Age of Gentrification and Truly Affordable Housing

Life Stories of Displacement "This is not about working-class areas being taken over by incoming hipsters and middle-class residents and businesses. This is another phenomenon entirely. This is about how global private equity firms have become leading players in the property market since the 2008 crash. This was predicted by the late geographer Neil Smith in the 1970s, who argued that when the gap becomes big enough between the rent a property earns and what it could earn if redeveloped for new residents, private capital would flow in, attracted by the potential to make large profits."  Anna Minton, The Guardian on September 20, 2019

The Age of Gentrification study is an introduction to the Life Stories of Displacement series about the living experience of displacement in the urban core of Kitchener-Waterloo created in collaboration with the University of Waterloo Professor Brian Doucet, School of Planning. Continue reading and follow us for more articles and podcasts. 

Age of Gentrification

Gentrification is a multi-step process allowed by commodification of housing and the public realm through financial markets. Municipal governments play a role in the process as they prioritize urban developments in city areas with the highest potential for profit-making, usual along transit corridors, hoping to increase their revenues by attracting investment, providing incentives, decrease development charges or making zoning bylaw changes. It is not evident that the municipal revenue base increases with collection of lesser value of development charges (Mowat, 2019), especially if the cities would be paying up front infrastructure development costs, and potentially collecting contributions from developers years down the road, as the buildings are occupied.  What follows is increasingly corporate control of the housing market, that has in the first place created many of the problems for precariously housed residents and the tenants in Waterloo Region. Currently in Kitchener-Waterloo, the high value of the land is once again moving to the city core, thanks to the construction of the Light Rail Transit, the primacy of business interests resulted in the displacement of people, long-term small business and many activities from a city’s core. The cities express pride in saving millions of dollars to developers, but do not address our collective failure that none of that wealth is being invested or redistributed into solutions for the most underserved populations.

Displacement in the Age of Gentrification

Individuals' experiences of housing displacement can vary based on the combination of causes and we heard most often of the following ones: renovictions, direct evictions, indirect displacement due to intentional neglect of the property and unites, and subsequent exclusionary displacement when renters cannot afford available units. Renoviction occurs when tenants are evicted from their affordable units through a process guised as renovations preventing previous tenants to return as rents are raised and the "right of first refusal" to the renovated unites is not being implemented (ACTO, 2019).  Direct displacement occurs when pre-existing affordable housing is demolished or tenants are forced to leave as they cannot continue paying the rent.  Also, lack of investment in lower category housing that leads to dysfunction of installations such as hot water or heating, coupled with prolonged periods of pest infestation and lack of safety and security is a well utilised strategy by many landlords and property management firms across the board benefiting from high turnover and increase of rents due to vacancy rent decontrol in Ontario. Thanks to vacancy decontrol, the potentially initial below market rentals  created in new builds will also become unaffordable for the residents who used to live in the downtown cores (Mösgen, Rosol and Schipper, 2018). This results in the psycho-social displacement of many communities due to the aforementioned housing displacement issues (Doucet, 2019). Not only is this displacement for those already living in that area, it gradually introduces exclusionary displacement as the housing becomes beyond reach for other groups such as students, job entrants, larger families, newcomers, seniors, including middle class professionals. 

Housing Investment, not People

We can take a closer look at the values guiding the housing market in Canada, and its impact on housing instability and displacement. In the past few decades, we have been observing the increasing cost of housing and what is known as financialization of the housing market (Lee, 2018). Essentially, this meant that housing real estate in Canada and globally is viewed as an investment opportunity rather than provision of a basic human right for shelter and safety (Lee, 2018)  that should be protected by the government (article 25, Fact Sheet No.21, The Human Right to Adequate Housing, n.d). 

In 2018, the federal government for the first time recognizes housing as a human right. Canada is signatory to the UN’s declaration of human rights which includes article 25; the right to adequate housing, one of which the main elements includes affordability (Lee, 2018).  While an advisory body on housing issues (National Housing Council) and an independent body (Housing Advocate) have been introduced, there isn’t an individual right to housing or adequate enforcement process . We also see gaps in the government’s role to protect housing as a right at the national, provincial and municipal level (Morrison, 2019). Since it is not a constitutional provision, this law can be rescinded if a new parliament is elected. It is uncertain as to how the courts will interpret the law, who will be appointed as the housing advocate and the national housing council or whether there will be an increase in funding for tenant supports and tenant organizing, especially for the most under-served and excluded groups. 

Missing Middle is Missing the Mark

Recently, the Progressive Conservative Provincial government adopted Bill 108, More Homes, More Choices (, 2019). In short, the bill entails dismantling a number of pre-existing acts including those related to development charges, such as deferred charges upon occupancy, or diminishing the local decision making power about the types of development to be happening alongside major transit developments. The changes proposed in this bill would potentially shift a lot of power to private developers, which would not be able to respond to the best interest of a community (Sharpe, 2019).

While the government has made efforts to fix the disparities in housing, many of these efforts fall short. In Ontario, recent response from the Progressive Conservative government has suggested building more units would impact the affordability, not confirmed by research or evidence in the construction boom in Toronto or Vancouver. At the same time, the government removed rent controls on newly built units as of November 2018. However, the details of these  strategies are not specific, and the definition of affordability varies greatly, from affordable home ownership to attainable higher-end rental units, to municipally run subsidized housing. 

The consequences of gentrification not only threaten an individual's right to housing but is a risk to the public health and the general economic balance of the community. Gentrification disproportionately affects those individuals who are considered marginalized (Nichols et al., 2019). As a result, social determinants of health such as the relationship between housing and job security, access to education and healthcare is crucial (Ontario Housing Action Plan, 2019). 

Truly Affordable Housing

When municipal governments and staff talk about “livable cities” or building “mixed neighbourhoods”, it is always one-directional and refers to replacing affordable units with luxury condos and higher end rentals in middle-class or underserved neighbourhoods . The opposite municipally led process has not yet been recorded where community housing is being built in affluent neighbourhoods (August, 2016)

Gentrification itself is a systemic issue and at its core cannot be solved by one single solution. It requires not only the coordination from federal, provincial and municipal governments, it needs to be informed and supported by the persons with the living experience, non-profits or other social justice organizations (Lee, 2018) to come up with ideas that would ensure the best use of public land and resources, reduce the rate of gentrification and ensure construction of truly affordable and accessible housing (Nichols et al., 2019). In addition, there’s a need for qualitative research lead by lived experience individuals to supplement the development of policies and solutions to alleviate the impacts of gentrification as statistical and desegregated data is not being collected for the purposes of successfully identifying and tracking the loss of affordable units or displacement in all its forms. We need to work collectively and engage all levels of government to be able to influence regulations in the real-estate market and housing policies, rent control legislation, dismantling housing investment speculations, increase the use of public land and resources, invest in truly affordable units and resisting the unfounded assumptions of economic trickle down effects of the missing-middle housing options. 

Both City of Kitchener and the Region of Waterloo will work on the strategies and collective approaches that are most applicable to address displacement and affordable housing crisis in the region. The bottom-up knowledge creation will be crucial in the process, especially to define what truly affordable housing looks like, how much it has to cost and where it has to be buit. 

Turning Up the Volume of Lived Experience

Persons with lived experience are not only to be consulted they need to be at the core of the process that is focused on human rights of the most marginalized group, not the economic gains of either private or public sector. It means that the knowledge and process expertise rooted in lived experience have to be recognized and compensated to support the design, collection and interpretation of data, as well as advocacy in policy-making and implementation of the strategies. 

6000 Truly Affordable Units in Waterloo Region

It is also true that we do not need a lengthy study about the realities that have been recorded through lived experience, especially if we are committed to saving lives and housing people in precarious housing right there where they live, at the heart of our communities. There are over 6000 people/households on the waiting list for community housing and hundreds of chronically homeless individuals in Waterloo Region. We have to think about all others precariously housed that live at the brink of the slope to homelessness or ill-health due to poor housing conditions. Our goal is nothing short of ensuring at least 6 000 truly affordable units for all our neighbours, living on social assistance or on low-wages in precarious working conditions, living on inadequate pensions or living with increasing debt. Progress can only be measured by the improvement of living conditions and wellbeing of the most marginalized and the under-served residents in our cities. 


Elena Stratopoulous
Faryal Diwan
Aleksandra Petrovic

October 2019, Social Development Centre WR 



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