Editorial note: The following is a submitted op-ed written by Doug Yearwood. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.
If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that there is a housing crisis raging across Kingston.
Especially for working class people who are tenants, prices are out of control. While in 2011 the average price of a rental unit was just over $900, today that number is closer to $1,300. Homelessness is increasing and—according to the City’s 2019 data—more than 7,000 rental households live in unaffordable rental housing across Kingston.
That is why it is troubling that the City is continuing on with its Rideau Heights Regeneration Strategy, which explicitly aims to introduce market rental and ownership housing, and decommission rent-geared-to-income social housing units in the neighbourhood.
The rationale for this project, as laid out in 2015, was that poverty is too concentrated in the community, and that the housing stock is now aging and in need of replacement. The aims of this development were reaffirmed this year: the City’s primary objectives are to “improve the neighbourhood design and to reduce the concentration of rent-geared-to-income housing.”
As it stands now,much of housing in Rideau Heights is social housing, with the Headway Park and Shannon Park areas within Rideau Heights being 100 per cent rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing which is publicly owned. The Heights has 501 RGI social housing units, representing approximately one-quarter of RGI dwellings in the city. What the City hopes to do over the course of this redevelopment is reduce the percentage of RGI housing in the Heights to less than half, promising that they will build RGI housing elsewhere in the process.
The City says that they will secure funding from different levels of government to build some affordable housing in the area. As the 2015 adoption plan states, “the full realization of the plan within the modelled 25 year timeframe will require funding support from the provincial and federal levels of government.”
However, people might be surprised to know that affordable developments—according to both the federal and provincial government strategies—support rent-geared-to-market approaches. This means that a certain percentage of housing will be available for 80 per cent market rate, which is not tethered to one’s income.
To me, it smells like a gentrification project, with the City proposing to spread poverty around rather than take steps to eliminate it.
The strategy being adopted is sometimes referred to as social mixing. The purported aim of social mixing is to bring about equality and social harmony by allowing rich and poor to live together.
In reality, social mixing redevelopments have been shown to eliminate a strong sense of community with people who have similar lived experiences, weaken whatever influence the poor have in political decision-making, and make organizing tenant-led initiatives more difficult.
The solution is not for the municipal government to uproot social housing communities, but to do what it takes to secure funding for maintenance and renovations, and build more rent-geared-to-income housing. Displacing people with the hope that if they rub shoulders with wealthier people they will transcend poverty and in the process become more moral and successful is a strategy that does not have a good track record.
What the current Rideau Heights strategy will do is introduce private market forces in surrounding communities, inflating rent prices even further. That is what has happened in Toronto, and that is what will happen here in Kingston. It will not combat issues of affordability, and it will contribute to more homelessness in the region.
For the past 30 years or more, governments at all levels have assumed that the market is able to respond to people’s needs. However, in favouring these sorts of strategies, homelessness has increased and housing has only become less affordable. It is time for governments to understand that the solutions they favour are responsible for the social ills they claim to want to resolve. Rideau Heights does not need homeowners and private rentals, or “innovative” solutions that replace affordable housing with unaffordable housing.
It needs investment in the existing social housing stock which has been neglected for decades and more rent-geared-to-income housing to accommodate the growing number of precariously housed and homeless. It needs tenants to have a seat at the table of social housing boards to ensure that maintenance requests are responded to promptly and adequately. It needs a municipal government that is not controlled by developers, landlords, and private industry.
Doug Yearwood is a member of the Katarokwi Union of Tenants and is a PhD at Queen’s University studying gentrification and Canada’s affordable housing crisis