Gentrification: a social justice issue

Toronto’s tree-lined streets are getting a makeover. Contractors replace windows and sagging porches. Real estate signs dot elegant gardens. Gentrification makes the city a better place to live.

Or does it?

“Canadian cities are growing more unequal,” says Alan Walks, an associate professor in the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Department of Geography. “Over the last 50 years, a series of working-class neighbourhoods has been redeveloped for high-income households, and in recent times at quite rapid speeds.”

In the traditional model of gentrification, which Toronto experienced from the late 1960s through the 1980s, working-class areas are first colonized by artists, who provide the cachet that attracts tenure conversion and eventually high-income purchasers. The original inhabitants are displaced.

More recently, Walks says, gentrification has become so well established that almost any area in the inner city is fair game for speculators and higher-income individuals. The process is fueled by easy credit, which in the 2000s was driven by low interest rates and government mortgage policies.

Walks points out that gentrification involves distinct winners and losers. Municipalities encourage gentrification because it increases tax revenue. Speculators make money. Those with higher incomes have pleasant, accessible places to live. Gentrifying neighbourhoods enjoy ever-better services and more diverse retail.

That’s the winning side. Gentrification also means younger families take on higher debt to afford a house, and become involved in bidding wars that further drive up prices. Those with lower incomes find themselves priced out of inner cities entirely and compelled to live in cheaper neighbourhoods with poor transit. These newly displaced citizens can experience isolation, difficulty accessing employment and services and a lowered quality of life.

“There’s a social justice issue here: Who deserves to live in the high-accessibility, transit-friendly, walkable neighbourhood?” says Walks. “Gentrification takes those neighbourhoods away from those with fewer means, who can’t afford a car and who must rent, and hands them to the wealthy.”

To delve further into gentrification and the economic relationships between neighbourhoods, Walks turns to a concept he calls the “urban debtscape,” which examines hidden flows of debt across space and their uneven and unequal impacts. “It’s a conceptual tool that can help explain why there is decline in one neighbourhood and gentrification in another,” he says. “It shows factors such as the movement of credit and debt from areas where debt is high to those where it is lower.”

Walks says gentrification is not inevitable. locating heavy industry in the inner city and building more social housing are two important factors in maintaining a social mix in the city and providing poorer households fairer access to jobs, transit, and other inner city benefits.

“There is definitely an argument to be made for having a balanced mixed city, and this requires housing for low-income renters.”

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