Goodbye NOTL, hello … Disneyland? Renter struggles to afford a place in town

Cenotaph Memorial in the center of historic Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada.


Mike Barneveld is worried Niagara-on-the-Lake is turning into “Disneyland” as he and another longtime resident struggle to find a place to live in their hometown.

As the town increasingly becomes viewed as an investment opportunity for wealthy individuals, its working inhabitants are being driven out, resulting in the hollowing out of the community, Barneveld said in an interview.

“I think the town very much becomes Disneyland, where it’s great when the parks open but as soon as it’s closed there’s nothing there, there’s no community, there’s no life – there’s nothing,” he said.

That is the reality of NOTL becoming a hot spot for tourism, he said, but there needs to be room for local workers and families.

“Unfortunately for me, Niagara-on-the-Lake is Niagara-on-the-Lake and, of course, property values are high and people love it,” he said.

“But, you know, for nine years that was my home. So, all the people that were there, the local pub and whatever else, that became my home.”

Barneveld is living in Beamsville with his sister after the Chautauqua property he rented was targeted by a real estate investor.

His former landlord had a business in Toronto that was facing financial difficulties due to the pandemic. That prompted the landlord to sell the home Barneveld and one other person had been renting for 10 years, he said.

His landlord had one stipulation: whoever bought it had to be moving into it as their permanent residence.

The new buyer said they were going to live there and Barneveld said he and the other resident agreed to leave their home on that condition, noting the landlord had always been very good to them.

“So, all of us acted in good faith and, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case,” he said.

Within two weeks of the tenants moving out, the new owner put the house on the market as a rental and raised room prices by $1,000 without doing any renovations on the property or even repainting the bedrooms, Barneveld said.

Now he can’t even afford to rent the same building he called home for nearly a decade after alleging he was duped out of his lease by a property investor.

“I am trying to find a rental that may somehow be affordable so I can keep my job. Otherwise, I’m looking at moving back to Sarnia where my parents now live,” he said.

And it means another home in NOTL’s Old Town is sitting vacant, Barneveld said, noting no tenants are yet living in his former home.

The move to cash in is part of a housing stock shift toward the short-term rental and vacation home markets, he said.

“A lot of places that were (long-term) rentals and places that I know were rentals at one point in time have now become vacation rentals or some way to make more money than what you could get from a long-term rental,” he said.

“And that doesn’t build community or anything. That’s a money-making venture,” he said.

Barneveld was a student at Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. He is concerned that, as more money pours into NOTL, its historic buildings will be bought up and rebuilt and the character of the town irrevocably altered.

“New this, new that and all of it is meant to turn Niagara-on-the-Lake into this sort of gold, polished version of itself,” he said.

“Where you go in and there’s a valet and all those things, and that’s what I think a lot of this outside money is trying to do.”

“To the point where even the quaint older places that have character, if someone gets their hands on them they’re over-renovated and they lose their charm.”

Renovations aren’t necessarily for new permanent residents, either.

“They’ll over-renovate it and then slap a for sale sign on it to flip the property. I’m sure a lot of them are done as short-term rentals,” he said.

He said one of the problems is developers and investors who want to get the most out of a parcel of land instead of working to improve the community around it with a new build.

“Look at Parliament Oak,” he said.

“The amount that they were trying to jam in that section completely is not in keeping with the character of the Old Town.”

Barneveld fears NOTL is losing its residential identity.

“If you look at even 10 years ago in Niagara-on-the-Lake, all the older people in the community had bought a house not as a money-making venture but because this is a nice town to live in and they wanted to be a part of a community,” he said.

But that community is at stake as many long-time residential homes are for sale and their future as a permanent residence is uncertain, he said.

“And that doesn’t benefit anyone if you’re not building up a livable community,” he said.

The difficulty to find housing isn’t just a personal frustration, but an emotional worry for those who wonder what NOTL will look like in the future as young families and workers get pushed out of the municipality, Barneveld suggested.

“Certainly, without young families with kids that will grow up in the community, where’s the sense of vibrancy and life and sustainability?”

He said if the town doesn’t work to make itself more affordable to younger families it will just be “a series of visitors coming in to use the place, get their enjoyment and leave.”

“Whose actually continuing to build? Whose sustaining?”

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