DAY 5: Tax arrears mean economy isn’t ‘tickety-boo’

Owners of Barton properties owe city more than $1 million

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By STEVE BUIST

The irony of the situation is not lost on Ron Wyatt, co-ordinator for District 6 of the United Steelworkers.

Steel made Hamilton famous and steelworkers, the dependable backbone of Hamilton’s workforce, helped make the city prosperous.

Now, the property with the highest tax arrears along the Ward 3 portion of Barton Street is the United Steelworkers Centre, just a few doors west of Ottawa Street.

As of February 13, there was just over $140,000 in taxes owing on the steelworkers centre – equal to more than three years’ worth of taxes.

Wyatt knows the clock is ticking to find a solution.

“If we can’t figure out what to do pretty soon, quite likely we’ll put it up for sale,” said Wyatt. “It’s a big building based on a membership that we don’t have anymore.”

The building has been funded through payments from members of what have traditionally been some of Hamilton’s smaller steelworker union locals.

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Both Local 1005, the once-massive representative for the former Stelco’s Hilton Works, and Local 8782, representing U.S. Steel’s Nanticoke workers, opted for their own union halls long ago.

Those left to support Barton Street’s steelworkers centre have been in free fall. Wyatt rattles off the names one by one, a who’s who of Hamilton’s industrial past.

“Amcan closed down several years ago. Cold Metal Products closed down. Frost Wire closed down. Rheem Canada closed down,” Wyatt said.

“I don’t have the list in front of me,” he adds, apologizing, “but there have been a lot.”

Others, such as Hamilton Specialty Bar, still operate but with vastly reduced numbers.

“Our base has been dinged,” Wyatt sighs. “We’re looking at ways to find other tenants and more utilization of this hall to generate revenues that were generated from the per capitas of dues-paying members with the locals.”

A dental office rents space inside the steelworkers centre, and, in a further irony, the biggest tenant is a government-funded action centre to help laid-off steelworkers.

“We’ll have to have something more,” Wyatt said. “This is a huge building.”

It’s a microcosm of what’s happened all along Barton Street over the past half century. The centre – and, in some ways, the street itself – represents a vanished way of life.

“Yeah, but you can’t be nostalgic about it, ” said Wyatt. “We’ve got to figure something out.

“The city’s not going to put up with it forever.”

Tax arrears are a serious problem for the Ward 3 portion of Barton Street, but nowhere more serious than the stretch of Barton between Gage Avenue and Ottawa Street, where, based on city figures from the middle of February, more than $386,000 in tax arrears had accrued.

That represents 65 per cent of the total taxes that are supposed to be collected annually from that stretch.

On the north side of Barton between Gage and Ottawa, tax arrears are more than 80 per cent of the yearly tax bill.

In addition to the $140,141 owed by the United Steelworkers Centre, the other highest tax arrears outstanding as of Feb. 13 for the Gage-to-Ottawa portion of Barton Street include:

■  $46,508 at 984 Barton St. E., the address for Mr. Used, a massive emporium for collectibles and second-hand items;

■  $33,974 at 1057 Barton, site of the former Pongetti Music store;

■  $30,512 at 1068-72 Barton;

■  $28,188 at 1063-71 Barton, the site of Oakwood Place.

Tax arrears for the entire Ward 3 section of Barton Street were $1.1 million, as of Feb. 13, which is just over half of the total amount of property taxes assessed annually for that stretch of Barton.oakwood place.JPG

The tax arrears for the Ward 3 part of Barton Street are far higher than for comparable portions of other major east-west arteries that run through the ward.

By comparison, the Ward 3 portion of King Street East has tax arrears of $330,000, or just under 10 per cent of the $3.4 million in property taxes assessed annually.

The Ward 3 part of Main Street East has tax arrears of $671,400, or just under a quarter of the $2.77 million in property taxes assessed.

There were 34 properties in the Ward 3 part of Barton Street with tax arrears greater than $10,000 as of Feb. 13, a jump of nearly 25 per cent from a year earlier.

One in 10 taxable properties on that stretch had arrears that were at least double the annual tax bill.

Aside from the United Steelworkers Centre, the property on the Ward 3 part of Barton with the second-highest tax arrears was the former GibsonSchool at 601 Barton St. E.

The property, now owned by Gibson Green Development Inc., was $105,550 in arrears as of Feb. 13, according to information provided by the city.

The third-highest arrears belong to 564 Barton St. E., site of a Petro-Canada gas station. Arrears on that property were $54,414 as of Feb. 13, according to the city.

High tax arrears in an area are generally a warning sign of a faltering economy, according to Larry Friday, the city’s director of taxation.

“As Code Red indicated, Ward 3 is a little bit of a downtrodden area, ” said Friday.

“Obviously, the city would prefer to see all taxes paid on time, because that would be a sign that things are running tickety-boo.”

The cook

The wisp of a woman steps out from behind the deep fryer for a cigarette break.

Sandie Manning – “No relation to Peyton,” she adds with a cackle – owns Sandie’s Fresh Cut Fries, a chip wagon marooned on a deserted Barton Street lot between Kensington Avenue and a railway track.

She takes a long drag as she contemplates whether her stretch of Barton Street is getting better or worse.

“Well, they’ve moved the hookers,” Manning finally says. “I don’t know where they are now.”

She tells the story of how she installed a motion-detecting light on the back side of her chip wagon because she was worried about the safety of a slight, young girl who was regularly working that corner in the dark.

“She was so tiny,” Manning sighed. “A good breeze and she was gone.Barton219.JPG

“I thought at least there’s light if she walks past the truck.”

Originally from Newfoundland, Manning has spent most of her life in Hamilton’s east end.

She’s a pepper pot, not afraid to poke a little fun at her customers, like the strapping young man who stopped by for a cheeseburger on a crisp March afternoon.

When he told her to hold the onions, she fired back “Why? Are you kissing someone later today?”

She returns to Barton Street’s problems.

“There are crack houses all over this area,” Manning says with a wave of her hand. “They’ve gotta do something about the crack.

“My truck gets broken into once a year without fail, and I’m due because it’s been almost a year, ” Manning adds. “The crackheads will try to steal one of my 50-pound bags of potatoes.

“They can’t steal them because they can’t carry them. They’re crackheads – they can’t carry 50 pounds.”

She has installed surveillance equipment worth about $2,000 around her truck, and she knows to the dollar – $218 – how much it costs to replace the windows of her truck.

Nonetheless, she draws the line at security bars in front of those windows where customers place their orders.

“I’m not talking to my customers through bars,” she snorted. “I work in a walk-in closet as it is. I’m not going to do it from behind bars.”

The last time someone broke into her truck, Manning had an animated discussion with the police dispatcher.

“I said ‘You know, I’m getting really sick and tired of this because I get no restitution whatsoever, ‘ and she said ‘Well, that’s what insurance is for, ‘” Manning recalled. “I said ‘My insurance is $1,000 deductible, lady.’ Do you know how many French fries you have to sell for $1,000?”

Manning shakes her head. She’s old enough to remember when Barton Street was a different place.

“You remember when this city was ‘Hammertown, ‘ it was rocking, ” Manning says as she stubs out her second cigarette.

“There’s always hope, ” she adds, after a pause.

“This is Hamilton. We’re a tough breed.”

Three weeks later, Manning is on the phone to The Spectator.

“Remember I told you I was due for a break-in? Well, it happened last night,” she said. The culprit left a meat cleaver inside her truck.

“On the bright side, I guess it means it’s a done deal for this year.”

The business owner

On Easter Sunday, a week after Manning’s chip wagon was vandalized, there was a minor break-in next door at Duke Electric, a fixture on Barton Street for 35 years.

Vandalism is not uncommon there. Graffiti is a constant scourge and, occasionally, an intoxicated person will wander into the building and try to sleep it off in the lobby.

“What can I say? It’s tough to run a reputable business down here sometimes,” sighed Jon Raab, Duke’s sales manager and son of owner Eric Raab. “The challenges we face just being on the street alone are interesting.

“If you canvassed everyone in the office, I’m sure we’d each have our own unique story of the people we’ve seen and our experiences here.”mr used2.JPG

Like the guy who used to ride a Shetland pony up and down the street, or the guy who drives his lawn mower in the winter to the Tim Hortons drive-thru a block away.

“My grandfather used to say that because of all the soot and smoke coming out of the steel mills, people were just getting a little bit chemically enhanced, so to speak, down here,” Raab joked.

Duke Electric fixes everything from massive generators at the steel mills to bathroom fans.

With two dozen employees at the Barton Street location and another 20 to 40 working offsite, Duke Electric is one of the largest private businesses on the Ward 3 part of Barton Street.

Every year, Duke Electric occupies a booth at a steel technology trade show and every year, the City of Hamilton’s economic development department sends a representative to the same show.

“Every year I ask him ‘What have you got planned for us in the east end? What are you guys going to do to help us, keep us in the east end, keep us going, keep us employing people?'” Raab said. “And he says ‘We got nothing.'”

The city’s rep did tell Raab that Ivor Wynne Stadium was being rotated 90 degrees.

“That really doesn’t do anything for us,” Raab said. “I mean, what are you doing for the east end of the city? He literally told me he had nothing.”

Raab’s mother was raised a block away from Duke Electric in what was then a proud working-class neighbourhood.

“Everyone had their small wartime home, everything was manicured,” said Raab. “Now, it’s just kind of fallen apart.

“The area has gone from proud working-class to just hanging on by whatever.”

The property owner and the tenants

At 1010 Barton St. E., three doors east of Sandie’s Fresh Cut Fries, there’s a 2½-storey house right on the edge of the sidewalk.

Even the owner of the brown triplex admits it looks awful on the outside.

“I know it’s still an eyesore,” said Lou Di Leonardo. “I ran out of money and didn’t do the outside.”

But there was a reason, Di Leonardo explained.

He renovated the interior of all three units and rented them out. Tenants then destroyed two of the units, so he had to start over.

We met Di Leonardo earlier in the series. He also owns a vacant building at 374 Barton St. E. that he’s been trying to renovate for years without success because of what he described as costly clashes with the city over fees, charges and issues related to building and zoning.

At 1010 Barton St. E., he describes a different set of problems, ones related to tenants.

On three different occasions, Di Leonardo said, he had prospective tenants ask him to sign a form stating he would rent them a unit at 1010 Barton St. E.

He said the form allowed the tenant to get a lump-sum startup housing subsidy from a city program to cover such things as last month’s rent or household furnishings.

The subsidy provided up to $800 for a single person and up to $1,500 for a parent with one or more dependent children.

In each case, Di Leonardo said, the tenant took the signed form and never returned.

“So he screws off on you and I’m sitting here with the apartment empty,” Di Leonardo said.

By the third time, Di Leonardo said, he wised up to what was happening.

After he signed the form, he called the city.

“I knew the guy wasn’t going to show up,” he said.Ottawa to Gage.JPG

“I told them ‘I’m Mr. Di Leonardo, I’ve signed a form for such-and-such a person’ – I think I even had a case number – ‘can you please tell me what happened with this individual because he was looking to move into my apartment and he never showed up?'”

Instead, he was told that information was private and couldn’t be released.

He said the city never contacted him in any of the cases to verify the information or, more importantly, check if the tenant ever moved in. He now wonders if the city paid the subsidy in those cases to people who simply took the money and ran.

Gillian Hendry, the city’s director of housing services, acknowledged Di Leonardo’s concerns may be valid.

“I don’t think that what he is saying is impossible at all,” said Hendry, who noted staff members responsible for the benefit in the past were saddled with huge caseloads.

The city now funds the subsidy through the Housing Help Centre after the province cut its funding late last year.

Hendry said she believes the Housing Help Centre now contacts landlords when funds are being paid out.

“I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we either issue the cheque directly to the landlords or that there is some sort of followup,” said Hendry. “If someone is requiring this additional benefit, there have been some challenges involved. Taking the time to do that is a good thing.”

Di Leonardo ends with a happier story.

When he was first renovating 1010 Barton St. E., he got a call from a middle-aged man and his wife.

“They were really rough-looking, living out of their car parked in the flea market across the street,” said Di Leonardo.

“He said, ‘Look we’re really down on our luck, we’re living out of our car and I notice you’re renovating. I need some work.’ I said OK.”

Di Leonardo let the couple live in the house as it was being renovated and then took them on as tenants when the work was completed.

“The best tenants I ever had. Two homeless people in a car parked across the street,” said Di Leonardo. “They bettered themselves, he got a job in Cambridge and they left.

“Best feeling in my life.

“The day he left, that place was meticulous, ” Di Leonardo added.

“Everything after that? Forget it.”

The poet

“In ’68, when I was a college boy

trying to fill the hollow left in my life

by Reader’s Digest, Ann Landers

and the so-called Ontario education system,

I drove cab for a while in Hamilton …”

Those are the opening lines of a poem titled Barton Street Hookers, part of a trilogy of poems about Barton Street written by former Hamilton resident Paul McLaughlin, now a lawyer practising in an Edmonton suburb.

Once upon a time, McLaughlin was that college boy and the three poems, autobiographical in nature, offer a small window into his short-lived career as a Hamilton cab driver in the late ’60s.

In The Toaster, McLaughlin writes about the easy money that cabbies could score by making home deliveries of booze – “ten bucks for a two dollar fare, twenty if the face at the door looked underage.”

He writes about the time he picked up a bottle of booze from the Barton Street LCBO and delivered it to a “decaying shack hunched under the massive blue shoulders of the cold rolling mill.”

A woman holding a baby answered the door as her husband screamed obscenities in the background. She snatched the bottle and said she’d be right back.

“The gust of urine and baby vomit overwhelmed even the steel mill stink.”

When she returned, she handed him a beat-up toaster instead of cash. He never did get his money.

In Out of Jail, McLaughlin describes the time he drove a woman to the Barton Street jail to pick up her boyfriend from a stint inside.

He drove them home, but when he turned around to collect the fare, he discovered they were in the middle of a sex act in the back seat. McLaughlin was ordered to keep driving.

So he headed for the QEW – “there was an angry ‘Hey, be careful!’ as we bounced over the railway tracks” – and ran up the meter as best he could.

Forty-some years later, McLaughlin is cruising along a different highway, this one on the outskirts of Edmonton, surprised that someone wants to talk to him about his poems. But there’s also a touch of pride in his voice as he explains how they were carefully crafted from his memories of Hamilton.

He was a McMasterUniversity philosophy and English student in 1968, he said, married to a fellow student, “and we didn’t have a pot to pee in.”

For a bit of spare cash, McLaughlin took shifts driving for Yellow Cab.

He figured the best strategy was to fish where the fish were, which meant hanging around outside some of Hamilton’s seedier locations in search of fares, places like Barton Street’s corner hotels and the jail.

“I knew the likes of me was not welcome

on Barton Street at 2:00 a.m.,

but there I was, waiting for a hotel beer parlour

to pour its drunken contents out onto the street …”

One night, four hookers stumbled out of a bar and fell into his taxi. He was fascinated by how different they were from him, and just as fascinated that they knew more about some aspects of life than he could ever hope to know, despite his fancy education.

“I was overwhelmed by their sexuality:

they had had more sexual partners that night

than I was likely to have

in my whole middle class, suburban life.

They swam in their sexuality,

while I was terrified to put my toe in mine.”

Despite the hard edges that jut from between McLaughlin’s words, he professes a certain fondness for the Barton Street of his youth.

“This was a kind of a leavening for my life,” McLaughlin said. “It gave me a grounding, a sense of reality that you don’t get if you submerge yourself too much into the academic world.

“If you spend all of your time at McMaster, you forget about people who trade their toasters for alcohol.”

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A Code Red Snapshot

Key statistics taken from The Spectator’s Code Red and BORN series for the neighbourhood centred on Barton Street East, between Gage Avenue and Ottawa Street:

Highest rate of teenage mothers in Hamilton and 10th-highest in Ontario:  18.4 per cent

One in seven pregnant women received no prenatal care in the first trimester:  Seventh-highest rate in Hamilton

People reported having no family physician:  Just over 10 per cent

Adults without a high school diploma:  Three in 10

 

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