Looking Beyond Housing as Shelter Alone
From the Nest, Issue 10
by Mary Lou Tanner
I listen to CBC’s Metro Morning as I get my day underway. One day in mid-October, I was mesmerized by the juxtaposition of two stories that ran side by side. Both were related to housing. To be honest, I likely wouldn’t have been as profoundly impacted by them if they hadn’t been programmed to run after one another.
The first story was about people living unhoused. A reporter had travelled to Goderich to learn more about people living unhoused in communities outside of larger cities.
What I was most struck by was an interview with one Goderich resident, living unhoused, who said (I’m paraphrasing) – everyone who is here in a tent has suffered trauma, major trauma. Why did this strike me so profoundly? Because the human dignity and experience of people seems to be playing second or even third to the enforcement solutions the City is employing. The lived experience of these residents is our truth, as fellow residents and community members.
The second report was with an artist who had photographed a redevelopment site in their community, from behind the construction fences. The artist’s perspective showed the starkness of redevelopment across multiple sites and neighbourhoods in Toronto – the metal bars juxtaposed against the vacant buildings, the architecture, and the landscape – before it changed.
The interview with the artist brought commentary about the redevelopment as negative – traffic, height, lack of affordable housing. But the issues that community residents bring forward are their lived experiences, too.
We are in the most profound housing crisis of our generation and likely since the middle of the last century when the baby boom generation drove the need for so much housing. This housing crisis is different because there are so many layers, issues, and complexities.
The intersection of housing, climate, and the pandemic makes finding solutions seem overwhelming. Add to this an economy that is driving growth and more housing, the ownership of rental housing by real estate trusts, renovictions, demovictions and more. Look at the number of cranes in downtown Hamilton, the number of signs for development applications, and the wildness that is the bidding in the real estate market.
Yet, there are examples of solutions to the housing issues – solutions addressing significant yet discrete issues in our housing crisis.
For example, the redevelopment by CityHousing Hamilton of Ken Soble Tower addresses the upgrading of this building. Investment in new supportive housing across our city by Indwell and others addresses solutions to complex housing, health, and social needs. The prioritization of community benefits on the LRT line addresses more than housing – complex situations requiring integrated thinking. New housing being built in places like Pier 8 and downtown Hamilton brings more housing choice.
And issues and challenges that miss the issue – how do we support communities as they face individual redevelopment projects, how do we address our housing needs and expectations of true solutions for all as we grow, how do we support those living unhoused while respecting their safety and security? There is a lot of good work being done but, to be honest, much more is needed.
We cannot look at housing as shelter alone. The issues and complexities go much deeper than shelter. Broader conversations and analyses of the social determinants of health, our commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as our commitment to reconciliation, are desperately needed as we focus on housing in Hamilton. I do believe that a Hamilton housing strategy is absolutely critical for our city’s future and the future of our communities.
We must go well beyond the traditional approaches as we look at housing for all Hamiltonians and build a plan and strategy so that all our decisions – planning, investing in housing, grants, and more – align to that strategy. And that strategy must absolutely be rooted in commitments to equity, diversity, inclusion, and reconciliation. We must truly be committed to these fundamental values in order to tackle the housing crisis we face.
This housing crisis is experienced by people differently and I believe we must be brave enough to work through the experiences of our fellow citizens. This includes the experiences of newcomers to our city, whether they are new Canadians or relocating from another city.
Our communities are changing. Our neighbourhoods are changing. The number of cranes in downtown Hamilton is a sign of that change. In many ways, the neighbourhoods of downtown have been early witnesses to where we are today.
While I believe it is our collective responsibility to be part of that change; it is also our collective responsibility to support a really important process aligned to our values and our future; to engage in our city’s future and to support our fellow citizens in their engagement in our city’s future housing needs.
Earlier this year, my neighbourhood association held a virtual meeting of neighbours regarding two proposed developments. What struck me was the level of understanding of the housing crisis we face. One neighbour commented that “my parents and my children can’t afford this neighbourhood”. Another very astutely said (again paraphrasing): “We need to check our privilege and be part of building more housing for all”.
As our city grows, these very important conversations need a focused approach so we are respectful, inclusive, and understand that while many Hamiltonians have benefited financially with the rise in house prices, there are many fellow citizens who have been put at risk, and there are many for whom our city is unaffordable.
Through the pandemic, the Mayor and Council had an Task Force on Economic Recovery to develop strategies and solutions to support businesses across our city in recovery from the pandemic. The City has a model to use for housing as a starting point. There are many who have valuable knowledge, experience and would bring such passion for a better Hamilton to this work.
Our city’s future demands we do more, that we engage in a process that brings the full breadth of analysis, and that we define a future focused on safe and secure housing for all. We can only do so by gathering the collective wisdom within our city to define that future.
Mary Lou Tanner is a resident of East Hamilton with a passion for her community and our city; she has been an urban planner in the Hamilton area for over thirty years and in addition to her urban planning work, Mary Lou has committed to supporting Hamilton in a variety of non-profit organizations; Mary Lou is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners, the highest individual honour for a planner in Canada