About 100 tenants and affordable housing advocates from around the city of Hamilton met in a downtown park on Wednesday to rally for government help in the tightest rental market since 2002, which they say is leading to displacement.

When rent for a one-bedroom apartment goes up from $700 to $1,100 a month, Beasley resident Eileen White said, some families have to choose whether to eat or to pay rent. 

Participants called on the city, the province and the federal government to dedicate money and attention to help tenants maintain safe, clean, affordable housing.

In the context of increased demand, downtown apartment owners have offered tenants cash to move, or tried to renovate around them, as they see an opportunity to raise rents. 

Some of the tenants on Wednesday swapped tips about negotiating with landlords to keep rents from skyrocketing. But the rally also served as a platform to tell stories of some of the less-than-ideal conditions Hamilton tenants endure, with scarce options if they do want to move.

Shamso Elmi, an advocate for refugee rights and affordable housing, said there are special challenges that newcomers to Canada face, including language barriers. Landlords and building managers often don't provide 24 hours' notice before they knock on the door, and that causes extra worry for Muslim women who may not be wearing their proper head coverings in their apartments, she said.

"Even if we know our rights, we don't know how to practice our rights," Elmi said. "A lot of Somalis, they cannot come out (to the rally). A lot of newcomers, they cannot come out. Because they are afraid. They're really afraid." 

Ayan Mohamed said no matter how much she's cleaned some of the apartments she's rented, she said the apartment managers and landlords need to be responsible for cleaning common areas to keep pests in control. She lived across the street from the rally for seven years, most recently paying $1,100 per month, but found cockroaches in her apartment too many times.

She'd spent the day Wednesday at city hall and meeting with more than one landlord in Hamilton and Burlington, trying and failing to find a way to rent something that she can afford and that will be accessible for one of her children, who uses a wheelchair, when they need a new place in October.

"What can I do? Who will help us?" she said.

She receives $750 a month toward rent, and as a single mom she cannot work and leave her children without care, she said.

History has not been kind to those in need of affordable housing in Hamilton. More than decade ago there were 4,362 applicants on the waiting list for rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing. It dipped to around 3,817 in 2007, but by 2013, it was back up to 5,477. Some people will wait as long as five years.

"Right now, what tenants want is whatever is available to keep (rent) the way it is and prices shouldn't going up because our city is becoming a bit trendy," organizer Marie Antelo said. "At the same time there has to be a balance. Tenants understand that we do want beautification in our city, we do want investment in our city but we want politicians, developers to understand housing is a basic need, it's not a luxury."

Social housing wait list

In April, the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton issued a report profiling part of the gentrification picture in Hamilton, taking a snapshot of the North End. In it, the report found that as of 2011, nearly half of the homes in the North End were rentals, and that the average rent price had grown 23 per cent from 2010 to 2014 compared to 9 per cent for the rest of the city.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

With files from Samantha Craggs