What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification

By Molly Kay

Hamilton is changing. If you live in Hamilton, you’re surely aware of it. If you’re not from Hamilton, then you’ve almost definitely read stories about the city’s “renaissance”—a myriad of new developments, successful local businesses, its bustling arts community, and its rising popularity among Torontonians who are just thrilled to declare Hamilton as the GTA’s new hotspot.

What many people remain unaware of, however, is that the changes we see throughout the city are a direct result of gentrification in Hamilton’s downtown core. Gentrification is a term that encompasses the changes that occur when high-income communities push out long-term residents of a low-income area for their personal gain. It is a force that perpetuates a cycle of continuously displacing marginalized communities, who are often working class, racialized, LGBTQIA+, and/or indigenous.

When Toronto-based mainstream media praises Hamilton for its economic development and its trendy “up-and-coming” neighbourhoods, it observes the city’s changing landscape from a privileged and far-removed viewpoint. Instead of highlighting the narratives of the communities and cultures that are being displaced, these stories paint a glamorous picture of the city, romanticizing certain aspects of gentrification while choosing to ignore its violent implications.

“Gentrification has always been a huge issue in Hamilton and newcomers have always had a hard time here,” says Sarah Jama, community organizer and member of the McMaster Womanists. “The influx of people moving in from Toronto to Hamilton is actually making it worse.”

Members of racialized communities are at a much higher risk of being priced out of their homes and facing poverty. They are also more likely to encounter discrimination and instability in both the workplace and the housing market. Because of this institutionalized oppression, people of colour are disproportionately impacted by gentrification.

The incentive among affluent communities to “revitalize” or “clean up” low-income neighbourhoods is deeply rooted in the savior complex and desire to conquer of colonial narratives. When considering the problematic nature of colonialism and its attempts to “civilize” certain groups of people, it’s also important to acknowledge that those of us who are settlers are currently on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg. These efforts to gentrify our downtown core continue to push away communities that have indigenous and cultural ties to this land, which in themselves have detrimental repercussions.

“There’s a high population of Somali communities that reside in two buildings downtown,” continued Jama. “Community developers are offering large sums of money to these tenants who are living low-income and who possess a limited knowledge of English. When you don’t have a lot of money and someone offers you a couple thousand dollars—of course you take it. But the problem is that after they are priced out of their homes, the money they are given isn’t enough to sustain even a basic standard of living.”

This is just one example of the ways newcomers are being manipulated out of their homes. Another tactic is the N12 form, a type of eviction notice served by a landlord to their tenants. This form operates as a 60-day notice for occupants of said property to vacate the premises because the landlord requires it back for “personal use”. This has little to do with the quality of the tenant, but rather that the landlord requires it back so that they or member of their immediate family can move in—which, by the way, in Ontario is perfectly legal.

“What’s happening is that people are moving out because they receive these notices, however, it’s not the case that the landlord or their family members actually move in,” says Cassandra Roach, Social Planner Assistant for the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton. “Rent control exists on these places. If somebody leaves, the rent control is abolished and landlords can charge whatever they want. So, once the previous tenants are kicked out, the landlord flips the apartment and increases the rent of the property.”

Roach is also spearheading The [Dis]placement Project, which is currently working on training sessions for tenant rights with service providers and community leaders—specifically in Beasley and Riverdale neighbourhoods.

Once they’ve moved out, displaced citizens have to search for new housing that is either in a state of disrepair so that it’s cheaper, or they have to move away from their neighbourhood. “It’s a shame because it’s a neighbourhood that they might have called home, where there are resources, and where their child goes to school,” adds Roach. “You see this happening in Beasley. The lower school enrollment in Dr. J Edgar Davey Elementary School is a direct result of this displacement of folks.”

These marginalized groups are not only being displaced physically; the cultures that they have been producing and preserving within these neighbourhoods are being displaced along with them. When we make comments about the thriving arts scene in downtown Hamilton, we neglect to consider the ways that the gentrification taking place downtown actually makes it more difficult for local artists to succeed.

“Gentrification delegitimizes the arts scene and the hardcore artists within it because all of the sudden they have to compete with commercialized products and people,” says Jama. When the price of living goes up near their homes and studios, it becomes more difficult for artists to produce works and promote themselves. As the neighbourhoods downtown become increasingly populated with people coming from more privileged and predominately white backgrounds, we begin to see displacement of the artists who have roots and cultural ties in these areas.

“Urban renewal is something that happens,” says Roach. “But when it means that people are oppressed because of this renewal, there needs to be change. We need to put the people in our community who are marginalized and who are low-income first. We need to be putting them at the centre.”


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