LRT Development Boom Is Squeezing Out Affordable Housing

  • 06/18/19
  • |          Kitchener

‘The LRT corridor will slowly become a gentrified space where the full benefits of the train are only accessible to privileged populations.’

As I discussed in my previous article, the Ion light rail transit system is about more than moving people; its primary aim is to manage growth in Waterloo Region by encouraging density in the urban core, rather than have continued sprawl in the much-loved countryside. Because of this, Waterloo Region is rapidly seen as a model for how to build a sustainable, mid-sized city.

But does this solution to sprawl and congestion raise new challenges? One of the biggest issues in our region is affordable housing. While the Ion represents a bold vision for the region’s future that is meant to stimulate new housing developments in the urban core, there have been no similarly bold visions to ensure that housing that gets built is affordable. Questions of what to build, and for whom, have been left almost entirely to the market to answer.

What does the market build? It builds what is most profitable. In today’s context, these are small units popular with young professionals and investors. Other housing needs, such as larger units for families, affordable housing for those on modest incomes, and social and supportive housing for the poorest members of our community are absent from this developer-driven building boom.

While the countryside sees protection from development, there have been no similar protections for low- and moderate-income households who are living in the wake of $3 billion in investment along the line. No measures exist to even preserve the existing supply of affordable housing, let alone build substantially more.

As a result, the LRT corridor is changing. Gentrification is resulting in more affluent people moving in, poorer populations being displaced and the whole social character of neighbourhoods changing.

While every politician now talks about affordable housing, and our eyes focus on what has been added — condos, construction cranes or trendy restaurants — we are largely oblivious to the fact that some of the most affordable housing in our community is being lost right before our eyes.

How much affordable housing has been lost? We simply don’t know. Buildings like 48 Weber St. in Kitchener make headlines for a few days, then fade into the background. Many more affordable units will be lost with the proposed Westmount Place development in Waterloo. But there is no data set that tracks what has been lost, who lived there or where they went. So for much of the past year, I have been working to better understand these processes and what they mean to people. I’ve walked the length of the LRT corridor, observing and photographing the buildings and streetscapes before the line opens. I’ve also spoken to dozens of people, from politicians and planners, to low-income residents who have been repeatedly displaced. Through this work, several patterns emerge.

The first is displacement that occurs because existing buildings are renovated and rents go up, a process known as “renoviction.” Various forms of landlord harassment and often illegal practices work to evict low-income tenants, thereby severing their right to return. I’ve heard stories of landlords waiting until the end of the month to deposit a rent cheque, in the hopes that the cheque bounces, thereby giving cause for eviction.

The second type of displacement occurs when buildings are knocked down to make way for new developments. Rooming houses and small apartments are “mowed down,” in the words of one gentleman I spoke with, and expensive condos or luxury rentals are put in their place.

Few people lament these losses. As I previously discussed, this intensification is exactly what the LRT is supposed to do; bring new development and more people to the urban core. For each condo, only a handful of buildings are demolished and many see this as no big deal. But when multiplied across $3 billion in new investment, we are talking about a serious loss of affordable housing that is not replaced.

The lived experience of this can be very stressful. I recently spoke with a woman whose small apartment building was bought by a developer. It will be torn down to make way for a large project where rents will be much higher. When the developer is ready to build, residents will receive their 120-day notices to leave. But they have not been told when this will be. It could be in a year, six months, or maybe even five years. Nobody knows. Until then, they live in limbo; at any point, their lives could be turned upside down and they will all be left on their own to compete for a dwindling supply of affordable housing.

The third form is called indirect displacement, meaning what is being built excludes those who are already living in the community. According to the region’s own assessment, 33 per cent of housing transactions along the LRT corridor are considered affordable to those on low and moderate incomes. But most new condos are very small and therefore not suitable for families. New three-bedroom units — the few that there are — start at $750,000, a challenge even for middle-class households, let alone those working on minimum wage. Gentrification means older houses are becoming more expensive.

In uptown Waterloo no social housing units have been built or are currently planned. In the boom town that is downtown Kitchener, of the close to 3,000 units slated to be constructed in 2019, only 10 are confirmed to be affordable. While both cities have policies in place to entice developers to build more affordable housing, this has rarely been acted upon.

What happens when people are displaced? Relying on statistics can be problematic because many people slip under the radar. In my research, four patterns emerge. Some people leave the region entirely. Others move to the fringes of downtown, where a single room can cost more than $600. Moving further out to where rents are slightly cheaper is another strategy. But this rarely leads to any net savings because of the additional costs of a bus pass to get back downtown to access social services such as food banks and soup kitchens. Finally, for the unlucky ones, particularly those with mental health issues, displacement means homelessness.

What can be done? For a start, we need to ensure that we replace the demolished affordable units with a similar number in their new projects and that tenants are given sufficient rights and protections against landlord harassment designed to make sure they don’t come back after renovations or demolition. This would at least ensure that the supply of affordable housing is not decreasing.

But to actually increase the supply of affordable housing, we need to think bigger. We can do this by leveraging one of the key assets that all residents of Kitchener and Waterloo collectively own; surface parking lots. Right beside the tracks, on Caroline Street in Waterloo and Charles Street in Kitchener, we own huge amounts of land that today is used to park cars. Tomorrow, these could be the sites for genuinely affordable housing that could transform the LRT corridor.

By retaining control of this land, rather than selling it to the highest bidder to build what is most profitable, we can be creative and innovative in housing that goes beyond tiny one-bedroom condos. Community land trusts, shared ownership schemes, co-ops, regulations to curb speculation, not to mention much needed subsidized and supportive housing, are all possible when we retain control of our most valuable asset: land. The same principle applies to the Charles Street bus terminal, which no longer will be the destination of Grand River Transit buses once Ion launches; we all own it and we have a housing crisis so let’s use this land to directly tackle this growing challenge. These developments would be driven less by profit and more by what our community wants and needs. They don’t need to be towering skyscrapers to satisfy shareholders; they can be human-scale buildings that focus on city-building.

Intensification is good; density is good. But without a bold vision for density with diversity, we will continue to see gentrification and displacement. The LRT corridor will slowly become a gentrified space where the full benefits of the train are only accessible to privileged populations able to pay the ever-higher rents and property prices. Left to the market, we will see more luxury townhomes and tiny condos that do little to address the diverse, and growing housing challenges within our community. Affordable housing isn’t just for those on very low incomes; young people starting out their careers in a precarious labour market and seniors on fixed incomes both benefit when we take more control of our housing supply.

The LRT is a transformative planning tool that is curbing sprawl and creating a more sustainable city. But to create a socially just city, we now need equally visionary policies to build a range of housing options that ensure that the benefits of a more sustainable way of life are available to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

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