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Apartment-licensing plan on back burner

Councillors favour beefed up property enforcement, formation of stakeholder committee

City councillors have shelved a controversial rental licensing bylaw in the face of opposition from landlords, affordable housing advocates — and surprisingly, their own planning director.
The city planning committee tabled a decision Tuesday on the latest staff proposal to license rental housing with six units or fewer, despite changes designed to delay enforcement and make it cheaper for landlords.
Instead, five councillors endorsed $455,000 worth of annual, permanently beefed up property standards enforcement and a late suggestion from Chad Collins to form a stakeholder committee to explore ways to deal with an estimated 8,000 illegal apartments across the city.
“This is a chance for us to offer an olive branch to landlords and have them work with us, instead of dumping fees and fines on all of them, whether they’re good or bad,” said Collins.
“If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to the (licensing) bylaw. But after today, I have to question who exactly is asking us to champion this thing.”
The recommendation must survive a council ratification vote next week.
But the likelihood of that result increased Tuesday after planning director Tim McCabe, in response to a councillor’s question, revealed a personal preference for proactive bylaw enforcement over the licensing recommendation in the official staff report.
“That sort of took the air out of everyone’s tires,” said Councillor Terry Whitehead, who earlier made an impassioned plea for councillors to “step up” and protect vulnerable tenants in substandard housing with a licensing bylaw.
“I’m certainly not willing to abandon (the licensing bylaw) completely, but I’m willing to park it for now. For those landlords who want to work with us on an alternate solution, this is your window.”
The staff report had suggested a $100 a year licensing fee — as opposed to the original $192 fee — and delayed enforcement until 2017 in a bid to placate upset landlords. The combination of beefed up enforcement and licensing would have required 14 new hires and about $550,000 in annual costs at the outset.
But affordable housing advocates told councillors Tuesday they were more worried about the human costs.
“I fear the eviction of a lot of people with no plan to help them,” said Renee Westelaar, who spoke on behalf of the Social Planning and research Council.
She noted the city’s own suggestion — that 30 per cent of apartments in converted homes could be shut down as illegal under the licensing scheme.
That dramatic shift could push thousands of people out of affordable homes and into emergency shelters, she said.
Landlords and realtors urged councillors to stick with enforcement of existing bylaws — or at least delay a licensing decision until after a new comprehensive zoning bylaw comes into force.
Those evolving rules could naturally turn some “illegal” units into acceptable examples of needed residential intensification, said Donna Bacher, who belongs to the local realtors’ association.
“Go after the bad landlord … chase him out of my industry,” said Arun Pathak, a member of the Hamilton-Burlington apartment association. “But don’t burden all landlords and tenants (with licensing costs.)”
While most delegates to Tuesday’s meeting opposed licensing, other residents sent letters supporting the plan as a way to crack down on converted homes stuffed with too many rental units.
“Reliance on existing bylaws is inadequate,” wrote Westdale resident Tibor Bocz, who saw the bylaw as a new tool to address “unsafe and poorly maintained” properties in his neighbourhood.
That’s the problem the new committee will have to tackle in the next year, said Collins.
Options for discussion could include future zoning bylaw amendments or reduced costs for rezoning applications, he said.
“I think it’s at least worthwhile to have the discussion,” he said. “But we can’t just wave a magic wand and legalize thousands of apartments, either. Some of them just aren’t appropriate … and some just aren’t safe.”
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