01/11/2017 13:51 EST | Updated 01/12/2018 00:12 EST

Downtown apartment owners want to split up 3-bedroom units, neighbours skeptical

The owners of two Beasley neighbourhood apartment buildings want to split up dozens of three-bedroom units and convert them into one- or two-bedroom units.

The conversion plan would take an existing 383 apartments in two towers and adjacent townhomes and result in a total of 543 units without changing the overall footprint of the buildings.

'I don't think anybody's unhappy that they're improving the units. It's the manner in which they did it and more specifically the cash offers.'- Coun. Jason Farr

The plan speaks to a tension developing in Hamilton's downtown, historically a part of the city with scores of affordable housing units available to people of limited means.

But as housing prices and rents rise citywide, some of the biggest jumps have come in the lower city, now an attractive place for young professionals and people moving into the city.

And by splitting up their units, the building owners stand to take advantage of that new attractiveness.

Millions invested

The neighbourhood activists who are skeptical of the owners' intentions say the move to make units smaller and with fewer bedrooms will exclude certain types of tenants: namely large newcomer families and families with more than one or two children. 

That clears the way, they worry, for young professionals attracted by newly renovated "all-inclusive luxury" suites in the building.

The owners say the move would be the next logical step after they've invested millions of dollars in the buildings, which were in what downtown councillor Jason Farr called "deplorable shape" before they bought them in 2012.

"The reality is while they're fixing them up, what's the price point? To what end?" Farr said.

The owners, a company called Greenwin, are scheduled to address a meeting of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association on Wednesday evening about the plan.

That meeting could get tense.

Farr, some of the buildings' tenants and Beasley neighbourhood activists plan to keep a close eye on the buildings, especially after the landlord came under fire in 2015 when it began renovating the building and offered cash to move tenants out.

  • Downtown apartment tenants 'don't want to leave' amid rent hikes, renos

'You've got to come clean'

"I'm not trying to be adversarial here," Farr said. "Maybe this all works out in the end. But you've got to come clean on how you displaced tenants and sent them out into a market that is nowhere near what it was when they got in."

Greenwin touts its work in other underserved neighbourhoods around the GTA and says it's invested in helping the neighbourhood improve both socially and economically. The three-bedroom units are poorly laid out, they say, and will be more efficient as one- or two-bedroom.

"They're not at all well-functioning units; they're very poorly laid out," said Danny Roth, a spokesman for Greenwin. "You've got long narrow hallways, small bedrooms. It's been described to me as a rabbit's warren."

Farr said he hears that argument as an accessibility concern, but said families trying to make it downtown don't have a lot of options.

A tough reputation to shake

The neighbours' skepticism is rooted in a series of events in 2015 where the landlords offered tenants cash payments to find another apartment ahead of planned renovations.

That move was seen by Beasley activists as evidence of a dark side of gentrification: Displacing existing residents, renovating and raising rents.

"I don't think anybody's unhappy that they're improving the units," Farr said. "It's the manner in which they did it and more specifically the cash offers."

Roth said the company sees the payments as "more of an assistance program to help people move" when their apartment building was going to be under construction for several months.

And, Roth said, there wasn't a huge spike in move-outs when the cash was offered. In 2014, the company had 60 tenants move out, without any cash. In 2015, 74 tenants moved. And last year, 66 tenants moved out.

But Renee Wetselaar, an affordable housing activist who works with the Social Planning and Research Council said the company has work to do to repair its reputation in the neighbourhood.

"People still want answers as to why tenants were treated the way they were treated," she said. "Have they followed those people? Are there new development plans going to treat people the same way?"

Farr said he still hasn't gotten firm numbers on how many tenants took the cash payments and left. He said he'll be watching for that at Wednesday evening's meeting. | @kellyrbennett