Hamilton

Mother of 8 and landlord at odds over whether Hamilton apartment building's construction is demoviction

A Somali-Canadian family is accusing the management of Ventura Towers in downtown Hamilton of acting illegally by not providing power, heat and water. Management, however, says the tenants are illegally squatting. Advocates say the dispute speaks to a larger issue — the current rental market.

Family says there's been no power, heat, water for weeks, while landlord says they're squatting

Ubah Shire and her son Liban Adam say their apartment unit at Ventura Towers in Hamilton has had no heat, water or power for weeks. They're in a dispute with the landlord over construction at the building. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Ubah Shire says her third-floor unit at Ventura Towers in downtown Hamilton has been her family's home for more than a decade, but most of her eight children have been staying at friends' houses because she says the apartment has been without heat, water and power for weeks.

The 48-year-old Somali-Canadian is accusing the landlord of breaking the law and not doing enough to relocate them, as has been done with other families in the building due to construction. She said there's been no heat for months, no water for two months and no power for a month.

However, the building's owner, Tony Valery, said the family is "illegally squatting," and he's waiting to appear before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB).

It's a situation that experts and advocates say highlights Ontario's rental market woes.

"We are living in a moment now where housing is incredibly unaffordable and people are being displaced in every sense ... it's very disturbing," said Gachi Issa, Hamilton Community Legal Clinic's Black justice co-ordinator.

The Ventura Towers apartment building construction will see three-bedroom units on the first six floors converted to one- and two-bedroom units. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Late last year, advocates and tenants accused Ventura Towers management of imposing a renoviction — when landlords evict or force out tenants claiming a major renovation is needed — to displace lower-income tenants and rent their units at a higher cost.

CBC Hamilton previously obtained a letter dated Nov. 1 from management to residents on the first six floors that offered $20,000 to leave in 30 days, $15,000 to be out in 60 days and $10,000 to move in 90 days.

The letter stated that if the terms weren't accepted by Nov. 8, management would issue a notice to vacate in 120 days for no compensation.

Shire said she felt pressured, but signed the form to end her tenancy in mid-February, allowing for 90 days to move out.

Valery said the building was undergoing reconstruction and no renoviction was involved, insisting "we're trying to do a good thing here ... we're trying to clean this project up."

He said the original plan, which was already approved when he acquired the property in October, was to strip down the first six floors and turn three-bedroom units into multiple one- and two-bedroom units.

Now, Valery said, they are redoing electrical and plumbing from floors 1 to 19 after identifying issues, but it won't require tenants from the seventh floor and up to relocate.

CBC Hamilton visited Shire's three-bedroom unit on March 17 and March 24. The fridge, full of food, had no power. The kitchen faucet was broken and didn't produce water on both days.

Shire said she doesn't work and gets money from the Ontario Disability Support Program, and has been paying her monthly rent of $1,300 (the average monthly rent of a one bedroom unit in the city is 1,514, according to Rentals.ca), although Valery said she's behind on her payments. 

A sign warning of danger due to construction is taped next to the front door of Shire's unit in the Ventura Towers building on John Street. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

"We can't even cook … we're ordering food all the time," said Liban Adam, Shire's 21-year-old son, adding they've had to toss away spoiled groceries.

The rest of the floor where their unit is located is under construction, with some walls and parts of the floor stripped down.

Adam added that water leaks from the ceiling.

Shire said the family has tried to use power outlets outside their unit to get electricity, but construction workers have blocked off electrical outlets and cut their cords.

She added that while the landlord said the family would be moved to another unit in the building, it hasn't happened yet. Shire also said she has complained to the city, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a community of low- and moderate-income individuals) and the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, but hasn't received support.

Management working with advocates

Valery disputes some of Shire's claims. About a month ago, he said, she contacted him saying she couldn't find another unit.

Valery said he offered her a three-bedroom townhouse in Stoney Creek for $1,100. But Shire said it was too far away, especially for her kids, who are in school.

Valery said he then offered her a two-bedroom unit in the same building for $890 per month plus $10,000 worth of compensation to move. He said Shire said two bedrooms aren't enough for the family.

Valery added he worked with ACORN to offer them a three-bedroom unit on MacNab Street for $1,850 per month plus $20,000 worth of compensation to move. Shire said she declined because the conditions were horrendous, he said.

Construction on the third floor in Ventura Towers. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

He also said they found a listing for a three-bedroom unit outside Valery's portfolio in the same area, but it was declined.

Valery said while he understands it isn't easy to find a rental in Hamilton, Valery felt he offered fair options.

He also acknowledged the power, water and heat have been off at times because of the construction.

"There's fire hazards here, there's plumbing leaks and issues we got to get under control. It's also a health and safety issue."

Michelle Shantz, a City of Hamilton spokesperson, said Shire complained about having no water on March 2 and when the city followed up, the property manager turned on the heat, power and water for the unit.

Shantz said the city hasn't had to issue any orders in March.

One of the bedrooms in Shire's apartment. The building's owner says it is undergoing construction and the tenants signed a document to leave some time ago. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Valery also said Shire hasn't paid rent for February or March, and "wouldn't accept it anyway," claiming she is breaking the law.

Zachariah Hockridge, secretary for ACORN's Mountain chapter, and Issa said they've tried to connect Shire with other community resources as well, but haven't made progress.

Douglas Kwan, director of advocacy and legal services at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said Shire has a right to necessities like power, water and heat.

Kwan said the family could take management to the Landlord and Tenant Board. He also said the tenants aren't "squatters."

"They are tenants unless the [LTB] orders otherwise."

Demovictions a problem, tenant group says

Both groups as well as Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr referred to the situation between Shire and Valery Towers as a demoviction — displacing tenants for the demolition of a building.

"This could become something that happens with other groups, other developers who may not be willing to work with us," said Hockridge.

Issa also expressed concerns about how this construction mainly displaced Black families, saying it may break up community bonds forged over years because people will move out.

Both Farr and ACORN said Hamilton's Downtown Secondary Plan, which gives some downtown tenants more rights during renovations or demolitions, should expand across the city. ACORN also said that tenants should have a first right of refusal in a new development to return to a unit at the same rent.

ACORN added the city needs to speed up the development of its anti-renoviction strategy, which includes a tenant defence fund.

The group said the city should stop giving incentive grants to landlords displacing tenants using renovictions and demovictions.

Valery said there's a meeting before the LTB in early April. 

The LTB either mails notice to parties involved or requires the party that's filing to inform the subject of the complaint — Shire said she didn't know about the hearing.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova is a reporter for CBC News in Hamilton. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

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