Life Stories of Displacement

Turning Up the Volume of Life Stories of Displacement

Affordable and Accessible Housing - The Only Choice 1/4

The Wicked Proposal:  Building cheap and non-profitable housing seems to be an impossible scenario, especially in the urban core along major transit lines - except for all other conceivable scenarios.

Inspired by Jared Diamond’s "Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed".

The Life Stories project started recording the history of our community told by persons who live on low income and have experienced marginalization in its many forms. Their voices were not represented in the long sequence of decisions that brought us to the present moment of reshaping urban development in the region. 

We hope you would consider the current life scenarios in Kitchener and Waterloo describing housing unaffordability and displacement in the gentrification process spurred by the construction of LRT. The change was experienced by many residents, neighbours, friends and family members and in their own words, this is what they live: homelessness and tent cities, illegal and substandard rentals, harassment and evictions of legacy tenants, pressure on the municipal property standards enforcement, discrimination and exclusion, forced downsizing, fear of displacement, poverty, lack of dignity & isolation of marginalized groups (LGBTQ+, seniors, persons with disabilities, immigrants, racialized and faith minorities, etc.), lack of safety, drug trafficking and prostitution, mental health and addictions, suicide and overdose, disempowerment, cultural exclusion, class division and social isolation. 

This is the first in a series of posts that allows us to read and listen to the voices of people among us who have suffered and whose voices have been silenced. Turning up the volume of their stories can help us work collectively towards more humane and more sustainable solutions to the unaffordable housing crisis in our communities. Hopefully, the non-profitable housing options will be seen as a necessary and important part of developent of our cities.


Low Rental Housing and its Disappearance


I’ve seen a lot of our people that had big buildings that they turn them into apartments to people that had welfare and give them a cheap place to live, and they got altogether booted out because they renovated the place and moved people in,... and they’re high-class people. And they build them up just looking real modern and everything.


Read more quotes from the interviews describing living without truly affordable housing - Part  1/4


Experiencing Displacement and Gentrification  2/4 

As we continue to publish stories of displacement and resilience, we will bring to light the invisible narratives beneath the ‘investment opportunities and the construction boom’.  We wish to stress the point that residents living on low income are a highly diverse population, and in a limited number of interviews, we encountered people who have post secondary education and are in precarious employment, homeowners, businessowners and low income earners, social assistance recipients and recipients of the Canada Disability Pension. Some of the participants have children and grand children, some live alone or with a number of their peers in boarding houses, shared rentals or shelters. 

“Prejudice about folks with low incomes as being substandard human beings are unpleasant reminders of the ugly underbelly of a public sentiment that actually believes these things.”, written by Mark Holmgren, anti-poverty and affordable housing advocate, (Anticipate! September 15, 2019).

This part of the series tells us more about the experience of gentrification and displacement from varied points of view. It should come as no surprise that regardless of their socio-economic standing, education or employment status, low income Kitchener-Waterloo residents have thought long and hard about the construction happening along the Central Transit Corridor. Some have reflected on the changes dating back to their childhood and connected them to the recent transformation of the cities. We need to hear about what is being lost in the process of urban core redevelopment, about unaffordability and the feeling of not being wanted or being pushed out through many forms of displacement.  We need to listen to all the people impacted to be able to counter the dominant narrative and build understanding and awareness to work together on affordable housing strategies moving forward. 


Gentrification & LRT Construction

Well, I'm looking at this billion dollar project that just flew by us... There's a wonderful train that I can't live on. 

The LRT is actually coming right down by Conestoga Mall where my ex lives and I used to live. And I at first was looking forward to this until I saw people that were, you know, sort of displaced with the condos, all the condos. 

Read more quotes from the interviews describing many faces of displacement in KW - Part  2/4

How Did We Get Here?  3/4

The conditions for the current affordable housing crisis have been building up for decades. Many policy changes in Canada and Ontario since the 90’s could be named, such as the interruption of the federal investment in social and non-market housing, provincial cuts to social assistance programs, or downloading of social service costs to municipalities. The list would go on. The point here is not to unpack the policy changes. The focus is on shedding light on the mindset that created those policies or that failed to anticipate and respond to the crisis in the making. It is the same mindset that has been shaping the course of the urban development and gentrification in cities around the world, as well as in Waterloo Region. 

Decision-makers were seen as people “living in a parallel universe”, distant and detached, not experiencing the harsh realities lived by low income residents. By being removed from the consequences of their decisions, they justify their actions as seemingly ‘rational’ in economic terms. Some of the people interviewed also tried to understand and explain this logic that is detrimental to their lives and wellbeing. What also seems rational is that educated and resourced professionals can make the right decisions for the wellbeing of marginalized groups. Many residents can only lament their lack of representation when decisions impacting their lives are being made, as there is not much they can do about it. 

Ultimately, the behaviour of influencers and policy-makers is irrational when the market tools are used to justify inaction or to maximize profit-making regardless of the consequences it has on growing numbers of people in the community. Including the so called middle class. The price of such “persistence in error” (Diamond, 2018) leaves the burden on the shoulders of the whole society. No one is sheltered from the consequences of short-term thinking and erosion of the common good.    

The growing inequalities in our cities deepen the ‘us and them’ mentality despite many residents recognizing that discriminating and placing blame on other marginalized groups is wrong. Residents in Kitchener-Waterloo interviewed this summer expressed their lack of trust in institutions and lack of representation in places of influence. They testified of discrimination, and the erosion of the common good. We need to hear their stories, honest as they are, just as many of them are trying to see the other points of view.


Failure to Respond to the Building Crisis


“And it's sad. We all deserve a place to be, to feel safe and to have a roof over her head. I mean, I walked down the street and I see guys lying in the street. It's just, I can't believe it. You know, that this is Canada you know. And when I was struggling, I lived at the House of Friendship for, for about a month as well. And it's really a, you know, you're, you're kind of that we seem to be a society of labels where you, we're all, everybody has a label. Like here, you're homeless and you're, you know, you're mentally challenged and you're, you know, you might as well wear it on your forehead, you know, and uh, you know, that's when I found too that people really don't know who you are, they only know what you are.”

“I guess there are some further out but I’m not even looking at those because I don’t have a vehicle either, so ... another thing, and I’m not sure how they get away with this. In Waterloo in particular there’s all kinds of places for students, but that’s all they will take is students. Like I don’t know how they can discriminate against people like that but they get away with it, so.”

Read more quotes from the interviews - Part  3/4

Saving the Common Good  4/4

"Canadians have a deep sense of decency that has been expressed many times over the last century. After the 2nd World War, Canadians made a promise to each other that all who made contribution to the war and during their lifetime would not have an uncertain future. This is the basis for the publicly supported programs we value today: unemployment insurance, pensions and public healthcare. These came to be because of the values that Canadians shared." Marvyn Novick, May 1 2015, Decent Lives Forum. 

We have lost the authentic connection to people and place, as well as the sense of importance of the common good.  One thing we did not learn in the era of globalisation is that everything is truly connected, environment, knowledge and capital. We had an opportunity to connect the parts of a unifying world, and we still hear short-sighted questions: “What is in it for me?” 

For example, after many years of designing and implementing housing projects, the results say that the “Failure to obtain housing is due to system-level forces that create and sustain poverty and inequities” (Wallace et al. 2018, “Where’s the Housing? Housing and Income Outcomes of a Transitional Program to End Homelessness”). It is not that the programs themselves are inefficient. It is not the fault of the people who are struggling. It is our failure to correctly describe the context and the conditions sustaining inequities that make our efforts inadequate. It is our failure to see our role as being the “forces that create and sustain poverty and inequalities”. Holding on to the belief in the ‘free market’ in a globalized world with extreme financialization of housing is untenable. 

There are no unsolvable problems. We are creating the problems. We can choose to stop worsening them and start solving them based on a simple maxim: “Do no harm”. To respond to the systemic discrimination and injustice, we need long-term thinking, courageous actions and painful discussion about the common good and common values across divides. 

It is pertinent at this point to come back to the common values validated through a community process led by the environmental, democratic reform and social justice groups in Waterloo Region in 2014:

  • Compassion - trust and mutual understanding among different socio-economic groups. 
  • Equity & Fairness - equity of outcomes for everyone.
  • Legacy for the future - moving away from the question “What is in it for me?” 
  • Community of voices - freedom of the most marginalized to organize and control the decision-making process that impacts them the most.

Can we recognize the land as a precious common good it is? We would then treat housing as a human right, not a commodity. People that live in a particular geography will have control over its use and stewardship. Public land will not be sold for profit-making. We can start saving the common good. Saving lives.

Hear the wisdom of the people directly impacted by the homelessness, housing precarity and displacement. They speak of the inherent capacity of lived experience to guide strategies and policies. Actually, they tell us why it is necessary for low income residents to be at the heart of the solutions we will be creating as a community. The hope is that in the next year or two, you will have a chance to talk to many of them about their vision of social and affordable housing in Waterloo Region. 


 Lived Experience Expertise 

Well people listening to people that have lived it, having our voices heard. The only way things are going to change, or people are going to see differently, is by hearing people that have lived it. Not a lot of people value our input, right.

So basically what I advocate for is the fact that people that have lived on the streets and that are homeless or have an addiction and mental health and rise above it have a lot of input and insight on what they’ve gone through and what the system is lacking. So I believe that people with lived experience have a lot of value and input and I just want others to recognize that we do have valuable input.

And I used to rely solely on disability before I got the job that I had and it was. Like it takes 80 to 90 percent of your disability cheque and then from there, it’s what do you do for groceries? Like at that time I didn’t have a car but then you still need a bus pass or something to get around. If anything comes up then you’re really left in a hole. Like even the things – because I have experience with poverty there’s a lot of things that people don’t understand. 


Using all the capacity in the community 

If people could live decently – like I spend my whole week out getting food – I go out in the morning and I’m not back until 5:00 in the afternoon because I’ve had to go to all these different places to get – you get six cans of something here, two cans – you know, whatever.If I wasn’t doing that, if I didn’t have to do that I could be doing something useful with my time.

If you don’t have a safe, secure place to live then it’s very hard to focus and work on anything else. So people who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads that’s their focus. They can’t focus on finding a good counsellor for them. They can’t focus on maybe going back to school and getting better job skills. They can’t focus on a lot of their regular needs because their primary focus is having a place to stay. And when you have that, when you have that stability, you’re able to contribute so much more to the community to work on yourself, to help others. 

I am, I have been lucky. I never had to be on the street and I don't think I could have survived on the street, because I don't have the smarts that a lot of those guys have, you know, I learned a lot of these things from living in the house of friendship and how they survive and, and I made a couple of friends there and there. I mean, a lot of them are good guys. There's a lot of strange guys do. I mean, that's all part of the job, part of the place, you know? But there's a lot of good men too. One man was a beautiful artist, one man had a beautiful voice. He’s singing with a guitar. I mean, no, it's just, it's sad that people see only as, I don’t know, I should say [inaudible] parasite on society, but that's how you are, that you're living off people and that cause you're homeless, you're not working and you're above me.

I mean, a lot of people will take a look at shelters and they'll say, "Oh what a bunch of drunks [inaudible] what a bunch of drug addicts, you know, the criminals, they're vagrants." We're not monsters. We're real people too. You know, we are just having a hard time, whatever it may be that got us there. Well, it's our own story, right?

I've been in many shelters, in many different cities, have battled with addiction and alcoholism, self-harm, whatever, anxiety, depression, the list can go on and on. But that doesn't mean I'm not competent. I'm not capable. I am, I'm intelligent. And when I put my mind to something, I can do it. I know I have a powerful voice and I can advocate for others and I can build myself back up. And that's what I've been doing this year.

I mean I just, I feel like more buildings like this should be created. I mean there's no reason why not. It's affordable. People can live on it. I mean they can truly live and thrive and better themselves... 


Poverty is there because we are creating it

Basically it would take almost a complete 180-degree switch in people’s attitudes towards poverty. Poverty could be eliminated. This is not – you know, we’re one of the richest countries on earth and there is no economic need for people to live like this. So it could be changed.

When they say affordable I say, “Affordable for whom?” No, it’s not something that – well I’ll discuss it with some of my more affluent friends just so that they know what it’s like. But generally, no, because ... you know, like it’s not a matter of discussing it, it should be a matter of changing it, you know.

We don't have the finances to live in condominiums. We need more affordable housing. I'm looking at so many places where we can build affordable, three-story walk-ups and we don't have them, you know, and we, we need, we need your help. Whoever you are listening right now. I mean, we can't do it alone. It takes courage to ask for help. I know that. And I mean, take a look at it from my point of view. Walk a day in my shoes. It's not always easy, but it's simple. We just need to put some money aside somehow. Something's got to change because I mean, everybody is being forced out of downtown because of lack of affordable housing. 

The scarcity of like not having a nice home they once had and things of that nature, just overall having to stress and anxiety and worry. I think anxiety and depression is becoming more and more on the rise. Not just with the working poor, I’m thinking even – you know, I’m pretty sure there’s some engineers that are doing very well and a lot of people in the industry, I’m pretty sure there’s lots of anxiety in that and stuff like that.

And I sometimes think, well with all that money that would be nice to go to, you know, these people have got all this money they could help somebody homeless…  I mean, they wouldn’t give them a condo, but maybe they could help some other places, you know, build an affordable apartment building or something, you know, just help someone, you know. But I mean, that's not the way, that's not the way life is, is all. It's all about money. But, but sometimes I think that the, you know, that would be a neat idea that you know that they spend hundred thousand dollars on this building. Maybe they could build one apartment for, for 20 people that get them off the street and, you know, have a safe place to live.

Like I’m sure there are very lovely apartments in basements and for students and stuff like when I was younger that was fine, but like if I have my family over now or you know, my niece is spending the night or something it’s not quite the same. And again, I’ve worked hard my entire life to get to where I’m at. At the end of it, people deserve to have a place that they can call home, a real apartment. 


Vision for Affordable Housing 

Um, ways to make it better. Let's see, make a bigger shelter. Um, maybe, and I mean this, this would create more jobs, which is wonderful for the region. You know, maybe even bring a drop in center that you can drop into overnight, you know, have a place where you might be able to even eat, take a shower, um, even earn your keep, help, clean it up, sweep whatever it might be. 

You go to the kitchen and you just see how many people come in [and they’re] homeless. When they get set up on, say, a house or even an old factory that’s closed up, and make rooms, put somebody out there for supervision, be somebody always there that – somebody so many hours there. Run the place, give everybody rooms to live in or apartments to live in. It’d be better than tearing it down, and build a big condo for everybody, right?

Well, I think that would work. I think that would work, because most people that you're going to put into a decent apartment are going to be decent people, even though they have no money. There's a lot of decent people out there that have no money – a lot. And but I know people that live at Conestoga Towers downtown on Queen Street. There's market rent and there's subsidised. And when you're in the building, you don't even know who's who. 

I don’t know, you see a lot of old – not old buildings, even like the Target store way up on Strasburg and Ottawa, that’s sitting empty; why can’t they turn that into something, you know. There’s got to be a way around all this.

The zoning bylaws changed so that we can build affordable housing units in places that we weren’t able to, in like communities that just have like residential living, but we want to put an apartment building there that’s affordable housing, right. Changing the zoning laws.

Across, like it shouldn’t be in this section the poor people live, you know, like the suburbs it’s all everyone’s segregated to a different area of the city, I don’t think we should be that way.

Like especially down King Street towards Kitchener, there are a lot of not fancy apartments, like the lower end apartments. They shouldn’t be forced to move just because they’re on the LRT. Like I don’t understand why it’s absolutely necessary to develop all of the land along the LRT. Like to me, that doesn’t make sense. Well, I just remember some units on King near where the McDonald’s was. I’m pretty sure the McDonald’s is still there. Or even like the Victoria, King Street intersection. My God, a lot of change has happened there. And I often wonder why there is such a push to complete the change, the feel and everything when it should be a mix. 

I know that’s not going to happen. I think if somehow it was just kind of mandated that if you’re tearing down an apartment building you have to replace it either by giving the residents in that building a unit at their current contracts or build another affordable housing unit nearby because you can’t just keep on taking from the pot and then not replace anything. So you put up an expensive luxury rental unit okay, fine, but then you also have to put up an affordable housing unit somewhere just to balance things out. 

They don’t have any because of the – well just not the condos, like okay, for example they’re making a building into a computer or technology or something, eh? And there’s lots of buildings that’s empty that they could have for computers and technology and leave the little sections of places for people to live. You could make apartments out of a lot of those factories, even rooms, you know? And have someone on supervision to watch the place and be there for them, maybe a social worker along with it or something, you know?

Life Stories of Displacement Podcast

Podcast: Life Stories of Displacement 

Episode 1: Pay attention more to the people on the streets

Episode 2: I’m seeing all those changes, but none of them are for me

Episode 3: People are moving to the periphery, people are moving out of the city

Episode 4: You cannot put all the poor people in one building

Episode 5: These are the sort of stories: They have accidents, they get ill, they move away.

Episode 6: The only way things are going to change, or people are going to see differently, is by hearing people that have lived it.

Episode 7: The scarcity of not having a nice home they once had, just overall having to stress and worry.

Episode 8: Where are we supposed to go?

Social Development Centre Waterloo Region has supported the recruitment of participants who have experienced or observed displacement in Kitchener-Waterloo urban core to turn up the volume of their voices in the ‘Neighbourhood Change along LRT’ research project  in partnership with Professor Brian Doucet, Canada Chair of Planning at the University of Waterloo. These interviews were collected during the summer of 2019, with the support of the staff at St John Kitchen, and are testimonies of the history that would not otherwise be recorded.