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The Riddle of Hamilton Housing

The Riddle of Hamilton Housing

On a recent walk around the fast changing West Harbour, we met a young woman who’d just moved to Hamilton from Barrie.

  “Barrie was getting too expensive, I found a house here for $300,000,” she said.

  Not ten minutes later we bumped into a neighbour who is considering moving to Barrie.

  “A very average house in the suburbs is $700,000, and you have to drive everywhere,” he said.

  The neighbour doesn’t want to move, but it’s a family concern drawing him to Barrie.

  “I’m 72 years old, I don’t want to start over,” he said.

  The topic of housing is full of emotion and contradiction.

  I don’t know where the young woman found a house in the North End for $300,000.  The lowest price for a “spruced up” house is at least $600,000. She must have a lot of fix up work ahead. 

  Never the less, she was happy to live in a city with places to eat, culture, and trails are just outside her door.

  Walking around the North End reveals enough thought provoking material to spark a thesis.

  It is still well stocked with tidy Victorian houses, quite a few of them now undergoing thoughtful restoration.

Renovation of Victorian housing stock in downtown Hamilton: Kathy Renwald photo

  The new influx of skilled carpenters who repair beautiful wood trim, and make reproduction doors and windows hang their signs in front of these passion projects.

  Along with the rebirth of the old houses, are bold new infill houses.    Often, they are ultramodern, and often neighbours are wary of their stark angles, but neighbourhoods are not sealed against change.

Modern infill houses in old neighbourhoods: Kathy Renwald photo

  On Pier 8, the West Harbour development plan calls for 1,500 units-code for places to live. Servicing work is happening at a brisk pace. There is a new sales website for the townhouses and condos.

  Still when I interviewed the lead architect on the project-Bruce Kuwabara, he expected it would take eight years to complete the build, and that was three years ago.

  Though we see cranes around the downtown, and public notice signs banged into the ground with shiny portrayals of new housing arriving, the  process of getting anything built is Herculean.

  I got a good sense of a marathon building grind when I went to see the Vista Condos on Charlton Avenue. 

  Elisha VanKleef’s father had a dream 10 years ago. He had an odd piece of land on Charlton Avenue at the base of the escarpment.  Elevated above the city with panoramic views, he saw it as a great place for housing. At the time he was using it to park cabs for his business Hamilton Cabs.

The view from Vista Condos on Charlton Avenue near Wentworth: Kathy Renwald photo

  “It was just at the conversation stage ten years ago,” VanKleef says. “It was a long, long process.”

  There was an environmental cleanup, and the challenge of the site topography that required the installation of 700 piles, 45 feet deep to anchor the building. Since construction cranes moved through the airspace over the CP Rail line, additional expenses for insurance added to costs. Zoning challenges, and public opposition to building near the escarpment added to delays.

  “It was a very complicated site,” VanKleef says.

  We are talking in the Walnut penthouse, now for sale at just over a million dollars. There are 162 units in the three buildings overlooking the city. Sales are slow due to Covid, but young people and many out of towners are buying.

A million dollar penthouse at Vista Condos:Kathy Renwald photo

  There’s a need for all types of housing in Hamilton and plenty of opportunity to build downtown on the many forlorn parking lots that leave their bleak imprint on the city. Forget expanding the urban boundary.

  Another part of the housing contradiction is seen on park benches, in doorways, and parks where the homeless sleep under the open sky.

Boarded up affordable housing in Jamesville. This is years away from redevelopment:Kathy Renwald photo

  Many are metres away from Jamesville, a city owned housing complex, empty, boarded up, and years away from redevelopment.

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