The best scenario for the 23,000 illegal rental households in Hamilton is to keep the roof over their heads, and for the roof to be of a better quality.
By Tanya Ritchie
Published September 06, 2012
It is clear that Hamiltonians are worried about downtown housing. Lately there has been discussion of rental licensing, and there is an ongoing debate about zoning and property standards.
The bottom line is that there are 23,000 occupied rental units that are illegal under current zoning regulations. In a recent Spectator article, the concerns of those living near said units were voiced.
I have been a downtown landlord for over ten years now. I will state categorically that I find the current zoning laws to be arbitrary and backward. I think that the safety of tenants, and of neighbourhoods, is vitally important, but I don't think that zoning laws do anything to ensure that this is the case.
A property can just as easily be decrepit if it is single-occupancy or multi-unit. Similarly, it can be run-down if it is tenanted or owner-occupied.
Rather than going around and around with the licensing argument and the calls to give by-law enforcement more clout, I think there is a better solution. The above would have the net effect of putting people out on the street. The best scenario is for all these 23,000 households to keep the roof over their heads, and for the roof to be of a better quality.
The solution, as always, is to consider what tools we have at our disposal. Ultimately, we can use the carrot or the stick.
Current methods only employ the stick. If a property is poorly maintained, by-law can levy fines and post notices. Neighbours can complain and call both the city and in some cases the police.
The effect of all this is poor quality of life for the tenant - as landlord fines will almost certainly be passed on, eventually, to the tenant - and the cost of fines means less money for actual property upkeep.
So it becomes a cycle. And, of course, some un-conscientious landlords simply ignore all the notices and fines that come their way and leave their tenants and properties in squalor.
The problem is that there's very little that even a good landlord can do to ensure a property is well kept. Why should a tenant take good care of a property, be it a whole house or a unit? They walk an uneasy line between treating a house like one's own, and knowing that it belongs to someone else.
Many, many good tenants treat our properties like their own - they clean, they report damage and maintenance issues, they even garden.
Similarly, many bad tenants treat our properties like a place to crash - they have no regard for damage they are causing and feel free to beat the place up.
I've written previously that the problem must be solved through two-way communication. What can a landlord do to make sure tenants are like the former group - without inspections, constant letters and notices to the tribunal, etc, which tenants often find harassing?
If a tenant is to feel at home somewhere, they can't constantly have the landlord stopping by and looking in on the. That is a gross violation of privacy and autonomy. Even if a landlord does inspect, my experience in solving tenant behavior and cleanliness issues has been universally negative, by which I mean ineffective, solving only to create animosity.
The Landlord Tenant Board has forms for both landlords and tenants that relate to property upkeep and acceptable behavior, but in practice, landlords can generally only affect an eviction in cases of non-payment of rent or illegal activities.
So landlords need to offer the tenants a carrot.
Many landlords - myself included - require new tenants to pay a first and last month's rent upon arrival. This is to ensure that a tenant does not simply pick up and leave, but rather gives the landlord a full month's notice of impending departure. By the same token, it means that a landlord must give a tenant reasonable time to vacate an apartment.
In practice, of course, it rarely happens that a landlord can use this last month to ready an apartment for incoming tenants and there is always a period where a house or unit sits vacant, without any revenue, while repairs and upkeep are performed.
Now, the legal niceties would have to be ironed out, but surely that last month's rent could be used in a more practical way. What if a landlord could grant a return of all or part of the last month's rent to ensure that the property was kept up? Not to excessive extremes - not the white-glove treatment - but simply that no holes were punched in walls, no pest infestations were found, no vandalism was performed, no build-up of garbage left behind.
So, if a tenant wants to end their lease on October 1, they still pay September's rent - but on October 1st they are handed back the money they paid when they signed on. In a case of justified eviction, the money would be forfeit, entirely or in part, depending on the cause.
As a landlord, I would certainly be willing to pay my tenants the equivalent of a month's rent if, when they leave, I can walk into a house that is clean and ready to re-rent the next day. It is a win-win-win scenario: good for landlords, good for tenants, good for neighbours.