On the Backs of Children and Afforable Housing

On May 28th, the Spectator published a review of two of the major planning issues in the North End neighbourhood written by HWN member Herman Turkstra.  With the City operating as both land use regulator and as the largest landowner and developer in the neighbourhood, children and affordable housing are at serious risk.

Hamilton's North End is an urban jewel. With 5,600 residents, including more than 1,200 children, it is a family neighbourhood in the centre of the city.

It has mixed incomes, mixed housing and mixed family size, all within walking distance of King and James streets. Most cities would care for it tenderly as a great city asset. But it is under attack by our city.

This was the neighbourhood that was visited by urban renewal in the '60s.

Thanks to government funds applied liberally, urban renewal separated families from their roots. Houses were expropriated and demolished. The result was misery and devastation in a pathological fashion that has been thoroughly documented.

Urban renewal was discredited and ended. But the danger of big tax-funded planning against neighbourhoods is now coming back in a new format. The result can be the same.

On Sept. 19, 2014, city council approved a study that proposed a new form of urban renewal for the North End. Technically known as the new urbanism, the new style of urban renewal can be seen on Toronto's waterfront or on Plains Road, Burlington.

It means replacing housing that is on the ground with housing that is in the air. What this invariably does when carried out in a stable community is to displace children and those who need affordable housing.

Toronto's condo waterfront has become home for young single childless family units and the retired who are downsizing. Walk there on a weekend and you do not see children who live there.

With its inventory of public housing and the acquisition of Piers 7 and 8, our city government is today the North End neighbourhood's biggest land owner and developer. The result is that city staff are working hard as developers to maximize the financial returns in the North End. Their market is the childless well-off condo dweller. New urbanism provides the cover for that marketing scheme.

Now the city is both the legal land use regulator and the developer.

In 2014, as regulator, the City of Hamilton launched six planning initiatives in the North End, an incredible plague of planners rained on one neighbourhood, all designed to maximize the financial return to the city as land owner.

The results will be profound on affordable housing and on the character of the North End as a home for families with children.

As approved in principle in 2014, Hamilton's new urbanism involves two major components: over-building on Piers 7 and 8 and tearing down family housing on James Street North and replacing it with six-or-more-storey condo buildings.

These redevelopment strategies include removing most of the North End's low-income subsidized affordable housing.

The low-income housing on James Street North and Strachan is under threat of demolition. The Ken Sobel Towers, home to people in need, has dozens of vacant units that are not being filled.

This was not supposed to happen.

The city and the neighbourhood stakeholders reached consensus in 2006 on building the North End as a child- and family-friendly neighbourhood with a mix of housing. Now that the city has become a huge property developer, it has walked away from that agreement.

Not only is affordable housing at serious risk. The nature of new housing has been unilaterally changed. In 2006, the city and the neighbourhood agreed on 750 new residential units of mixed housing on the city-owned Piers 7 and 8. The local traffic plan was designed for that density because density governs traffic on the residential streets.

After discussions with developers and without talking to the neighbours, the city made a decision to double the density on Piers 7 and 8.

Increasing the number of units from 750 to 1,600 means twice as many cars in the morning and afternoon peak traffic periods at the same time as children are going to school. It also means smaller family units and fewer children.

This is Urban renewal in the North End all over again. The new city tool is density.

Give the developers more storeys for one- or two-bedroom condos instead of the existing mixed housing and they will buy and tear down family homes. The builders will also pay the city more for using the city-owned piers.

The need for schools will diminish. The need for recreation for children will diminish. The number of families with children will diminish. The essential character of the neighbourhood will be lost. Persons with low incomes will be moved somewhere. Where? No one is saying.

North End residents who value the community as a child and family neighbourhood have difficult work ahead.

And if they lose, the precedent will then be freely applied to other neighbourhoods, including yours.