Planning Hamilton for who? LRT and the Rental Housing Crisis: Part Three

By Shawn Selway for King Street Tenants United

Because we are not reproducing at the replacement rate, and because the Canadian state participates in American wars for control of strategic resources that produce great disruption and loss of life, we need to bring in voluntary immigrants and refugees. And they would benefit themselves as well as us by coming in because many would have greater physical security, and may be able to send some earnings home. They will not do as well as rapidly as those who came before, but that is of no matter to those who determine Canadian immigration policy. They are holding the gate open because they want the children of those immigrants. 

The City of Hamilton’s population growth is approximately 1% per year. In 2016-2017, almost two-thirds of that was attributable to immigrants, who numbered about 3700. Source:  “A Demographic Profile of Immigrants in Hamilton”, Hamilton Immigration Partnership Council, March, 2019.

The chart above is from a statistical compilation which tells us, among many other interesting things about the languages and ethnic origins of incoming Canadians, that:

Among recent immigrants living in Hamilton in 2016, 35.2% had a university certificate, diploma or degree at the bachelor level or above. Recent immigrants had significantly lower earnings than both immigrants and non-immigrants across all educational levels, and their low-income rate (43.0%) was almost three times higher than the population overall (15.3%).

We need to settle these people here, but where are they to live when they first arrive?

We need also to retain some portion of the students who graduate every year from McMaster and Mohawk. 

The McMaster undergraduate student body is about twenty-seven thousand strong these days. Alongside them are about 5,000 graduate students in masters and doctoral programmes.  Each year the university confers seven thousand degrees, five thousand of which are Bachelors of Arts, Sciences or Engineering.  We would like to settle some of these individuals here, but again, where are they to live? Where is the affordable rental housing for young people just beginning their careers and earning comparatively little, whatever their potential may be? 

Finally, there are the members of that “flourishing local arts community” whose existence McMaster flacks feel important to mention on the university’s brochure page. These individuals have been coming from other parts of Ontario, chiefly Toronto, but also from abroad.

Artists and musicians are the voluntary portion of low income earners, if I can put it that way. These are people who are often highly educated and therefore economically mobile if they wish, but who feel, rightly or wrongly, a vocation and are prepared to act on that conviction. They are not excluded, they choose a special form of participation: life in the art world, which is either a decadent playground for permanent adolescents or an anticipation of a utopia of non-alienating work, depending on who’s judging. For some, artists are the “footsoldiers of gentrification”, scorned for their pretensions, their aloof abstraction from the bread and butter concerns of the rest of us, and their apparent acquiescence in the condo-ism of the city’s EcDev crew and the marketing slogans of the developers.  In conversation many artists are well aware of their ambiguous position in the local economy, and of their mostly unsought role in the “urbanist” spectacle of real estate promotion. As a group they are as divided as the rest of the city. 

Advertisement for off-King new build.

How much the arts amenity actually influences locational choice is not very clear. It certainly gets lots of lip service, but is this anything more than publicists both private and public recycling each other’s boiler plate? The other week a real live entrepreneur and business owner was invoking the familiar city-building rubrics – at least, according to publicists KGA, who had him saying in a press release that:

“Hamilton offers all the right elements for our employees. It’s affordable, has fantastic restaurants, vibrant nightlife, a great arts scene, and offers active green space nearby. It’s also within close proximity to our headquarters in Toronto, providing easy knowledge-sharing across both offices.”

The speaker was Darrel Heaps, founder and CEO of Q4, on the occasion of the announcement that his firm had leased premises at 59 King East (a Core Urban holding) and would be engaging up to 140 bright young things to frolic in the wellness room, the games room, and the outdoor patio, as well as to savour the cuisine on King William and vicinity – much of which is also owned by Core Urban.

The real draw for Q4 and similar outfits is the chance to retain employees longer while paying them less, because as city staffer Judy Lam told the Spec, “For the first time, some of their employees will be able to start a family and afford a house or condo to live in.” (Hamilton Spectator, 21 January 2020.)

Whatever the importance of the “art scene” may be, city councillors certainly do not act as if they believe any of the publicity about arts-related “vibrancy” helping to induce investment. True, there is language in the new downtown secondary plan to the effect that proposed residential development close to an existing live music venue must be built with noise attenuating measures (so the new residents don’t start campaigning against the venue) but the destroyer of Toronto’s live music scene is not neighbour complaint but rocketing land values.  There is no talk at city hall of any provision to make a special tax class as Toronto was able to arrange with the province when it seemed that 401 Richmond, a commercial rental building occupied mostly by arts organizations, was headed for forced shutdown. The problem was that assessment based on “highest and best use” of the land, e.g. a condo tower, was yielding a tax bill in excess of the tenants’ means.  The solution was the establishment of a new property tax class for Creative Co-Location Facilities, with the rate set by the city, and the drafting of a set of criteria for inclusion in the new class. 

Again, as with the other lower income groups discussed above, housing affordability is the chief difficulty facing artists and musicians in Hamilton. It doesn’t much matter if venues survive and studio space is attainable, if you can’t find a place to live anyway.

No Big Money coming in? Little Money providing shelter, food, drinks, “eternal beauty and well-being”, and coffee on King. There’s also a corner variety store.

Almost every large city is a global city now, inhabited by people with nested identities. And many of the inhabitants of cities in the hinterland of a metropolis are undergoing the same impoverishment by a rentier class who own more and more and produce, well, nothing really. It is suicidal to allow still more land to pass into the possession of this vampiric class, unless you are a revolutionary or an authoritarian reactionary, in which case everything is developing just fine.

Rise of the residential REITS. Source: Martine August, “Canada’s Rental Housing Goldmine: The financialization of multi-family rental apartments”, 2017.

For an account of the growth of one of these outfits from rooming house owner to billion dollar operation, see last year’s article from the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network. The trusts, whose business model is essentially to bleed lower and middle income earners and send some of the money on to their middle and higher income shareholders, are now being joined in the Canadian market by giant private equity firms. (Tim Kiladze, “The rental rush”, Globe and Mail, November 30, 2019.)

In a 2015 article for the “The Journal of Urban Affairs” Gillad Rosen and Alan Walks draw the outline of the current mechanism of “city building”, in which financialization has replaced industrialization as the driver of capital flows, and explore what this has produced in Toronto. 

Third-wave urbanization has likewise involved a spatial shift from suburbanization and urban dispersion toward concentration, gentrification, and intensification, which bring with them profound changes in urban social life. We argue that in cities like Toronto such shifts are tightly intertwined with the rise of what we term condo-ism. The latter refers to a particular mode of development rooted in a nexus of, on the one hand the economic interests of the private sector development industry and the state, and on the other new urbane yet privatized residential preferences, lifestyles, and consumption interests among consumers. This has resulted in a new structured coherence of political and economic interests. . . dependent upon continued intensification and real estate development in the city, with mortgage credit displacing industrial expansion as the primary driver of the urban growth machine. In the context of financialization and globalization, condo-ism has thus usurped the role of industrialization in urban development. Toronto is an exemplar of this process. (Rosen and Walks, “Castles in Toronto’s Sky”)

Renters have the most difficulties under this regime, and not only lower income renters but those of middle income as well, as is evident from the fact that both have been coming here for some years seeking relief.  This would seem to imply the possibility of a broader coalition directed at a non-market solution, but somehow this seems not to occur to the struggling children of the lower middle classes – probably because they are so alarmed by the unexpected prospect of downward mobility that all their efforts are aimed at grabbing a rung on the home-ownership ladder. The odds against them are lengthening.

Hamilton, November 2019, first snow. With permission.

I’ll give the second last word to City of Hamilton planning staff, who after all are the experts in these matters.

The Downtown Secondary Plan contains this stirring affirmation:

6.1.3.7 Diversity of Housing Housing is fundamental to the economic, social, and physical well-being of Downtown’s residents and neighbourhoods. Housing is a basic human need and is the central place from which people build their lives, nurture their families and themselves, and engage in their communities. Downtown’s livability and prosperity is connected to the provision of housing that meets the requirements of a diverse population with varying housing needs. Downtown offers various built form housing options, including grade-related, mid-rise, and tall buildings with a variety of ownership and tenancy. Providing housing to a wide range of residents that is affordable, secure, of an appropriate size, and located to meet the needs of people throughout their life is the goal of an inclusive Downtown and essential to the creation of complete communities.

Fine words. Surely this is intended as a manifesto,  a statement of principle which ought to be endorsed, but in fact is silently rejected, by city council, the chamber of commerce, the developers and their architects and lawyers, the leadership of the construction trades, LIUNA, the health care principalities, and the strategists of all three major political parties.

In fact, almost nobody but tenants in rental housing and the homeless in their camps actually feels the need for their right to housing to be met – affordable, secure, adequately sized and located housing, that is. Everybody else thinks it is somebody else’s responsibility. Or no-one’s. 

Meanwhile those buildings all along King Street East are sitting there, intact and empty, and the next logical step is obvious to all. Whether anyone will take it remains to be seen.

This article is the third in a three part series. Read Part One (“Time to Turn”) here and Part Two (“Urban Renewal Then and Now”) here.

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