complex, consisting of two high-rise apartment buildings and attached townhouses, is located in the central neighbourhood of Beasley, just a short walk away from the new Harbour West GO Station.
In February of this year, tenants in the buildings began receiving offers of $2000 if they would sign a contract to voluntarily vacate their units within two months. They were informed that if they chose to stay, they would be subjected to months of noisy construction, as renovations were carried out on the buildings. They were warned that if they stayed, their rents would ultimately be raised by way of Above-Guideline Rent Increases (AGIs), or increases above and beyond the legal limit that the province sets each year (the rate for 2016 has been set at 2%). AGIs are an increasingly popular means by which landlords can circumvent rent controls, provided they can prove to the Landlord and Tenant Board that these increases are justified by capital expenditures. Eventually, the offers for tenants to vacate their units increased to upwards of $6000.
Many tenants took these offers, and it’s certainly hard to blame them for doing so. But other tenants chose to stay – including a large Somali community within the building who decided that they wanted to stick together, several elderly tenants who have lived in the building for decades, and others on ODSP and/or city-subsidized rent programs which would have been threatened if they’d taken the buy out.
Alongside the offers of cash, and increasingly once those offers were rejected, Greenwin has resorted to a litany of coercive mechanisms in order to convince tenants to move out. These have included harassment from the building’s security and management, failure to carry out repairs in non-renovated units, bogus eviction notices, frequent and unannounced unit inspections, and threats of fines if tenants didn’t remove furniture from their balconies.
There is still a long fight ahead
Thankfully, tenants in these buildings refused to take this lying down, and instead began organizing against Greenwin’s efforts to get rid of them. So far, this has taken the form of holding several meetings with tenants and their supporters, a municipal bylaw blitz that forced Greenwin to carry out a number of needed structural repairs to the buildings, a community rally, and a collective letter signed by forty-five tenants demanding an end to harassment. There is still a long fight ahead – including a looming legal challenge against the first AGI application – but the tenants are increasingly uniting around the realization that it’s a fight they must wage collectively if they have any chance of winning. As they say, there’s strength in numbers.
This simple ethos is the driving force behind the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network (HTSN), a nascent grassroots initiative which our members hope will grow into combative, city-wide tenants movement. It is our belief that organized tenants, grouped into federated assemblies and linked together through acts of solidarity and collective self-defence, are the best bulwark that this city has against rampant gentrification, and the displacement and soaring rents that it leaves in its wake.
Jason is an organizer with the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network (HTSN). To find out more about the HTSN, or for tips on organizing your building, email HamiltonTenantsSolidarity@gmail.com or visit our website at http://HamiltonTenantsSolidarity.ca
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