City looks at free inspections and anonymous tips to clamp down on unsafe apartments

Local landlords proposed the ideas as part of an effort to discourage annual licensing, which they say will cost tenants money and make it harder to find a place to live.

Local landlords proposed the ideas as part of an effort to discourage annual licensing

Eleven people died in fires in Hamilton in 2016, including three people at 191 Grenfell St. But the city and local landlords are still trying to agree on ways to prevent this. (Dave Beatty/CBC)

Hamilton will look at accepting anonymous tips and offering free inspections for tenants living in unsafe apartments — all as part of a multi-year debate over how to keep renters safe.

City staff will report back this year on 25 recommendations from the Hamilton and District Apartment Association (HDAA), a landlord group urging the city not to make a new law requiring annual licensing.

The ideas include a tip line that keeps callers' identities a secret, free inspection of rental units and an amnesty period for landlords who need help bringing their units up to code.

All of these will help solve the problem of unsafe units, said Brad Clark of Maple Leaf Strategies, who the HDAA hired to come up with some options.

"'My son's living in the basement of a student housing complex,'" the former councillor said of how a typical call might go. "'I visited him and I'm a little nervous about how safe he is.'

"So they call in to the city, with no recrimination from the landlord, and there's an inspection that goes on that specifically deals with fire issues and building code issues."

Brad Clark, show in this 2014 photo, says there are better ways to make units safe than an annual licensing bylaw. He held a roundtable and gathered 25 ideas. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Clark gathered the ideas from an October "rental housing roundtable." It included anti-poverty advocates, realtors, landlords and social planners.

The HDAA hired him after city council established a committee — called the rental housing subcommittee — to look at options for making housing safer. But at first, its members couldn't even agree on the subcommittee's mandate.

The first chair, Coun. Matthew Green, said the group's role was to come up with ways to license rental units. (Green has since stepped down, citing a conflict of interest.)

Meanwhile, HDAA president Arun Pathak said the subcommittee was supposed to look into numerous options, including licensing.

Whatever the answer, it's a life or death issue. McMaster University students have cried out for ways to make student housing safer. And in 2016, 11 people died in fires, most of them in the central lower city.

'Positive benefits outweigh the negative'

A rental housing licensing bylaw would apply to buildings with six or fewer units.

Those in favour say it'll make units safer. Those opposed, including the HDAA, say tenants will end up paying higher rents. It also says as many as one-third of units would disappear in an already tight rental market.

Currently, the city is trying to find money for a licensing pilot project in Wards 1 and 8. That's where McMaster University and Mohawk College are located.

Aidan Johnson, Ward 1 councillor, said during a city council planning committee meeting Tuesday that he still wants licensing.

"Those positive benefits outweigh the negative that we have been discussing," he said.

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca