Gentrification, Housing, and Hamilton’s Real Estate State
From the Nest, Issue 3
by Angela Orasch
A long-time Barton Street bar, Nobody’s Perfect, has a “for sale” sign in its window. Bars and restaurants closing a year into the COVID-19 pandemic might be common enough, but something about this feels different.
Nobody’s Perfect exists along the borderlines of gentrification in Hamilton. Its location is significant; on the cusp of a gentrifying Barton Street corridor that continues eastward to satisfy speculative investors.
Its image is also significant; a ‘gritty’ or ‘working class’ streetscape whose signage has been co-opted; I’ve seen the circular painting on its brick exterior tattooed on someone’s arm, and its frontage photographed by “urban explorers” looking to capture a “Hamilton aesthetic”.
What happens to this space will likely follow an economic development strategy already in place. A condo? A high-end boutique? COVID-19 makes it difficult to say, and I may be wrong, but a good guess is that it doesn’t revert back to the place that it was.
Many conversations about gentrification in Hamilton focus on streetscapes and storefronts, highlighting the visual changes on building facades and the arrival of new expensive places to shop and eat. These changes are palpable and alert our senses to a problem, that living in Hamilton is increasingly unaffordable, inaccessible, and exclusionary.
Just this past year the average house price in Hamilton rose by 30%, the highest increase in the country. The rental market is equally as inflationary, with rental costs exploding upwards of 40% in the last 9 years. This has come to mean that nearly half of Hamilton renters are living in unaffordable dwellings and spending more than 30% of their income on housing. These numbers represent an unprecedented crisis for our city.
Housing issues and the gentrification of streetscapes are connected. Hamilton Artists Inc. recently compiled a community drafted gentrification glossary to share awareness and knowledge on this topic and related issues. The glossary defines gentrification as “a catch-all term used to indicate the changes in a neighbourhood when investment returns to an urban area from which capital was previously withdrawn.”
As the glossary details, gentrification then produces a series of effects –
- Lower income residents are forced to leave the area because they cannot afford rising prices;
- The physical character of the area changes; and
- The cultural character of the neighbourhood changes as long-term residents and community businesses are forced to leave or no longer feel welcome.
These transformations have been happening in Hamilton for some time. James Street North, and its surrounding blocks, look very different and cost much more than they did 15 years ago.
Such transformations are driven by a series of political and economic factors. The Greater Toronto Area has seen a property market grossly outpaced by inflation for some time, contributing to Hamilton’s own affordability issues.
In step with these market forces, the City of Hamilton has enacted grant-based development incentives and designed search campaigns with a view to bring more capital property investment and speculation to the city. Recently, the city partially waived development charges in the downtown area and issued over $9.2 million dollars in combined grants to about 400 projects for new developments and building improvements.
In 2017, Hamilton’s economic development department created a “Hamilton Consulate” in Toronto. The two-day event was an attempt to encourage those with “big money” to invest in the city. Proceedings included a “speed dating” event between representatives from Hamilton and people interested in investing.
These interventions are what Samuel Stein might call a real estate state, where the state works to ensure property valuations rise and that supply and demand are maintained. This process combines the “look” of gentrification with the real inflation of property and rental markets, in effect creating a city that’s unaffordable for many and profitable for few.
The closing of Nobody’s Perfect has prompted a slew of online posts and conversations in my social media circle where people have shared their feelings and concerns. The significance of Nobody’s Perfect as a “canary in the coalmine” of gentrification is apparent, but it’s important to remember that the place likely meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
To understand gentrification solely through the changing streetscapes of Barton Street East might be to miss the broader connections that gentrification has to housing, community sustainability, and displacement. It is not the loss of the sign that matters, but the loss of a space that may have offered affordability and access.
Angela Orasch is an Urban Politics Instructor at McMaster University and a Ward 3 resident