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Vital Signs report calls for ‘collective action’ to combat Hamilton’s housing crisis

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The foundation that claims its vision is to drive positive change in Hamilton is characterizing the city’s current housing crisis as the social challenge of a generation.

The latest edition of the Vital Signs report from the Hamilton Community Foundation (HCF) says one of the reasons the city continues to see its affordable private rental units disappear is their attractiveness for landlords who want to buy, renovate and raise rents.

Terry Cooke, president and CEO of the HCF, says what’s driving that trend is people coming from the GTA seeking cheaper housing creating competition that’s making the market unaffordable for people who are living on modest or low incomes.

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“What is most troubling when you look at it is that for every one unit of new affordable housing that we’re building (in Hamilton), we’re losing 23,” Cooke said.

“That’s got to be a sobering number for anybody that cares about people and the need for everybody to have, as a human right dignified, essential housing.”

The report suggests a combination of other factors are also at the root of the problem, including general population growth, lack of tenant protections, speculators buying up buildings that once catered to lower incomes and an influx of international students.

In August, the council beefed up some of its bylaws to stifle renovictions across Hamilton. The highlight was a “Safe Apartment Bylaw” calling on inspectors to license landlords and inspect buildings to ensure they meet property standards.

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 seeking to evict tenants, known as N-13 notices, were made in 2022, an action that can go unnoticed by the city since the province manages the process.

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.

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Cooke says the problem is not one that happened overnight, pointing to “30 to 40 years” of senior levels of government abandoning social housing and downloading it to the municipalities.

“Hamilton tended to have more social housing because we were an older community that people came for services and support,” Cooke explained.

The study says the gap between the allowable shelter costs for a single person on Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program last year was typically less than half the average monthly rent for a single-bedroom apartment in the city, an estimated $1,133 per month.

For 2023, the gap was even more stark with one-bedroom apartment rents seen as high as $1,901 per month — three times the maximum average shelter allowance.

New housing construction in the city has been steadily increasing over the past decade, moving from just under 2,000 new unit starts in 2009 to some 4,000 registered in 2021 with an even split of single detached homes versus condominiums and rental apartments.

The report submits increasing supply is the eventual solution to the crisis and that the private sector will have to play a key role since it already contributes to some 95 per cent of all housing builds in the city.

But bringing affordable accommodations for those on social assistance, whose monthly incomes haven’t really changed much since the 1990s, has to happen to reach a permanent fix.

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“If they’re going to survive and thrive in this community … all levels of government have to get back into this game and address a problem that is a crisis across the country,” Cooke said.