Saturday Feb 24

Stopping Renoviction in Hamilton, Ontario

In the summer of 2018, the ACORN office in Hamilton, Ontario, received a call from a concerned tenant about their apartment building being sold to a new company and growing fear among tenants that the new landlord wanted tenants out. We met with the tenant to discuss the issues in the building and what a tenants’ organization would look like. The tenant joined ACORN and led efforts to organize meetings and actions to demonstrate the landlord’s mistreatment of tenants since they took over ownership of the property.  The organization took a strong stand that tenants were not moving.

Unfortunately, within six months the building’s occupancy was down to two remaining tenants, including ACORN’s primary leader in the building. The company bullied and harassed the tenants into accepting lowball buyout offers. To make cash-for-keys appealing to tenants, repairs and pest control were ignored making conditions in the building almost impossible. ACORN’s leader in the building, Elizabeth Ellis, working as a Personal Support Worker was cornered one day after a long and hard shift and under pressure signed an agreement to move for $2,000. The move forced her out of the neighborhood into a more expensive basement apartment with a roommate. This was the first case of renoviction for the organization and we learned many lessons. The injustice of an investment company buying up affordable housing with low-income tenants and then forcing them to relocated in order to increase rents and profits would spur a new campaign for Hamilton and take us on a five-year journey to fight for a new local policy. 

What is renoviction?

By renoviction we are referring to the tactics, legal and extra-legal, that lead to a tenant being forced to move out of their home under the guise of major renovations.

The important thing to remember - the goal of renoviciton is not to update the unit. The goal is to displace the tenant.

The renovations that landlords implement can vary from “down to the suds” to a quick cosmetic makeover.

In Ontario, landlords have the ability to secure vacancy of a unit for renovations by issuing a N13 eviction notice. If filed at the Landlord and Tenant Board (provincial tribunal that deals with landlord and tenant matters), the landlord must demonstrate that the eviction is in good faith. Tenants have first right of refusal after renovations to return to the same unit at the same rent. Tenants can also pursue fines if the landlord rents out the unit to another tenant.

Despite these provincial regulations, it is very difficult for low-income tenants to exercise their first right of refusal and maintain their affordable housing. The main barriers being the difficulty of finding a short term lease at the same rent while renovations take place, and landlords ignoring the right for tenants to return to their units. 

Tenants that lose their apartments through this process face little hope of finding affordable alternatives. ACORN members have become homeless, or, in other cases, if able to find a place, are forced to put the majority of their income towards rent. 

Campaign Organizing Drive

In 2019, we started hosting tenant rights workshops for buildings facing renoviction and got our first media coverage in the local newspaper on what happened at 160 Sherman Aveune, and the need for local action. 

In 2020, members started an official campaign organizing drive to develop demands on the municipality. Over two days, the demands were delivered with a press conference followed by a rally in front of City Hall. 

The main demand: The City of Hamilton needed to pass an anti-renoviction bylaw based on the successful local policy implemented in New Westminster, British Columbia. New Westminster's legislation required landlords to accommodate tenants during renovations, making it possible for tenants to return to the unit post renovations. Of course, the tenant returning to a renovated unit at the same rent defeats the purpose of installing new appliances and other cosmetic upgrades, if you can’t charge more rent. Through conversations with New Westminster city staff and the Councilor championing the policy, we found that the city’s policy brought renovictions down to zero. We urgently needed this in Hamilton. 

Wins and setbacks

After our campaign launch, we began to request meetings with City Councilors to identify potential supporters. Shortly after meeting with one Councilor, he introduced a motion in December 2020. The motion asked staff to study the renoviction issue and report back on what other jurisdictions were doing.

Members were thrilled to get a motion passed our months after we released our demands. We were informed that the report back would come in April 2021, so we got to work to build strong support for the bylaw.

In February, we hosted an eighty person online townhall with Councillor Jaimie McEvoy from New Westminster as a guest speaker. Attendees heard from Councilor McEvoy how the New West policy worked, and why the municipality took matters into their own hands to deal with the renoviction crisis. In addition to the town hall, we met with city staff leading up to the report back and focused on getting media coverage of buildings facing the issue. 

Unfortunately, the April report fell far short of our group’s expectations. City staff advised against pursuing a similar bylaw because of jurisdictional differences and instead recommended expanding the city’s legal fund for tenants (an ACORN demand). Our disappointment was shared by Councilors on the committee, and another motion was passed for staff to return to investigating local policy. This time there was a longer period before the report returned to Council. It wasn’t until April 2023 that the issue returned to committee. 

Again, members were deeply disappointed with the report. Staff recommended an increase in funding to the legal support fund, but once again ignored Council direction to develop a bylaw based on New Westminster, BC.

Before the committee, we held a fifty-person press conference outside City Hall with tenants who had been displaced or were in the middle of fighting to save their homes. During the meeting we had twenty-three members and seven allied organizations testify. Members were passionate and thoughtful in their retelling of their experiences. We were thankful to have the support of other Ontario and Hamilton groups.

After hours of hearing from ACORN delegates, Councilors unanimously approved another motion to send staff back to the drawing board. This time broadening the motion to include a proactive property standards enforcement program (similar to existing programs in nearby cities Mississauga and Toronto) to ensure landlords keep their properties in good repair. 

In August, staff delivered on majority of the items Councilors requested - significant improvements to the tenant legal fund and a landlord licensing type program called Safe Apartment bylaw. The bylaw would require landlords to register with the City of Hamilton and fulfil a comprehensive set of requirements to ensure health and safety in apartment buildings with six or more units with two or more stories. 

This time there was a draft anti-renoviction bylaw, but after reviewing it with members and allies we felt it would not do enough to disincentivize renoviction or ensure tenants  the best chance of maintaining their housing. The bylaw needed to be improved to better ensure that tenants understand their rights, are able to obtain temporary housing, and are able to successfully exercise their right of first refusal (are able to move back into their unit once repairs or renovations are complete). Because of feedback from ACORN, the vote and discussion on the renoviction bylaw was deferred to allow more time for Councilors to review the policy and propose possible amendments.

While we were restricted from testifying because of the deferral, we submitted a report on what was missing in the bylaw and changes that were needed to ensure the bylaw would restrict renovictions in Hamilton and prevents tenants from becoming homeless.

At the committee a motion was passed unanimously to direct staff to review the correspondence from ACORN and the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario for possible amendments and revisions to the proposed renovations license and report back to the committee no later than January 18th, 2024, on any staff recommended revisions to the bylaw and to include costs of the bylaw as a placeholder in the 2024 operating budget deliberations.

While it has been a long journey since December 2020 (when the first motion passed), we are closer than ever to seeing Hamilton pass an anti-renoviction bylaw. The hard part – the bylaw won’t protect all the tenants who have already lost their homes or are in the middle of the fight right now to defend their homes from predatory and greedy landlords. But we are proud of how much progress the campaign has made and that we have the full attention of Council this term to get a strong bylaw passed.

Tenant Organizing

In addition to our campaign to win local renoviction policy, members organized tirelessly in their buildings and neighborhoods to defend their homes from predatory and greedy landlords.  A few actions stand out from over the years.

In September 2022, we organized a four-kilometer walking tour in a neighborhood where renoviction cases were concentrated. In an afternoon we visited five apartment buildings where members spoke about their fight. The action coincided with the municipal election, and candidates were invited to learn about the issue and connect with tenants before they were elected. 

More recently, in August 2023 we organized a group of ACORN members and allies to crash a renovicting landlord’s business empowerment event. We rented a school bus and quietly organized turnout to not alert the target to our plans. 

Closing 

On January 17th 2024, members will be back at City Hall for hopefully the final vote on the passing of a Hamilton anti-renoviction bylaw. 

Cities will be reliant on private and financialized landlords for rental housing for the foreseeable future, and it is therefore critical that cities do more to protect vulnerable tenants and low- and moderate-income tenant communities from poor housing conditions, increasing housing unaffordability, eviction and homelessness when other levels of government refuse. 


Olivia O’Connor is the head organizer of ACORN Hamilton since 2018.