Monday, March 28, 2016

What is Gentrification and What can we do about it?

(This story originally appeared in The Anvil Hamilton`s Topical News Quarterly - December 2015. House prices in the Hamilton area jumped more than any other real estate market in Canada in the past year.)

Good news for some. But on balance this development is something we should be concerned about.

Tenants living in Hamilton's downtown core are being displaced from their homes and communities as an influx of new development and investment continues to reduce the city's affordable housing stock.  Displacement affects tenants' health, access to education, and employment -- resources that tenants need to thrive.  It is called gentrification.

Geography Professor David Ley, writing in the book the Canadian City, had this to say about gentrification.

“Gentrification deserves considerably more attention than it has received in Canada, if for one significant reason.  One of the most serious policy concerns in Canadian cities over the past 15 years has been the non-availability of affordable housing (especially rental units).”

Ley wrote these words nearly thirty years ago (in 1986) regarding a trend that had already been in motion for 15 years. 

What is gentrification?

The term became popular in the 1960’s. British sociologist Ruth Glass used it to describe the phenomenon of young “bohemians” moving into a rundown part of London England.  The bohemians were taking the place of long-standing, blue-collar communities who could no longer afford to live there. Glass saw this as a problem.  However, over time the term gentrification has been replaced by a kinder word “regeneration”   Regeneration seems to suggest that communities are being improved.

We’ll call it gentrification - “the fin is above the water. Below is the rest of the shark." That is how
American writer Rebecca Solnit refers to what has happened in her hometown of San Francisco.  It is now a “hollow city” with an economy where "most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous and more controlled or controllable". (Robert Bevan in the Guardian, February 27, 2014)

The City of Hamilton is somewhat unique as far as gentrification goes. Research that was released earlier this year is illustrative. (A City on the Cusp: Neighbourhood Change in Hamilton since 1970 -
Professor Richard Harris
Richard Harris Jim Dunn, Sarah Wakefield)

Most of us will be familiar with how the decline in manufacturing has impacted our city.  This research takes a look at what deindustrialization and other trends (growth of the service industry, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, etc.. ) has done to neighbourhoods.

Here is the thrust of their argument.

Historically, Hamilton has been fairly unique in that there has been relative income equality across all its neighbourhoods.  That has changed.  We now have “a marked segregation of the poor and a steady polarization of neighbourhoods.”

Using a measure of income inequality called the Gini coefficient, the authors argue that income inequality has increased in Hamilton more rapidly than any other city in Canada.  The rates of housing poverty (where households spend excessive amounts of income on housing) rival that of cities like Vancouver and Toronto where housing is much more expensive.  With downtown neighbourhoods being gentrified, residents and problems associated with income disparities are moving to Mountain neighbourhoods.

What Can be Done?

Professor Ley’s article cited above hit on some of the policy approaches that can be taken to tackle the problems caused by gentrification. 

Building more affordable housing is one approach.  Government, particularly at the federal level, has shown little interest in this strategy of late. 

Some municipalities, including Hamilton, have tried to retain existing housing through local regulations like demolition controls and restrictions on condominium conversions.   This doesn’t seem to be making much difference. 

Government programs in the seventies designed to preserve and enhance properties like the Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP) worked.  Neighbourhood decay may be too far advanced for such initiatives to succeed.

Right to the City ( and other groups in the United States have put forward the argument that gentrification violates the rights of people who are displaced because they can’t afford increased rents.  The argument is that those rights are guaranteed under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 25 of this Declaration asserts that everyone has a right to housing.  Other rights are spelled out.  The Declaration was ratified in 1948 before gentrification was identified.  It will be interesting to see how this human rights approach proceeds.

In addition though, Right to the City and other American groups have developed programs and toolkits for those who are trying to halt the displacement of poor and disadvantaged individuals and families.

Perhaps we can look to these approaches for solutions to the problems gentrification is creating in Hamilton.