Monday, December 10, 2012

Housing + Hipsters + Hamilton = Homelessness?

The Mayan calendar predicted Hamilton would be invaded by hipsters.
We moved to Hamilton four and a half years ago from Toronto, and when we told our friends and relations about our relocation their various reactions amounted to one big...WTF? Yes, that's pretty much how Torontonians have regarded Hamilton since forever. Hamilton, for those of you not from Ontario, sits at the southwest corner of Lake Ontario about 70km from Toronto and has a population of just over 500,000. Once upon a time it was the Pittsburgh of Canada: a grimy, rough-edged, steel-producing city that measured civic success in the amount of smoke belching from the chimneys of its mills and factories. Down the road in Toronto success was, and is, gauged by the rise of gleaming glass cubes filled with offices and condo units. If Hamilton was Pittsburgh, then Toronto was New York. When smokestack industries began their North American-wide decline in the 1980s Hamilton was hit very hard, and in many parts of the city it looks like time has stood still since then.

It appears that this is all about to change. In the last week, two Toronto newspapers have run major features (read them here and here) on Hamilton as the next big destination for the arts and IT crowd, and for Torontonians looking for affordable housing. Both articles rightly point out some of Hamilton's advantages: cheap housing; quick connections to Toronto; a vibrant arts scene that's growing exponentially; and a pleasing lack of crowds competing for space and services. That's all well and good, but if Hamilton does become the promised land for the next generation of urban pioneers it could be bad news for some Hamiltonians.

One of the important things people should know about Hamilton is that it has one of the highest levels of poverty in the country. When the smokestack industries were going strong in Hamilton no one told their kids it might be a good idea to get a post-secondary education. Why bother? The city was full of blue collar jobs that asked for nothing more than elbow grease and a tolerance for noise and heat. When these industries collapsed the city was left with a sizable population of people with none of the qualifications needed for the New Economy. The ones with an education and/or ambition moved to Toronto or Ottawa or points west, and thus the city's intellectual and entrepreneurial base became hollowed out. What was left were a lot of people on social assistance or working for minimum wage, a depressed housing market, and whole streets of shuttered or declining businesses. It's no accident that the reboot of Robocop was shot in Hamilton this past year; we've got mean streets aplenty.

So why might it be a bad thing for Hamilton to enjoy a wave of what the French like to call bobos (bourgeois bohemians)? It's all about the housing. Both newspaper articles practically salivate over the low cost of homes in Hamilton. As it happens, both articles underestimate the savings to be had. The writers of the articles, clearly aware that their Toronto readership wants housing of a certain quality, talk about the easy availability of ample or characterful homes in the 200-400k range. Speaking from experience, that price range can get you an awful lot of house in Hamilton. But try this on for size: as I write this there are 144 homes for sale in lower Hamilton for 150k or less. You can't buy a bachelor condo in Toronto for that.

Because housing is so cheap, Hamilton has become something of a haven for people on limited incomes. In fact, it's known that aid agencies throughout Ontario will unofficially tell their clients that Hamilton might be a good place to move to in order to make their dollars go further. You don't have to be in Hamilton for long before noticing that it has more than its share of the elderly, infirm and people who have clearly spent their entire lives on the margins of society. Many of them live in cheap rental accommodations, and if a tsunami of affluent Torontonians descend on the city it's these people who are going to suffer. Landlords are going to be turfing tenants so as to renovate their properties and sell them on. Unfortunately, there is no other place for these low-income families and individuals to go to. Ontario is tapped-out when it comes to cheap places to live. It would seem the only two outcomes to such a situation are overcrowding and homelessness.

Given the huge disparity in housing prices between Hamilton and Toronto it seems inevitable that in the near future Hamilton will go through a real estate boom. I can't see how that won't be disastrous for a significant number of Hamiltonians. That being the case, it provides one more reason to support a stronger social safety net. A lot of Hamiltonians just manage to scrape by, so any significant upward shift in accommodation costs is going to have a huge impact on them. Not surprisingly, civic leaders in Hamilton are all aflutter over the prospect of hipsters coming to the city, and this means their attention turns to efforts to gentrify and prettify Hamilton. But if attention isn't paid to the human cost of Hamilton's upcoming demographic shift the consequences will be ugly. Given today's political climate of austerity before all else, it's doubtful any politician is going to step forward to ask for more social assistance for Hamilton, and that might very well create an equation in which each new hipster or yuppie welcomed to Hamilton equals one more person in line at the food bank or killing time inside a shelter. If we are going to be deluged with hipsters, perhaps the city can put a tax on skinny jeans, ironic facial hair, and macchiatos; that should pay for some public housing.

No comments: