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.
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.
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.