Asking the Right Questions About Hamilton's 2016 Census Data

What we really need is some leadership to address whether intensification in Hamilton will include in its mix affordable units and housing suitable for families.

By Rob Fiedler
Published February 14, 2017

This article has been updated.

Canada's population passed the 35 million mark last year, something we learned last week with the first release of data from the 2016 Census of Canada.

Closer to home, the City of Hamilton added 16,968 people. As of May 2016, about 1.5 percent of Canadians (or 536,917 people) resided here, unevenly distributed across our 15 wards.

If you like big headline numbers here are a few more:

As was the case with the 2011 census, the fastest growing CMAs are out west, with Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, and Lethbridge filling out the top 5, as well as being the only CMAs to exceed 10 percent population growth.

Growth Rates Can be Deceiving

Where growth is concerned, relative numbers can be deceiving. Despite its lower growth rate, the Toronto CMA added 344,976 people, twice as many in absolute terms as its nearest metropolitan rival Calgary. Similarly, the Montreal CMA added 164,849 people-its modest growth rate (4.2 percent) still placing it slightly ahead of the Edmonton CMA in terms of absolute growth.

For urbanists in our neck of the woods, the most interesting and telling numbers might be found looking at the Cities of Toronto and Mississauga.

Milton seems to get all the attention with its eye-popping growth rate of 30.5 percent. The real story should be the City of Toronto managing to add 116,511 people. With no greenfields left any growth in Toronto happens via brownfield and greyfield redevelopment, as well as infilling (i.e. intensification).

By contrast, the City of Mississauga appears to have finally hit a wall after several censuses of de-accelerating growth. Between 2011 and 2016 it grew by a meagre 1.1 percent (or 8,156 people) into a mid-metropolitan realm of 721,599.

It turns out that Hurricane Hazel's timing was impeccable. She rode a suburban growth machine from the late-1970s right until it ran out of easy greenfield land to develop.

Her successor has a very different Mississauga to govern. Debt-free since the 1970s, the now suburban city started borrowing again sometime after the 2011 census during Mayor McCallion's last term in office.

It continues to do so in order to maintain its aging infrastructure as sprawling growth stalls and dollars from development charges become harder to come by.

Mississauga's northern neighbour, Brampton, considered by keen observers to be a poster-child for dysfunctional governance and sprawling growth, grew by 13.3 percent (or 69,732 people) to 593,638. Much of that growth, like Hamilton's (we'll get to that in a moment), came in the form of lateral expansion.

For those who follow transit politics in the region, should we learn something from this, re: LRT and urgency around investment in rapid transit?

The City of Mississauga has been active on the rapid transit file and is looking for the Hurontario LRT to be a transformational project as it transitions from urbanizing to reurbanizing.

Brampton City Council rejected its portion of the line north of Steeles Avenue. A truncated version of the line will now terminate well short of Brampton's downtown.

Different transit needs and priorities? Yes. But we might also see in this differing levels of motivation and divergent views as to how transit, especially rapid transit investments should balance connectivity with catalyzing development and shaping the geography and form of growth. Still Brampton is fast running out of greenfields. Not that long ago car-oriented growth came easy in Mississauga too.

Meanwhile, Back in Hamilton...

So how did things change in Hamilton between 2011 and 2016?

Not surprisingly mapping census tract data reveals most major growth occurred on the edges of the existing urbanized area: in Waterdown, Ancaster (near the Meadowlands Power Centre), and areas south of Stone Church Road on Hamilton Mountain, as well as on Stoney Creek Mountain, in Binbrook, and along the lakefront in Stoney Creek.

So-called "aggressive" urbanists will take some comfort in new numbers. Census tracts in Westdale, Strathcona, Durand, and Corktown registered triple-digit population increases in absolute terms. So not withstanding concerns about displacement, growth to the south and west of downtown is likely a harbinger of the much talked about renewed urbanism taking hold in "lower city" Hamilton.

The situation, as we shall see is more complicated and troubling, to the north and east of downtown, and perhaps in a few more distant places. Population decline, and for a few census tracts significant decline, is the story that emerges from the 2016 numbers.

Because population growth is mapped using relative numbers (i.e. percentage change) the next logical step is to do some ground-truthing - that is, take a closer look at a few places where neighbourhood or block level changes are known to be occurring.

Map: Hamilton CMA population change by Census Tract, 2011-2016
Map: Hamilton CMA population change by Census Tract, 2011-2016

Preliminaries on Looking Closer to Home

I have long been interested in understanding how broad social and economic characteristics of City or region's population break-down into micro-geographies at the neighbourhood scale.

Typically this means mapping or discussing census tract level data, which appeared in Canada starting with the 1951 census (1956 for Hamilton) and were designed for social scientific studies and planning purposes. They have been stable over time and follow rules to keep them within certain bounds in terms of population (the Census Dictionary states they "usually have a population between 2,500 and 8,000 persons").

That means their geographic size is a function of density. Where densities are higher the area of each census tract is smaller, and where significant development increases populations new tracts are created through a process of division that allows for them to be recombined should that be needed by end-users, such as to do analysis of changes over time.

Because I live in the North End neighbourhood, which is coterminous with census tract 0066.00, I tend to take an interest in how it and surrounding tracts have changed over time. Reaching back to the 1961 Census has allowed me to see arcane things such as what percentage of dwellings in the neighbourhood had a flush toilet.

Also, because I'm currently serving as parent rep on the West Hamilton City Accommodation Review Committee, I've taken an interest in looking at socio-demographic trends for the census tracts that fall into the Pupil Accommodation Review's (PAR) study area.

That ARC began its work after the release of an "initial report" that proposes we close another inner city school, this time Hess School. That process requires being attentive to where enrolment numbers are going, but projections draw heavily on past trends.

I'll leave any detailed description and analysis to a possible future article, other than to say that all things being equal, population densities and numbers of children have fallen since 1960s. That is, each dwelling on average has fewer people living in it now, so there are fewer people in most inner-city neighbourhoods than was once the case except where apartments were constructed to add units.

In the case of census tract 0066.00 (the North End neighbourhood) the latest census data registered a modest population decline of 224 people. That is a continuation of a trend that has been in place since 1961 and has seen us fall from just over 8,000 residents to now just under 5,000.

Part of that can be attributed to the disruptive impact of urban renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s. The City expropriated hundreds of homes in the North End (and ended up demolishing 412) to make way for a perimeter highway along the rail corridor/Strachan Street and to carry out what was dubbed the L-plan, which resulted in the large institutional area and open space in the centre of the neighbourhood that contains the current Bennetto School, North Hamilton Community Health Centre, Bennetto Recreation Centre, and some tennis/basketball courts.

But mainly it appears to represent a long-term shift in household structure and family sizes. Without getting too fancy about it, each generation seems to use the mostly-inherited housing stock of the neighbourhood less intensively, though that changes with life-cycle and fluctuations in the dividing-up of houses into rental units, including secondary suites.

A Comment on Revitalization and Gentrification

One new wrinkle is the work of the City and real estate capital to "revitalize" the West Harbour planning area, which includes the North End neighbourhood, significant parts of the Beasley and Central neighbourhoods, and a small part of the Strathcona neighbourhood.

Part of that "revitalization" has come in the form of an influx of what are sometimes called marginal gentrifiers (ostensibly middle-class households with high cultural capital, and therefore future earning potential, but more limited economic capital) who find in urban neighbourhoods a desirable mix of walkability, transit connectivity, daycares and schools, cultural amenities, and affordable housing.

The consequences of marginal gentrification are complicated and contested, but not unproblematic. Where it occurs, it typically is accompanied by displacement of more marginal households as rents and house prices rise and de-conversions of rental units in houses occur as part of a renovation and upgrading cycle. This is then often followed by a phase of gentrification more thoroughly comprised of affluent households.

Some discussion of how this is working out on-the-ground can be found in a recent report by SPRC [PDF] on housing and social changes in North Hamilton.

As Statistics Canada only released population and dwelling counts last week, we shall have to wait until data from the 2016 Census reporting on socio-economic characteristics of the population are made available to say more about this aspect of neighbourhood change in Hamilton from 2011 to 2016.

What a Few Dissemination Blocks can Reveal

That said, I want to finish up by drawing attention to what even mere population and dwelling counts can highlight with regard to another form of gentrification. In this case, I'd like to look at 2006, 2011, and 2016 numbers for three "dissemination blocks", the smallest areal units in the census's geographic hierarchy for which it only publishes population and dwelling counts.

Two of the blocks are located in the North End and roughly correspond to the apartment tower at 500 MacNab Street North (3525049605 in 2006 and 2011, and 35250496005 in 2016) and the Jamesville townhouses located between James Street North and MacNab Street North from Strachan Street to Ferrie Street (3525049101 in 2006 and 2011, and 35250491001 in 2016). Both are CityHousing Hamilton properties.

The third block is located in Beasley and corresponds to the block from Cannon Street East to Robert Street between Hughson Street North and John Street North (3525084703 in 2006, was split into 3525084704 and 3525084705 in 2011, and became 35250847004 and 35250847005). That block contains 181 John Street North and 192 Hughson Street North: the Robert Village apartments owned by Greenwin.

With regard to these dissemination blocks, our interest is not just in population change, but also in what is revealed by differences in the total number of dwelling units and the number of units occupied by a usual resident.

Population, Dwellings and Occupied Dwellings in Three Dissemination Blocks, 2006-2016
DBUID (2006) Population Total Dwellings Dwellings Occupied by UR
2006 2011 2016 2006 2011 2016 2006 2011 2016
3525049605 146 143 58 145 142 145 137 132 55
3525049101 327 380 318 89 90 93 83 89 75
3525084703 974 1158 577 383 393 390 351 376 240

If we start with the North End, the block that contains the apartment tower at 500 MacNab Street North has seen a significant drop in population between 2011 and 2016 (85 people, or -60 percent) and that seems to correspond with a significant rise in unoccupied dwellings (from 1 to 90).

Likewise, if we consider the block that contains the Jamesville townhouses, we see a population decline of 62 people (a more modest decline of 16 percent), which may relate to an increase in unoccupied units (from 1 to 18) - though it should be noted that Jamesville's numbers are less stable across the three censuses when compared to 500 MacNab Street North.

More significant is what the new census data reveals about the block that contains Robert Village. There we see an enormous population decline in absolute terms between 2011 and 2016: 581 people or 50 percent. That may be explained in large part by a significant increase in unoccupied units from 17 to 150.

Inducing Tenants to Leave

I'm not going to pretend to be shocked by these numbers.

Based on my involvement over the last few years in planning and development controversies in the West Harbour area and local politics, I went straight to these blocks to see if any of the changes that have been much discussed by activists and concerned residents (and reported on by the Spectator and CBC Hamilton) were evident. Sure enough they were.

We've previously been given some numbers, in terms of vacant units for the two CityHousing properties in the North End. Both properties are now awaiting their fate as yet to be fully revealed revitalization projects will remake them. For some time, CityHousing has not been filling units as they are vacated in these two properties in advance of this.

What is said to have transpired and may occur at 181 John Street North and 192 Hughson Street North is similar, but different. The Robert Village apartments are market rentals and it was reported in 2015 that the owner, Greenwin, which purchased the buildings in 2012 and 2013 had been trying to induce tenants to leave to make way for "repairs, renovations and rent increases beyond the provincial limit."

The Public Record's applications of note for the Committee of Adjustment, May 19, 2016 includes one from Greenwin for a minor variance, re: 181 John Street North and 192 Hughson Street North.

At that time, TPR reported that the variance sought among other things to increase the number of units in the buildings. It would be reasonable to speculate that Greenwin wishes to convert larger units into multiple smaller units.

If that is indeed the case, it portends a loss of affordable three-bedroom units and may be a trend to look for in the next census, as other aging rental apartment buildings are changing hands in Hamilton and talk of repositioning them too is in the air.

Asking the Right Questions

In this regard, the census is best used to aid us not in seeking the right answers, but in asking the right questions.

For me the right question to ask the City at the moment is two-fold: (1) what it is doing to protect our existing stock of larger rental units suitable for families and increase their supply? and (2) is it committed to using City-owned land in the West Harbour (i.e. Barton-Tiffany, Jamesville, and Pier 8) to build complete communities with a reasonable mix of housing choices in terms of tenure/affordability, unit size, and number of bedrooms?

Given the responses I've got from City staff responsible for waterfront development in the West Harbour, it would be safe to assume that not allowing property owners like Greenwin to subdivide larger units in their rental apartment towers would be obvious.

I say that because City staff have been non-committal at best when asked by members of the public how many larger two- and three-bedroom units we should expect to see as part of new mid- and high-rise developments on lands the City aims to sell in the near future, such as Piers 6-8.

But aside from reacting to changes that threaten affordable housing options for larger households as they arise, what we really need is some leadership to address whether intensification in Hamilton will include in its mix affordable units and housing suitable for families.

The latter has thus far received at best limited consideration. As we go into that future that is not quite now our efforts might be aided by looking at what other cities are doing.

The City of Vancouver, for instance, adopted guidelines [PDF] more than two decades ago to address the design of high-density housing for families with children. Last year, Vancouver introduced a new housing policy to increase its supply of family-suitable housing by requiring developers include a minimum percentage of two- and three-bedroom units (25 percent and 10 percent respectively) in new residential condos and rental buildings.

That was driven by shortage of "affordable" housing options for a broad cross-section of families in Metro Vancouver, a problem that is particularly acute in the City of Vancouver, but also increasingly felt across its suburbs, as a Globe and Mail article aptly titled "Making room for families in the City" points out.

We aren't Vancouver. But that shouldn't stop us from learning from their situation to improve ours.

Update: this article originally stated that the City expropriated over 600 homes in the North End, but the actual number of expropriated homes is not entirely clear. The original plan was to demolish 500-600 homes, but the final number of buildings demolished was 412, of which the vast majority were homes (but also included an old cotton mill at the Jamesville site). Some homes were purchased from their owners but not demolished. You can jump to the changed paragraph.

Rob Fiedler is a member of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association executive. Expresses himself in a 280 characters or less @rsfiedler.

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By Herman.Turkstra (registered) - website | Posted February 14, 2017 at 16:02:27

Its great to see hard data collected and interpreted. Facts might just be useful. Rob's point that the City needs to focus on family housing including family housing in the North End neighbourhood is absolutely right. And family housing includes affordable and accessible housing. As Hamilton's largest land-owner and developer, the City has tremendous power to contribute to finding the right balance.

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