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I’m with the Brand

I should probably stop poking the hornet’s nest of gentrification here, but it’s just sooooo… stimulating. Politics in this city are painfully local, yet Hamilton, Ontario is a microcosm of what’s happening across North America as cities race to “revitalize” themselves in emulation of New York. Fortunately though, the president and CEO of our local Chamber of Commerce recently wrote an op-ed piece that perfectly encapsulates many of the arguments for gentrification and crystallized for me why I’ve got a baaaaad feeling about this type of “revitalization”.

I'm with the BrandFirst, a few data points. My last post was about what it’s like to live through an unacknowledged crisis in rental housing. No doubt inspired by my post, the “rental crisis” is now openly acknowledged. A group called the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario issued a report claiming that nearly half of Ontario tenants earn less than $40,000/ year and three out of four of those household are paying “unaffordable rents”. To be fair, we’ve known for a while that over half of all Torontonians are paying more than they can afford to in rent. The study found, however, that about 45.4% of renters in Hamilton are also paying unaffordable rates. Surprisingly, the Spec has even published an editorial calling for an end to the loopholes in rent control. Nevertheless, Ontarians have elected as their Premier Doug Ford, a man who thinks the “market should decide” who can pay rent or not and blames the housing crisis on refugees; to be fair, many people probably do agree with Ford, but it would be a serious exaggeration to suggest that a single human being has ever admired the man.

Anecdotally, the apartment that I rented for $715 a month two and a half years ago now rents for $1150 and the super tells me they’ve made no renovations. “It’s crazy. They can get it now, so they expect it.” That rent is currently considered “cheap”; the goal seems to be more like $1800. Not surprisingly, eviction applications in the city  jumped by 95% between 2010 and 2016.

Also anecdotally, I’ve never seen this many homeless people on the streets of Hamilton before. The city has responded by retrofitting park benches so that you can’t sleep on them and forming a platoon of bike cops who give tickets to homeless people who panhandle, which was criminalized as a threat to our “safety”. Our shelters are all filled to capacity.

Which brings us to the encomium about our dazzling “resurgence” from the president of the COC: this essay truly is a masterpiece of the genre; to wit, it’s long on buzzwords and short on concrete details. It’s ostensibly about the Arkells, a local indie rock band that recently held a concert at our football arena, drawing a crowd of 34,000 people or so and how they are an “emblem for Hamilton’s renaissance”. Now, don’t get me wrong- I have no complaint about the Arkells. My knowledge of indie rock, admittedly, pretty much ends around the Feelies, so I have no idea if they’re any good. But, all power to anyone who can create a successful career through creative expression.

However, the prez labels them our “brand ambassadors” for “progressive urbanism”. In fact, let’s count the clichés in his essay:

  • Buzzword Bingo: The “local stakeholders” in our “resurgence” are either boosting our “momentum” or our “world-class” redevelopment. It’s not entirely clear, but it’s a good thing, right?
  • It’s a matter of “optimism” or pessimism: when you’re skeptical about gentrification, you’re generally accused of being “against progress”, “too negative”, a “crab in the bucket” or wanting to “keep Hamilton poor”. The subtle social pressure is to be a Panglossian positivist and get with the program. Step into the future! Details to follow.
  • The faux machismo: we have to “push the pedal to the metal” on “downtown redevelopment”, dudes! Act, don’t think. This will only be a “few-year fad” if we don’t add more bike lanes and demolish people’s homes and businesses to put in Light Rail Transit (LRT) right now! Details to follow.
  • The obligatory reminder that young Ontarians very recently “scoffed at Hamilton”. The implication is we’re finally cool, so what ya got against that? As a born-and-bred American, I find the provincial snobbism of many Ontarians to be perplexing and, frankly, kind of embarrassing. Believe me, the differences between these Canadian towns are like night and five minutes later same night.
  • The Arkells are specially cited for “settling in and beginning their careers here”. The emphasis in these articles is always, always, fishing always on people who moved here from elsewhere and settled this wild frontier, bringing culture to the savages. The kids who grew up in Hamilton are continually marginalized, forgotten, “displaced”, and replaced by their social betters. Wonder why.
  • Now, we get into the nitty gritty; the Arkells, and live music “experiences” are touted as a “top growth industry”. Which is strange because we’ve had two or three music clubs close in the past year, zero new clubs open, and half of the remaining clubs are in serious danger of closing. I know many people in live music and very few of them would call it a “top growth industry”. He cites our Hamilton Music Advisory Team, but as far as I can tell, the city’s “music strategy” is mostly to do with promotion and “rebranding”- pretty much the only skills that seem to be widespread now- as opposed to rezoning. Anecdotally, I was on a music committee that found that our young musicians have average incomes of $25-35,000 with almost none of that money coming from music. Go ahead and do the math for $1800 a month rent.
  • More specifically, what’s really being touted here are: “restaurants”, “bars”, hotels, and live music “experiences”. In other words, gentrification, in our case, is about replacing an industrial economy with a service economy. Having worked in bars, restaurants, gigging bands, and hotels, I’ve got to tell you, they’re not known for their great pension plans.

Really, it sounds like we’re talking about retrofitting the city (at billions of dollars of expense) so that ten percent of the population of Ontario can still afford to buy homes here and fifty percent of the current population can pay double their old rents to create the bourgeois lifestyle that the ten percent would have once found in the suburbs. For all of the boosterism and fervor in these articles,  there never seems to be any strong economic base offered up for any of this. It doesn’t add up in the long term, or even really the short term, since many of the people driving up the home prices here are over fifty without children.* If the C.O.C. president knows where solid growth comes in for the next generation, he doesn’t say. We can’t all join the Arkells. The implication seems to be that 1. Bright young people will move here because it’s now cool, and 2. They can figure it out. Details to follow! It reminds me of the old observation that campaigns to “raise awareness” amount to saying “You fix things”.

Look, it is deeply human to be optimistic. Yet, as Saul Bellow once wrote, let’s be warm-blooded, but the wise keep some cold blood on reserve.

I’m skeptical.

 

*Note: The “bedroom community” argument is still popular here as well, but it sort of negates the “bars and restaurants” argument because people who work and commute for 11 hours a day to Toronto don’t tend to hit the bar scene when they get off work. Also, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation recently reported that our housing market is still “hot” due to the Toronto housing bubble, but that it’s also “highly vulnerable” because of a lack of “home demand fundamentals” like population growth, per capita disposable income, and employment here. So, again, we’re back to the question of the long term.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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35 thoughts on “I’m with the Brand

  1. The key problem, it seems, is the prevalence of renters. If most residents owned the property outright instead, the increases in land value would benefit them instead of harming them.

    Municipal governments for a number of reasons, don’t like slums. (One reason is because they are eyesores. Another reason is that they get little tax revenue from them. Its a combination of lower land, property and income taxes).

    Before pursuing urban redevelopment, municipal governments need to ensure that there is some way in which residents who might get displaced have alternative living arrangements. Public housing might be an option here.

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    • Yeah, what’s one of the big factors driving this is the Toronto housing bubble, which was driven largely by speculation (house flipping, etc.) but hasn’t shown signs of serious cooling. So, houses there that were $150 k in living memory are now $1.2 mil and so forth. What this means is young people who work in their job market and want to buy a house have to come out to here. As a result, our houses went from something like $160 k to half a mil. very very quickly. And, as a result of that, most millennials I meet these days just assume they won’t ever be able to afford a house. So, they rent. Which then drove up the price of condos, but after that, the price of apartment rentals.

      Will the government step in? I have no idea. It looks good on paper- lots of people are making money and the tax base should be higher than before. On the other hand, you know, it’s not clear where we’re at in say ten years from now.

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      • Are there lots of unoccupied houses/ buildings? Land prices go up when productivity of land increases or demand, relative to supply increases or people falsely think at least one of the two is happening but that’s just a bubble. Productivity increases should usually translate into higher wages for you so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The problem as it were is when it is the latter 2 possibilities.

        If land prices are increasing, then the state needs to either build more houses or free up land use restrictions/height restrictions so that the private sector can build more houses/apartments.

        If its a bubble, I don’t know what to say except that this can’t last.

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    • If most residents owned the property outright instead, the increases in land value would benefit them instead of harming them.

      Only when you sell. Paying swelling prop taxes can be a serious problem for people in some types of situations.

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        • Higher rates of property ownership will depress the rental rates which will in turn depress Annual Value and hence property taxes…

          This seems more like the outcome of the solution than a solution. I’m not sure it’s even possible to increase property ownership rates without increasing supply. Increased supply depresses rental rates. For that matter increased supply also increases what’s out there to tax so taxes can be lower.

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          • I’d love to see that happen. Are there any examples at hand? The only place I can think of where rents are actually dropping right now is Chicago, or so I’ve read, but that’s most likely because their population has been dropping pretty sharply. Lots of people moving out. I imagine that could happen here too, but I know the population of NY is dropping and I don’t know anyone there whose rent is dropping.

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          • What I’d do, at least if I were dictator, is firstly waive property taxes for properties which are also the residential mailing addresses of the owners. This will mean that people who are flipping a house or are renting it out will have to pay property taxes.Secondly the property tax rate must increase for each additional residential property registered to your name but which is not your mailing address (over and above issues about land area).

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  2. The Arkells are specially cited for “settling in and beginning their careers here”. The emphasis in these articles is always, always, fishing always on people who moved here from elsewhere and settled this wild frontier, bringing culture to the savages. The kids who grew up in Hamilton are continually marginalized, forgotten, “displaced”, and replaced by their social betters. Wonder why.

    To be blunt, the first thing I thought of after reading this paragraph was “You Will Not Replace Us!”

    Tell me why this is different, how the sentiment expressed here is different than that expressed by those guys.

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    • In one word: Power.

      In two words: Power and Money.

      Resenting the moves of the *actually*, rather than imaginarily, more powerful and more rich, is IMO an entirely valid response by the less powerful and less rich.

      It can get utterly out of hand (cf: Cultural Revolution in China) and it can become twisted into something else, but the basic resentment is what’s led to any sort of progress we’ve made (however fragile) toward non-feudalism. (Feeling cynical about that given the link in the linky to people wanting their boss to make lots of money compared to other people’s bosses…)

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        • Power matters. Colonization is not (simply) immigration.

          And, as an aside (at this point merely an aside), it’s hella rude to pose this to Rufus in the way that you are doing, given how much context you have available to you for his actions and beliefs. Which I am making an aside mostly because I have a lot of context available to me for your actions and beliefs, so I’m willing to believe you might have a “more” there.

          If so, I’d personally appreciate you being more self-explanatory and less confrontational.

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        • You are attributing an argument to me that I haven’t made, that doesn’t reflect my beliefs, and which I’ve explicitly argued against in like 5 posts now! That paragraph, as well, doesn’t say anything like: people shouldn’t move here, they should move back to where they came from, or let’s keep them out and freeze the city in amber. It’s not even really close to that. It’s a comment on the classist bias in these booster articles. That’s it.

          The fact that someone put a sticker on a sign for a condo project three years ago, as well, doesn’t say jack about my beliefs! Clearly the sticker worked, though, because that developer hasn’t managed to put a shovel in the ground in three years since then.

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  3. At the risk of totally missing the point, I see significant differences between gentrifying a neighborhood and gentrifying a city (*).

    The American Conservative has recently run a series of articles about revitalizing (or something similar) some of the former industrial behemoths of Ohio, with a special focus in Akron. The author, a Jason Segedy, has very interesting ideas that would make all the sense in the world if he was talking about “that part of the city past downtown, down Constitution Av., but still north of the highway, you know what I’m talking about, do you?”, but make no sense when extended to a whole city.

    Cities are, first and foremost, economic entities. They are born, grow, and die, based on economic realities: fertile land, mines, rivers, ports, bridges, trading routes, factories, beaches, etc. The Law of Comparrative Advantages rules the lives of cities. People won’t live in Akron if there’s no economic activity in Akron. And, no matter how cheerful Mr. Segedy is about the great bones of Akron, he can’t get to explain why would someone move to Akron, or stay there.

    It seems to me that something similar is happening in Hamilton. Why is people moving there? A bedroom community? A retiree community (**)?

    Until we understand what Hamilton’s place is supposed to be in economic terms, it’s difficult to understand where all this is supposed to go. And there’s the risk that there’s nothing there, and it will all end badly ?

    (*) It might be (and I think Will Truman has sort of addressed this) that if you gentrify all of the neighborhoods you have succeeded in gentrifying the city, but it is definitely not the same thing

    (**) if you have never been to Naples FL, you can’t understand the concept of a city devoted to catering at retired millionaires (badly) driving their Porsches along the beach. And what a stunning success!

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    • if you have never been to Naples FL,

      When I list my blesses for which I am grateful, the fact that I have never been to Naples FL, nor have any likely prospect of ever going there, is high on the list.

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    • I think that’s right about gentrifying a neighborhood vs a city. What “gentrification” usually means is transforming like five streets in the downtown core. In Hamilton, it’s really like three streets that are drastically different and another where the handful of expensive restaurants aren’t changing much. A lot of it’s just hype and nonsense at this point, and really it’s like a zombie economic process- apply the same formula everywhere and hope for the best. It’s sort of mindless.

      The real irony is that, against all odds or logic, STELCO is now hiring something like 500 new people (I’m going to apply), which means they’re about to really ramp up production. This is both great- some of the jobs start at $37/hour- and hilarious because it’s exactly the opposite of what the political class wants, but they can’t exactly block it either.

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  4. Try to not look at it from the point of view of one of the plebs. Try to look at it from the point of view of the people in power. Look at it from the point of view of the elite.

    It’s this really nice city with a good downtown and a lot of authentic cultural flavor and they are finally making money and looking to live someplace hip like Seattle or Brooklyn. For some reason, the tricks actually worked in Hamilton. The hipness is getting hipper. Which means that more elites actually want to live there. You should be flattered!

    What you need to figure out is how to bottle this hipness and see if you can’t make some other city sexy and authentic. “Okotoks has heart!” or something like that.

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    • I was just in Vienna for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It’s really a beautiful city all around. I walked through what appeared to be social housing and my wife commented that Austrian housing projects aren’t at all like American ones. Most of the people I saw there appeared to be of Middle East or North African descent, which suggests some segregation. But it certainly wasn’t anything close to a North American slum or a French banlieue.

      Vienna is a very pleasant city and, from what I was told, very affordable. Someone who had relocated to Vienna after about a decade in New York also told me that people in Vienna are not very ambitious by comparison; this likely has something to do with high tax rates, low rents, and a generous welfare state. Is that a better way to live? It’s not my preference, but I see the appeal. If it works for the Viennese, good for them. I’m just not sure how replicable that model is. For one thing, Vienna is kind of a sleepy city. It’s in a rare kind of stasis, neither in decline like the rust belt cities nor booming like the areas that are experiencing gentrification. My sense is that Vienna is affordable because they have a lot of fairly nice housing stock relative to number of people there and those people’s purchasing power.

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