But the days of a cheap, two-storey Victorian may be gone.
Hamilton realtor Jeannie Crawford in the home she and her husband bought for $100,000 less than the selling price of their “shoe-box” condo in Toronto. (JEANNIE CRAWFORD)
Luis Meza’s coffee shop in Hamilton’s historic Lister Block does a brisk weekday trade slaking the caffeine cravings of office workers and the construction crews who are transforming Steeltown’s downtown.
But it’s the weekends when things get crazy at Mezza Cafe, says the owner.
That’s when the Toronto real estate refugees come touring Hamilton’s orange brick Victorians and post-and-beam condo conversions in search of an affordable alternative to the bidding wars and million-dollar mortgages in other parts of the region.
They are late to the party, say the pioneers, who beat them to the character homes strolling distance from the newly thriving downtown restaurant scene and an arts community that gets compared to pre-gentrification Queen St. West.
“There’s a little bit of a settler mentality,'” says Glen Norton, manager of Urban Renewal.
He is sitting at Lake Road, a bright spot on the food scene. Its name references the original street name of its James North location, where other chefs are gaining strength in numbers along nearby King William St., where the taco trend has customers lining up at The Mule and new restaurants are moving in.
For years, Hamilton’s architectural landmarks suffered from the same flight to the suburbs that has afflicted cities like Windsor and London. Norton says the traditionally blue-collar town was knocked on its keister with the exodus of Stelco, Massey Ferguson and Procter and Gamble.
“We did go down. We did suffer. We lost a lot of good jobs,” he says.
But Hamilton is on its feet, having re-branded itself “the ambitious city,” with health care the leading employment sector.
“Hamilton had massive growth in (neighbouring towns) Ancaster and Dundas, but now it’s the historic areas that are growing,” says Chris Phillips, a senior advisor to the economic development office.
With the average Hamilton home costing $451,000 compared to $940,000 in Toronto, the prices are still competitive. But costs are rising almost as quickly — 13.2 per cent in July compared to the same month last year — about 7 per cent overall this year — said George O’Neill, CEO of the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington.
The biggest jump was in affordable Hamilton East, a neighbourhood enjoying a revival he compares to that of Toronto’s Leslieville.
Its popularity is generally driven by price, said O’Neill. The average cost of a home there rose about $73,000 from $244,000 to $317,000 in the last year.
“The average sale price in that area is one of the lowest for all of Hamilton. It’s the entrance price. Young families, couples and individuals are looking at the type of property and they can buy in Hamilton East,” he said.
Five years ago, Coldwell Banker realtor Jeannie Crawford sold her “shoe-box” condo in Toronto for about $100,000 more than the $188,000 she and her husband paid for a two-storey house in Hamilton North.
They chose Steeltown, she says, because she couldn’t live in a suburb. It was also close enough to visit Toronto.
She needn’t have worried. Crawford hesitates to use the “H” word — hipster — but she admits Hamilton has its own vibe.
“I was in Toronto for 18 years and had great friends and had a great life there. But it’s very different in terms of feeling connected,” she said.
“The days of a cheap, fully renovated two-storey next to the GO station are gone,” said Crawford, who estimates there are multiple bids on 75 to 80 per cent of the sales she sees.
One recent sale drew 14 offers and went for $100,000 over the list price.
“But that doesn’t mean there isn’t tons of affordable real estate. Everyone wants these old character homes, which is great but . . . young first-time buyers need to know they’ve got an old stone foundation,” she said, adding that issues like dated wiring pop up there just as they do in Toronto.
Crawford advises Toronto buyers to try the city, maybe rent an Airbnb for a couple of weeks and ride the GO train. She also suggests they connect with someone who really knows the city.
“Hamilton has been undervalued for so long. You don’t just snap your finger and erase some of the challenges that come with that,” she said.
In a city where nearly 10 per cent of its 540,000 residents rely on social assistance, there’s an obvious flipside to downtown gentrification, said Tom Cooper of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.
“A significant increase in housing prices is having a trickle-down effect,” he said. “We know affordable rental housing becomes even more scarce and it was quite a challenge already.
“We need to do some thinking about zoning changes to ensure when there are new builds there’s a percentage of low-income housing made available,” said Cooper.
A new LRT will be one more point in downtown Hamilton’s favour.
“The last thing we want to do is force people who have lived there for a long time out and prevent low-income Hamiltonians from being able to live in those neighbourhoods,” said Cooper.
High Toronto rents drove Lee Chung and his girlfriend to buy their first Hamilton house in 2013. The century home, fully renovated and walking distance to downtown, cost $134,000.
Two-and-a-half years later they rented it out and bought a second home for $195,000 near Gage Park, Hamilton’s version of High Park.
Chung runs a DJ school and repairs equipment for Toronto clubs, so he commutes two to three times a week outside rush hours when the drive usually takes only about 45 minutes. That’s less time than getting from Front St. to Bloor St. many days, he said.
“Living in Toronto (for 10 years) I wondered what was next — New York, London, Tokyo? But I love the charm and community of a smaller town vibe. People here aren’t as rushed,” he said. “The city’s still in transition so there’s plenty of room for growth, development and renewal.”
He doesn’t rule out the bright lights of a bigger city someday, but for now and the foreseeable future, Hamilton is just fine.