Condo boom leaves no room for Ron Bel­more

Dis­abled ten­ant search­ing for new home; lawyer says he’s a vic­tim of ‘ex­treme’ gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in North End

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - MATTHEW VAN DONGEN The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor

RON BEL­MORE HAS BEEN liv­ing in squalor — and against city build­ing rules — at the site of one of Hamil­ton’s swanki­est pro­posed condo de­vel­op­ments.

Now he is search­ing for a new home ahead of that pricey, yet-to-be-ap­proved devel­op­ment. His predica­ment is be­ing la­belled an ex­treme ex­am­ple of the pit­falls of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and an in­dict­ment of Hamil­ton’s over­loaded so­cial hous­ing net­work.

Glitzy ads nailed to the fence around 271 Bay St. N pro­vide a glimpse of the pro­posed fu­ture for the old auto-wreck­ing yard, which is also the sub­ject of a $5-mil­lion law­suit against the city.

The web­site for Tif­fany Square at West Har­bour says you can buy a fu­ture condo in the eight-storey, 160-plus unit lux­ury re­de­vel­op­ment — a short walk from the water and GO sta­tion — start­ing at $300,000.

But Bel­more has been a res­i­dent for three years. He paid $650 a month out of his dis­abil­ity al­lowance to rent space in the old scrap­yard of­fice — a use the city says is not le­gal — with a bare con­crete floor, ply­wood on two out­side walls and a wood stove for heat.

Now Bel­more says he is couch­surf­ing as a re­sult of a le­gal no­tice telling him to va­cate be­cause of the planned re­de­vel­op­ment. “I felt like I was taken ad­van­tage of,” said Bel­more, who is in his late 40s and has a brain in­jury. He ar­gued he ig­nored wors­en­ing build­ing con­di­tions only to be “kicked out” be­fore he was ready.

Land­lord and devel­oper Marino Rako­vac dis­agrees. Yes, he

said, the unit is in “ter­ri­ble” shape but only be­cause of ten­ant “hoard­ing” and other dam­ag­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

Rako­vac ac­knowl­edged send­ing out a no­tice ask­ing for ten­ants to move out by Fe­bru­ary but said Bel­more had al­ready can­celled his rent pay­ment and an­nounced plans to leave. A sec­ond build­ing ten­ant, Kathy Muller, told the Spec­ta­tor her half of the con­verted of­fice is in “great shape” and she is con­tent to stay month-to-month un­til de­mo­li­tion looms.

“I have em­pa­thy for Ron­nie ... We tol­er­ated his is­sues for a long time,” said Rako­vac, adding he pre­vi­ously chose not to evict his ten­ant over un­paid rent and “un­safe” be­hav­iour. (Bel­more dis­putes those al­le­ga­tions, but ac­knowl­edges “with­hold­ing” rent over prop­erty is­sues.)

Re­gard­less, both the city and Bel­more’s lawyer sug­gest the vul­ner­a­ble ten­ant should never have ended up in the build­ing.

The city said Mon­day the for­mer of­fice is “not a legally hab­it­able dwelling” based on zon­ing and build­ing records. That was news to Rako­vac, who sug­gested the build­ing has a “grand­fa­thered” use as a “live-work” space dat­ing back decades.

“The liv­ing con­di­tions are the worst I’ve seen for any of my clients,” said Bren­dan Jowett, a lawyer with the Hamil­ton Com­mu­nity Le­gal Clinic. “Based on what I’ve seen it looks bor­der­line un­in­hab­it­able. You’re hav­ing to scrounge fire­wood for heat in the win­ter? That’s ap­palling.”

He called his client’s sit­u­a­tion an “ex­treme” ex­am­ple of the chal­lenges posed by gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, such as dis­place­ment of low-in­come res­i­dents by real es­tate wars and condo booms. But it also means a lack of af­ford­able op­tions, said Jowett.

There is a years-long wait list for some types of so­cial hous­ing in Hamil­ton — 5,800 would-be ten­ants or fam­i­lies, over­all — and sup­ports for ten­ants with spe­cial needs are not al­ways read­ily avail­able. But Jowett also said land­lords have “a duty to ac­com­mo­date” ten­ants, and pro­grams do ex­ist to help with ev­ery­thing from brain in­juries to hoard­ing dis­or­der.

Bel­more said when he first moved in he had ac­cess to the en­tire build­ing, which is clad on two sides with ply­wood and fea­tures a slightly sag­ging roof over the por­tion clos­est to Bay Street.

Later, he said he ar­ranged to have another ten­ant, Muller, move in to help with the rent. That be­came a source of con­flict, both ten­ants agree, and re­sulted in Bel­more liv­ing largely out of a sin­gle room ex­it­ing onto Bay Street.

A visit from the Spec­ta­tor Fri­day showed Bel­more’s mat­tress on the bare con­crete floor, be­side a small tree he dragged into the build­ing to feed a nearby wood stove he called his only source of heat. A counter in the mid­dle of the room had a sink — but, at least at the time, no run­ning water.

Rako­vac ar­gued the con­verted of­fice was in­spected and deemed ap­pro­pri­ate by Bel­more’s dis­abil­ity sup­port worker when he moved in three years ago. The Spec­ta­tor could not reach that worker.

The land­lord said he wasn’t aware the kitchen sink didn’t work. But he said the wood stove was added be­cause Bel­more re­peat­edly cov­ered base­board heaters along the walls with “hoarded” pos­ses­sions. “It wasn’t the only heat source. It was just the only safe op­tion,” he said.

Bel­more, on the other hand, ar­gued the heaters were un­plugged after a bill dis­pute. (The city also has no record of a per­mit to add the wood stove.) The ten­ant ac­knowl­edged the “messy” room but de­nied it caused safety prob­lems.

Piles of Bel­more’s pos­ses­sions, rang­ing from old elec­tri­cal ap­pli­ances to pieces of fur­ni­ture to kids toys, were in­deed piled hap­haz­ardly along the room walls when the Spec­ta­tor vis­ited. Dog fe­ces, he has a Rot­tweiler-boxer, was also scat­tered through­out the room. Rako­vac said the out­side of the old build­ing is “de­te­ri­o­rat­ing” but safe. Those repairs are not a pri­or­ity, he said, given the prop­erty own­ers’ hopes to de­mol­ish the build­ing.

The prop­erty own­ers have ap­plied for a grant to re­me­di­ate the old scrap­yard, but must first set­tle an out­stand­ing law­suit against the city. The devel­oper said he’s hope­ful that will hap­pen “soon” but also sug­gested a prop­erty sale is pos­si­ble.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Top photo: Ron Bel­more brings his e-bike back to Bay Street North to pick up his dog. The house ap­pears to be the aban­doned of­fice of a scrap­yard which is slated to be re­de­vel­oped into Tif­fany Square, a West Har­bour condo devel­op­ment.

PHOTOS BY GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Above, the in­te­rior of 271 Bay St. N. Ron Bel­more has been liv­ing at the ad­dress for a few years. It was rented to him for $650 a month by devel­oper Marino Rako­vac.

At right, an ad­ver­tise­ment for the new condo project.

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