Why gentrification is a non-issue in Winnipeg and why that matters

It never fails. Whenever urban issues are being discussed in Winnipeg, somebody mentions gentrification. It happened a few weeks ago at a Trib Talk (#tribtalks), a public forum sponsored by the Spectator Tribune, an attractive, struggling on-line newspaper that has lately sprung up in the prairies’ cyberspace.

Gentrification is an important issue, but — as I’ve been arguing tirelessly for years — it has no place in a discussion about Winnipeg. At the Trib Talk, I responded to the mention of gentrification with a twitter outburst: “Gentrification is a non-issue in Winnipeg”, whereupon Robin Mae asked, via Facebook, “By non-issue, do you mean that it’s not happening or that it’s not an important issue to address?”

That’s a good question, and it deserves an answer, but the answer requires a bit of explanation.

Central to the concept of gentrification is the reality of displacement. From its origins in the 1960s, the term gentrification has been used to describe a situation in which a low-income neighbourhood in a desirable location, with a fundamentally sound housing stock, is identified by higher income-earners as a good place to buy and renovate — or, less frequently, to tear down and build anew — with the result that a poor neighbourhood very quickly becomes an affluent one.

Clunkers parked at the curb are replaced by Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, the greasy spoon becomes an upscale restaurant, and haircuts start at $100. In such circumstances, in cities like New York, Toronto, and Vancouver, people of modest means are either evicted because their landlord has sold the building they live in, or — in the unlikely event that they have managed to hang on to their home — can no longer afford the goods and services available in their neighbourhood. Moreover, in such cities, they may well have trouble finding a place they can afford in another neighbourhood.

122LangsideClick on picture

From a social justice point of view, therefore, the point about gentrification is not what’s happening in newly affluent neighbourhoods, but what happens to the people who can no longer afford to live there. In New York, Toronto or Vancouver, it’s reasonable to regard gentrification as a social evil and a policy problem in its own right.

The situation is different in Winnipeg, which has a relatively healthy economy, but is not a development magnet like Toronto. To be sure, housing has become more expensive generally, but an informal survey of rental markets suggests there are still flats available in the $700-800 range, even in the West Broadway area, the neighbourhood most often stigmatized as gentrified. We will not see Mercedes-Benzes parked in front of those apartment buildings in the foreseeable future — unless it’s the landlord come calling.

What has materialized here is a much happier set of circumstances. In the 1980s and 1990s the real estate markets in a number of Winnipeg neighbourhoods were in freefall. Housing was so cheap that, in many cases, there was no monetary incentive to renovate, because there would be no hope of profiting from any investment. In those days, it was my unhappy duty to tell my students that Winnipeg was in danger of going the way of Detroit, where decaying neighbourhoods have gone from empty lots to empty fields with stupefying rapidity.

6748-6798 E 7 Mile Rd, DetroitClick on picture

19101-19145 Carrie Ave, DetroitClick on picture

Today we have a different problem: Real estate markets have turned around, and the danger of terminal decay has eased, but, in a globalized economy, we have lost the factory jobs that once allowed a semi-skilled labourer to buy a house and send his kids to college or university.

Instead, people without specialized education or a skilled trade are likely to be relegated to $10-an-hour jobs in the service industry. An apartment rental of $700-800 a month is too much for someone with an income of $2,000 a month or less. To put it plainly, we have become an affluent, cheap-labour economy, and the ineluctable consequence is that a lot of the workers we need can’t afford the housing that’s available. The consequences of that reality are ably set out in a recent series in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Since, like many students of politics, I love to blame rich people for our problems, it pains me to report that, in Winnipeg, homelessness and precarious housing are not the fault of gentrifiers. We are all to blame, for standing by while good jobs for ordinary people went to other countries and we were left with service jobs. (This is a sharp contrast with, say, Germany, which has pursued policies that have kept good jobs at home — but that’s a topic for another time.)

In any case, when we cast a discouraged eye over the cost of housing, if we blame gentrification, we have missed the point. The renovation of housing, or building anew, in older neighbourhoods is helping to keep this city alive. Homelessness and precarious housing are the fault of failed economic development and social policies, not gentrification.

6 responses to “Why gentrification is a non-issue in Winnipeg and why that matters

  1. Hmm, interesting but the people who can no longer afford to live in West Broadway are having an increasingly hard time finding anywhere in Winnipeg where they can afford to live. The supply of housing , social or affordable is simply not sufficient. There are a number of causes for this but I still think that it represents gentrification. It may not be as dramatic as BMWs at the curb, but the impact on the low and fixed income folks is just as serious.

  2. Undoubtedly people who can’t afford housing in West Broadway are having a harder time today than they would have when central Winnipeg was in danger of becoming another Detroit. But there’s still a lot of affordable housing, and a lot of decay, in the North End, Elmwood, the Centennial Neighbourhood and the West End. The enemy isn’t gentrification. It’s cheap labour.

  3. Love this commentary; especially shipping local jobs to emerging markets. The thing I find most interesting is the fact that the people of Winnipeg were praising the entry of IKEA into the market (read: a bunch of minimum wage jobs as stock boys and cashiers), but didn’t think about what this might mean for our local furniture manufacturer, Palliser. I find it even more disheartening that the local government subsidized this IKEA-led “power centre” by building infrastructure to support it.

  4. My former student Robert Galston makes some good points in the link you added to your question, as does Dan Lett in this piece: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/report-on-biz-subsidies-only-part-of-the-story-216712421.html

    Still, I don’t altogether agree with Robert, especially in light of recent events. Although I agree that bringing in residents is the single most important key to downtown revitalisation, it’s now looking as if the demand for downtown housing isn’t strong enough to support the housing that’s already been developed in and around the Exchange District. With some of the waterfront condos standing empty, and some other condo developments being converted to rental housing, there’s a big question mark hovering over the downtown revitalisation effort.

    Thanks for your interest in these important issues.

  5. Actual West Broadway resident

    West Broadway is approximately 94% rental. Over 40% of the rental units are subsidized by Manitoba Housing. Social housing units, for example, have an income limit that restricts occupancy to those below a certain level. Rents are geared to the household’s income so they only ever pay 27% of their gross income, whatever that may be. These units will always house ‘poorer’ families. If a family is fortunate and their incomes increase for whatever reason, that unit will be filled with another low income household. Forever. If a family wanted to purchase a home in their community, they probably can’t (again only 6% of dwellings are non-rental). They have to buy a rare condo, a 2000 square foot house that is either too costly or in need of incumbent upgrades, at too great a cost. So they have to move away. Besides, West Broadway was originally an affluent neighbourhood that declined significantly for a long period and is slowly returning to its historical situation. This does not resemble gentrification.

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