With a new government in Ottawa, might there be an opportunity for Hamilton to be ambitious and incorporate more of a grassroots, community-led component to upcoming planned redevelopments.
By Rob Fiedler
Published November 23, 2015
On the wall behind me in my home office is a screen print that reads, "Behind Every Invisible Hand is an Iron Fist and Every Iron Fist Has a Velvet Glove." Between the large block letters of the main message its creator asks the essential question: are you under the iron fist or inside the velvet glove?
Friday, as I sat listening to keynote speakers and panelists at a National Housing Day 2015 event, Housing for All: Balancing the Phenomenon of Gentrification, which was held at the Waterfront Banquet Centre off Guise Street and in the shadow of the Ken Soble apartments, one of two CityHousing properties in the North End with many units being left empty, I couldn't help but think about that question.
The invisible hand is certainly getting a very visible assist from the City and Province to raise land values in the area-but not all are benefitting proportionately.
The event was sponsored by the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington, CMHC, the City of Hamilton, and the Social Planning & Research Council of Hamilton and advertised as "a Free event about the importance of developing affordable housing to ensure that no one is left behind as Hamilton becomes increasingly desirable as a place to live, work and raise a family."
That a growing segment of Hamilton residents, new and old, are finding it harder to access housing that is adequate and affordable is a mark of failure. But what kind of failure?
We must admit that a shrinking supply of affordable housing is the flip-side of recent successes. A number of lower-city neighbourhoods are back on the map as "up-and-coming". The signs of change are unmistakable. Investment small and large is occurring.
As I look south across the rail corridor that separates the North End from Beasley, I see the apartment towers of the Robert Village - 181 John Street North and 192 Hughson Street North. If the stories of residents and reporting by CBC Hamilton and the Hamilton Spectator are to be believed, revitalization's hard edges have arrived as a new owner seeks to renovate units and move them upmarket.
I thought the problem was a "downtown" or James North revitalization issue, until I realized that a similar situation is poised to happen in Riverdale near Eastgate Mall and the future Centennial Parkway GO Station. There, the Spectator has recently reported that a cluster of apartment buildings were sold for $51 million and the new owner is "planning a major 'repositioning' of the buildings to attract more tenants paying higher rents."
Another success story? Maybe if your sole criterion is: "we believe the Hamilton market is well positioned for excellent growth and this portfolio is located in a strong rental node."
A friend of mine, a long-time Hamiltonian and North Ender, has taken to calling it renoviction.
The problem is simple, yet complicated. What forms of action, including kinds of government intervention, should we support?
At Housing for All, a number people called for a national housing strategy. A new, putatively activist, Liberal government in Ottawa certainly has generated buzz in some circles.
I'm more optimistic about the possibility of a national housing strategy under the Trudeau Liberals than the Harper Conservatives. But my memory stretches back far enough to know this isn't a new problem. Nor would this be the first time academics, third-sector activists, and policy types have kicked this particular can down the road, only to have the politicians refuse to pick it up.
Back in 1990, while in opposition, the National Liberal Caucus Task Force on Housing, co-chaired by Paul Martin and Joe Fontana, published a report called Finding Room: Housing Solutions for the Future. In the press release that accompanied the report, Paul Martin is quoted saying:
The housing crisis is growing at an alarming rate and the government sits there and does nothing; it refuses to apply the urgent measures that are required to reverse this deteriorating situation ... the lack of affordable housing contributes to and accelerates the cycle of poverty, which is reprehensive in a society as rich as ours.
During their first term in office, preoccupied with austerity to tame persistent deficits, the Liberals effectively cut off funding for new public and non-profit housing.
More than once since the early 1990s, An Act to Provide for Secure, Adequate, Accessible and Affordable Housing for Canadians, has been introduced as a private member's bill.
The most recent attempt I could find was introduced by the NDP Member for Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, Marie-Claude Morin, and rejected in 2013. Essentially, the bill calls on the Minister responsible for CMHC to take the lead in moving various actors toward the establishment of a national housing strategy.
Back in Hamilton, we were told on Friday by activists and community workers that we have a problem. After listening to the Mayor's opening remarks, McMaster professor Richard Harris' insights on gentrification, and a couple of panels of knowledgeable people discussing the unintended consequences of revitalization and possible solutions to them, I was left to wonder how to square the circle.
The old mechanism of housing filtering down is faltering. This past summer in my neighbourhood an impressive number of demo bins could be found in front of houses being renovated or rehabilitated. Roofs were being replaced and other forms of needed maintenance to old homes was being carried out, but in some cases what was happening was a renovate-and-flip operation.
How many? It's hard to say, and I don't know that anyone is counting.
What I do know is the upgrading cycle itself is not the problem. No one wants to live in dilapidated housing. The problem is that some of my less fortunate neighbours who rent are being "revitalized" out of their homes. For them, rising land values and rents linked to things like the new GO station and recently announced LRT spur line, not to mention rental de-conversions, means displacement.
For those who own their homes, the situation is less problematic. Gentrification or revitalization is a mixed blessing. As property values rise, existing home-owners may have to pay higher taxes, but on paper they also become wealthier. For some it is an opportunity to cash out and move somewhere else.
The problem is some long-time residents are being involuntarily displaced, while others are finding their shelter costs climb against incomes that aren't.
Some will acknowledge that all this is a problem, perhaps an unintended consequence, but shrug and say what can we do about market forces. For them our mostly private housing market works like a sorting machine. Where you live and the sort of housing you live in is conditional on your ability to pay.
At the bottom of the socio-economic ladder the choices become rather limited. You get what is leftover. But it's all very impersonal. The market, as some might say, discriminates equally.
The solution that is whispered in relation to displacement in Beasley, the North End, and other downtown neighbourhoods is look eastward or to the mountain, as if these are some uninhabited territory.
There is another view, perhaps more idealistic, that the right to adequate housing is about more than a place to live. Secure, adequate, accessible, and affordable housing is also about the ability and means to participate in our city's social, political, and economic life. From it many other things flow.
On Friday, the solution-focused panel did offer two quite different vehicles for moving forward on the affordable housing front in Hamilton, though it is unlikely they were intended to appear this way.
Jason Chen of Toronto Community Housing spoke briefly about his involvement in the Lawrence Heights revitalization project, which is expected to transform the row houses, maisonettes, and low-rise apartment buildings of the original 1950s/60s public housing project via intensified redevelopment.
The revitalization project, which will be carried out in phases, will take 20 years and replace all 1,208 of the existing rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units, while adding approximately 4,000 new units of market housing. Also part of the plan is the addition of commercial space, a new community centre, as well as parks and open spaces.
In this case, intensification as revitalization is the mechanism being relied upon to make the project work. Toronto Community Housing is effectively monetizing the latent potential of the land their buildings are on now if used more intensively by a developer partner.
Although, Hamilton CityHousing has not publicly disclosed its plans for the Jamesville townhouse complex or Ken Soble apartments at 500 MacNab in the North End a real estate strategy for city-owned lands in the West Harbour being carried out by the consulting firm Deloitte has been tasked with determining their value.
It would be reasonable to conclude that one avenue being considered for "renewing" or "revitalizing" either complex, both of which are located on increasingly desirable land, would be to import the Toronto Community Housing model to Hamilton.
Allison Maxted of the Hamilton Community Land Trust also spoke as part of the solution-focused panel and outlined how establishing a community land trust-a democratically-controlled, non-profit organization intended to be able to own and manage land for community benefit-might be able to address the problem of vacant, abandoned, and contaminated land and buildings in Beasley and other lower-city neighbourhoods.
As a handout provided asks: "What if the community could gain control of these properties, through ownership, and use them to develop the housing, gardens, parks, jobs and community spaces we need for our current and future residents?"
I must confess to not being an expert on community land trusts, but on Friday I was struck by the possibilities. As Allison explained a land trust could provide a way to remove some land from the market so that it could be preserved for social objectives and public benefit as revitalization occurs.
Timing, of course, is everything. To be of maximum benefit, a community land trust must acquire land before speculation drives up prices.
Though not raised during the panel discussion, one senses the City, now a major land-owner in the West Harbour planning area, has options beyond simply disposing of all its land to private developers. Thus far, only that option seems to be on the table.
With a new government in Ottawa, might there be an opportunity for Hamilton to be ambitious and incorporate more of a grassroots, community-led component to the redevelopment of one or more of the Barton-Tiffany lands, the two CityHousing properties in the North End, and Piers 7 and 8?
The question of affordable housing seems destined to grow in importance. To borrow a turn of phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King, "tomorrow is today". If progressive voices in Hamilton really want to talk about "balancing the phenomenon of gentrification" so that revitalization does not become displacement the time for action is now.
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