A little less than a week before nominations for Kingston’s municipal elections closed, Eric Lee decided to get the necessary nomination signatures and throw his proverbial hat in the ring for the mayor’s seat, ending the possibility of incumbent Bryan Paterson obtaining an acclamation in the 2018 election.
While it was initially difficult to reach Lee, we were able to catch up with him at his home last night, shortly after he’d obtained a new cell phone so he could answer media and resident inquiries.
Famous locally as ‘The Elevator Guy’ at the now-closed S&R department store, Lee says he has been keeping a close eye on municipal politics for a long time, attending council meetings regularly, and, having been encouraged to run previously by friends and neighbours, felt now was the best time to do so. Lee seems particularly, and perhaps singularly, concerned with the state of real estate in the city. He expressed particular dismay during our interview for the attitudes of developers, with the exception of one: ABNA Investments, which, as it happens, was responsible for the significant renovations done to the former S&R building.
“Boy, did Doornekamp ever do a good job on that building,” he said, beseeching other developers to follow their lead.
While we normally structure candidate interviews as a “Six questions with…” article, it was relatively difficult to wrangle Lee’s energy and enthusiasm down to only half a dozen. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Tell us a bit about yourself?
Well, I’ve been going to town hall meetings for a number of years, and my opening remark is always, you know, ‘Capitalism is the best thing ever, but it has a catch: it has to have competition.’ It has to have competition!
I’ve been very much concerned since the 1980s about the manipulation of the real estate. This has been going on… there was a scam in the 1980s called ‘The real estate boom of the 80s.’ I was in Toronto at that time, and… it was like 250 per cent increase on rents for store and office space. You didn’t have that for 150 years because, the reason why that happened? They eliminated competition.
It was a terrible thing to happen. Ever since then we’ve had houses, pre-fabricated houses advertised in magazines at the end of World War Two, which was put up because of the housing shortage, I can understand. They sold for $2,400, $3,200 – now selling for $925,000, and they haven’t been fixed up for 70 years.
Recently, a 60 mile an hour wind gust took the roof off a house in Toronto… listed at $925,000. That’s a joke!
We have tax credit laws here in Kingston, where if the owners of the stores do not rent out the store and office space, we pay the tax… on the non-rental. That’s the old British class system. That’s not democracy, and that’s not capitalism.
I don’t want to pay for someone else’s property.
The rent situation in Kingston: terrible. Many of the owners do not fix up their houses. Why? Because they don’t have to. They can sell the places for automatic increases. This has been going on now for the last 35 years. So what do they do? They get rid of good tenants, who pay their rent on time, move people in, and they can put up the rents by another $100-200. Do they fix up their buildings? No, they don’t.
Tell us a little bit about your personal history.
Ok well, you know, I was born in Toronto, December 15, 1949, I grew up in Santa Monica, California, lived there for about 15 years, moved to Toronto… all during that 1960s period, with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the King assassination, let me tell you something, that prepares you for life! That was an extraordinary time period. The tragedy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was absolutely terrible. That man was a political genius. I believe that. You know that civil rights… that made America a better country. And then the tragedy of the Vietnam war, and the problems that that caused. I lived, I moved in, I was a student, in college. I was a competitive swimmer for eight years, that was my sport. That’s why I’m built the way I am! (giant laugh)
I lived in Toronto for 14 years, my parents owned a business, I worked in the book business, downtown at Yonge and Bloor [streets], great store. What a wonderful store that was. The last of the privately owned because I believe that they sold to Indigo. Came to Kingston [in the] late 80s, my mother had passed away, so my dad and I were here. And eventually I started working at… I did construction work, and then I started working at S&R. It was a great experience. I did the elevator job there, became the union rep for two years, wonderful store. And my dad passed away in 1998… I miss my dad very much, he was wonderful. Best person I met in my life was my father. He was a world war two veteran, 15 missions, Lancaster bomber… and he’s just an extraordinary man, I love my dad. And I’ve been so concerned, not just for myself, personally, how this has affected me with the real estate, but how it impacts the economy all over the G7. This isn’t just a local, Kingston problem, this is everywhere in the western world. Real estate used to be in fourth, fifth place in the standings, and now we’ve sent the manufacturing jobs overseas – well real estate moved up in the standings. Why? Because they bought up buildings and they monopolized. And I always say we have these wonderful laws called the ‘anti-trust laws.’ The anti-trust laws are great laws, because these laws were passed to promote free market and competitive prices. That way we will be able to afford rents on stores, and not have to be forced to live in buildings that are run down, where landlords will not fix them up because they know that they get an automatic increase – and I’ve been told this! Some of them have been so foolish to say this to a politically savvy person! (laughs)
‘You guys got into this because you don’t have to fix up the buildings don’t ya?’ And they say ‘Yeah, that’s true.’ And I’ve had that, I have the names of several of them and I’m going to be talking about them openly during the debates. I’m not holding back any longer on this, either.
Why the mayor role right away?
Well, you know, I was class president the first year of high school… I was the captain of my swim team. I was the union rep at the S&R Department Store, we were in the CAW, very interesting experience, very interesting.
Politics have been… my parents worked in the democratic party in California, it was at the dinner table every night. I majored in it in school, politics, US security and economics… but I still have my Canadian citizenship, I have my green card of course, to the States. And this has been part of my background, I’ve been watching everything that’s been going on… and when I think about all of the department stores that have been going out of business, why? Because the cost of business is too expensive. Why? Because real estate monopolized it. You see, that’s why people can’t… the percentage of what you have to have to start a business now is astronomical. And people want to be out there, they want to be entrepreneurs, as my parents were. It works! But if we’re going to put people out of the opportunity, and tax credits where we pay the tax on non rentals, that means it sets the rates at artificially high prices. And I’ve had enough of this. Because that’s the old British class system! That’s what that is! They ran that for 700 years.
Other than real estate, do you see any other priorities for yourself?
Oh, well, I have lots of issues I’m interested in! Certainly, uh… when you see run down housing, part of this, it isn’t just a building code standard here, it’s a health and environmental issue, and, you know, if this goes on much longer, for two or three more decades, you‘re going to have very, very sick people in these buildings. You know, the viruses, you have the mould in these buildings, so they’re not fixed up.
And that’s all they were, were pre-fabricated houses to take care of the housing shortage at the end of the second world war. They were never designed to be sold for cost of up to a million dollars. Or half a million dollars here in Kingston. So this is damaging our economy. It’s putting people into poverty, it’s denying them a chance to own business, and it is a health issue, and will be an environmental issue in a very short period of time. How else can it be? Because they’re going to manipulate this thing, and they’re probably going… the real estate is probably going to drop the building code standards to keep this going, and you know damn well they’ll do it. They’ll lobby for it, and they’ll get the real estate people to sit on city council, provincial governments, and they’ll pass those laws. And that’s what’s going to hurt us more and more and more.
Tell me more about your time between S&R and now. What have you been doing?
Well, I did some work for some friends, some construction work. Things were a little slow. I’m in excellent shape, I mean, being a competitive swimmer, and I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve never done drugs, I don’t smoke, I’m in excellent shape, so this is why this has come at a great time in my life. But there have been some slow periods, but I’m ready. You know, I’m well rested and ready to take on this responsibility. And it’s about time.
What do you think about the past four years in city politics?
Well, incidentally I think what Bryan Paterson has done is the same as Mark Gerretsen, Harvey Rosen and Gary Bennett, he’s essentially just given into the real estate people. They pretty well run it. They run the show. And we need to start… By the way, something else that needs to be done: we need to have hearings. And if I were mayor [we would]… where people can come in and openly talk about the problems they’ve had with landlords, with these older buildings and not fixing them up.
Now, I wanna say one thing about one of the real estate people who were excellent to me. And that was Brock-King. Brock-King treated me with great respect. My father passed away, and I can’t say enough for them, they were wonderful to me. Just wonderful! Most of my focus is on some individual owners, and monopolies who own these very old houses, and they’re making money off of something they should not, because they don’t put any money in.
What do you think are the best things the council has done in the past four years, and what do you think are the worst things?
Well I… Council to me, just from what I’ve seen, it just seems to be just sitting on this…idea that, they don’t want to say anything because they’ve been conned into the idea that automatic increases are a good thing. Now, in the 1980s we had buyers and sellers markets, where you had to fix up your place to sell it. Now, because it’s been manipulated, they’ve been sold on the idea that this is good for the economy. That is totally wrong! That’s what’s putting people into poverty, and I see no direction on the part of city council to start dealing with this, and especially with the way people are being treated in the old houses… And, as I say, there’s a number of scandals, putting people in so they can jack up the rents $100-$200 dollars, getting people arrested, I know a landlord who actually did this and she made $2,400 in one year by having people arrested and they never showed up so she kept the last month’s rent. Now, you know, this kind of thing goes on all the time, and this has got to stop. We don’t see City Council dealing with this, and we need to have hearings, 200, 300 people in the room, come up and say ‘who is your landlord, why did you have to leave, what did you ask the landlord to do, what did they not do’… If it takes a week to do, that’s fine.
What do you think council has done right over the past 4 years, if anything?
I don’t see much of anything, honestly. The city is the same to me, that I can see… I honestly don’t feel the city is any better than it was 20 years ago.
Anything else you’re going to be concentrating on during your candidacy and mayorship if you’re elected?
More open dialogue with people, to come in and talk about how they’re feeling about this, because believe me: It is out there, it is out there!