by Robyn Gillam

In the mid 20th century, 468 James North was home to the Genesee Tavern, a famous watering hole and social hub of the old North End. Later on, it was Clarkey’s, part of Hamilton’s bar-based music scene. Like many such older establishments, the building provided accommodation on the second floor.

A few years after Clarkey’s closed, when Gordon Smyth moved in, the building had been taken over by a company providing low cost rentals. Gordon, originally from Barrie, has trained as both a photographer and software designer, but a number of serious, overlapping health conditions have rendered him unemployable and dependent on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for his survival. This amounts to $1255 per month, including $497 for shelter allowance.

In 2017, the building, along with the adjacent semi-detached dwellings, was bought by John van Nostrand of JvN/d Developments for what was described as a socially inclusive, low-rise affordable housing development.  However, none of the tenants, who were on ODSP or minimum wage, made the 25K per year necessary to qualify.  JvN/d later revealed a plan for a nine storey building, creating widespread opposition in the neighbourhood and leading to an appeal being filed against it. Seeing delays to the project, van Nostrand put the property up for sale in September 2019 and it was recently purchased by the developer Mattas.  Tenants have now been issued with an eviction order, due to demolition of the building, to vacate by June

The three tenants have nowhere to go. They cannot afford anything in the current housing market, and there is a ten to twelve year waiting list for social housing. It looks like Gordon and Daisy, his Chihuahua-Jack Russell cross, will go going on an indefinite camping trip. As he needs his electric scooter to get around, Gordon has purchased a generator as well as a tent. Due to his health conditions, he does not expect to survive living outside for more than a year or two. Gordon hopes his demise might bring attention to non-survivable rates of ODSP and lack of affordable housing which he sees at the root of this situation. It’s why he recently agreed to appear on CHCH Evening News.

Those at 468 James are not the only tenants disappearing in the North End or all over Hamilton. All are being squeezed by a rental market predicated on return of investment rather than the provision of shelter. It’s all part of a red-hot real estate market where properties are being flipped and or developed at dizzying speed. However, it’s also possible that once the building is vacated, 468 James could stand empty indefinitely, just like the former social housing of Jamesville, across the street, or the buildings along the proposed LRT corridor. With so many homeless and housing insecure residents of Hamilton, this should not happen. Letting people live in these spaces is an urgent priority while new affordable housing remains on the drawing board. Contact your councilor about it.

The author would like to thank Gordon Smyth, Olivia O’Connor of Acorn for setting up the interview and Shawn Selway for additional information on the building.