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Pushed out by gentrification? 

Rising housing costs in Halifax’s north end are putting the squeeze on that diverse neighbourhood.

click to enlarge JORDYN BOCHON
  • Jordyn Bochon

Rocky Jones found a seat next to fellow activist Billy Lewis. Every chair in the room at the north branch library was full. People of different races, cultures and incomes sat with their neighbours, stood along the walls and spilled outside the door. Several young people in front of Jones held yellow signs. One read: “It takes a community to raise a child, not a condo.”

At issue was the fate of a former school the next block down. Last year, the city tried to sell St. Patrick’s-Alexandra and the nearly four acres of land it sits on to a developer who proposed residential high-rises. Three community groups took the city to court, and now the neighbourhood has another chance at the school.

When his turn came, Jones spoke into the microphone. North-end Halifax is one of the few truly integrated interracial communities in Canada, he said. “The cultural and racial harmony that existed is really being eroded and torn apart.”

Following the economic boom in our naval town after the Second World War, the north end blossomed. The main strip, Gottingen Street, held a bank, a theatre and a grocery store. However, in the post-war decline, families that could afford to leave flocked to the suburbs. Businesses followed them.

Between 1961 and 1971, the population of the Gottingen area dropped by almost half, and continued to shrink until the late 1990s. From 1960 to 2000, the number of retail and commercial services fell from 138 to 38. Vacant buildings, empty lots and social services replaced them.

But over the last 15 years the trend reversed. A Royal LePage survey of Canadian housing prices found the price of a detached bungalow in the north end has tripled—from $86,000 in 1998 to $275,000 in 2013. And according to the CMHC Rental Market Report, between 1997 and 2012, average rental rates in the north end have increased from $563 to $962.

It was a conscious decision to let the area disintegrate, Jones said into the microphone. Now developers are buying up property for nothing. People are insecure because they can no longer afford to live in the neighbourhood they grew up in.

“This is a chance for the community to stop that process of gentrification,” he said. People nodded as he spoke. When he sat down, the crowd applauded for 12 seconds.

• • •

How fast the north end is changing depends on who you ask. Developers say things are moving too slowly. Residents say they can’t keep up with the rapid, unfocused change. Meanwhile, the city doesn’t yet have a firm grip on the policy framework residents and developers agree is desperately needed.

The debate about north end gentrification has been burning for years. And it isn’t over.

Pointing at gravel lots, unrealized projects and a diverse mix of incomes in the north end, skeptics question whether the recent changes can really be considered gentrification. Some residents and businesses use the word “revitalization” instead, invoking images of newly renovated buildings and fresh coats of paint.

If you ask Dalhousie planning professor Jill Grant, there are signs of both gentrification and revitalization in the area.

By her definition, gentrification is characterized by a higher-income population moving into a neighbourhood, displacing lower-income residents. The ideology and cultural desires of higher-income people drive gentrification, she explained, and developers take advantage of that.

As it becomes increasingly desirable to live downtown as opposed to the suburbs, newer, more affluent residents are moving to the north end. There’s a cultural element too—the area is attractive because it’s artsy, quirky and diverse.

Realtors have caught on, marketing properties as “located in Halifax’s chic arts district.”

Businesses get it, too. Restaurants, retailers, an organic food store and a TV station have moved in, aided by the North End Business Association’s peeling away of the area’s stigma. Agricola is bustling and Gottingen is beginning to look like it did in the 1950s.

And, says Grant, HRM is making all of this 
possible. Through policy, the municipality is promoting density in the regional centre (the peninsula and parts of Dartmouth) and attempting to make land use more efficient in order to reduce the extension of services into the sprawling suburbs.

Economic, environmental and health arguments all bolster this policy; the city aims to save money, reduce emissions and encourage active transportation. But there are unintended consequences, Grant says: “Once you put in place the policies that encourage [density], then you’ve created the circumstances under which it’s possible for gentrification to occur.”

If social and economic drivers align with an enabling policy framework, it’s likely to spark gentrification, Grant says. Picture a forest drying from lack of rain. Then someone goes camping.

“Once it’s generated it has a way of going on its own like wildfire,” she says. “At some point it will be exhausted the same way a wildfire is.”

Jennifer Watts, councillor for the district that includes St. Pat’s-Alexandra, says the city doesn’t have a handle on north end development pressures. Development is happening project by project without looking at the big picture, she says.

“It’s not a free-for-all, there is still a planning process in place, but I think in terms of having engaged the broader community and understanding some of the pressing issues that people have, we haven’t had those conversations yet.”

When the shipbuilding contract was announced in 2011, HRM deduced it created a need for nearly 8,000 new residential units in its first decade. Presumably new workers would want to live close to the shipyard, Watts said, which has made the north end a particularly attractive neighbourhood for real estate and development.

HRM attempted to address these development pressures, Watts says. However, public criticism of spot zoning and lack of staff resources lead the city to step back and focus on HRM By Design.

Residents are concerned that by the time the Centre Plan—the third and final phase of HRM By Design—is finished, development may have outpaced the city’s ability to plan for it. Due to its “impetus of self-subsistence,” Grant predicts it will become increasingly difficult for HRM to limit gentrification.

However, she says, “One can’t demonize anybody in this process. “It’s a large issue and in many ways these processes happen and it’s very difficult to stop.”

• • •

Jalana Morton cooks with mousetraps on the countertops of her Uniacke Square apartment. The traps catch two to three mice each day. She had to move her three-year-old daughter into her five-year-old son’s room to escape the worst of the rodents.

Her doctor believes she’s allergic to the mice. When she empties the traps, she can’t breathe.

Morton requested a transfer, and produced a doctor’s note, but Metro Housing denied her request. Tenants must live in an apartment for two years before they can transfer. It will be another three months before Morton qualifies.

Mould forced Morton out of her last apartment. She desperately needs to move again, but her search for affordable housing in the north end has come up short.

“I’m facing housing adversity,” says Morton. “I can’t find affordable housing within the neighbourhood.”

The wait lists for public housing and co-ops are too long. Morton has logged long hours sifting through ads on Kijiji and calling rental properties. A support worker at Adsum House has been helping her look for a place to live, but the vast majority of apartments within Morton’s budget are in Dartmouth.

“It’s agonizing. It’s very hard. It’s stressful. There are many nights that I’m up crying.”

Morton feels she’s being pushed out of north end Halifax. “I can’t afford anything that’s within the downtown limits,” she says. “I feel like they’re just trying to build a bunch of condos and push the low-income people out so they can develop the area.”

Her son attends Joseph Howe School and her daughter’s daycare is also in the neighbourhood. She doesn’t want to move them again.

Morton is working at a temp agency and receives income assistance. She is going back to school this fall to work toward an industrial engineering technology degree so she can get a stable, higher-income job with health benefits for her kids.

Recently she found a co-op apartment on Barrington Street. She’s waiting to see whether it will work out. If not for public and co-op housing, says Morton, she couldn’t live in the north end. “In my situation now financially, I don’t think there would ever be a place here that would be affordable for myself and two small children,” she says.

It’s important to view the change in the north end as a process of displacement, not beautification, says Roberts Street Social Centre member Emily Davidson. When the centre was founded in 2005 in a north end living room, gentrification was already happening.

However, Davidson says, “we have for the entire time we’ve been occupying Roberts Street, noted how we are also players in gentrification.” Realtors and developers point to creative types and galleries as positive attributes of living in an arts district. The centre’s presence in the neighbourhood allows that narrative to continue.

And last year, the artists began feeling gentrification pressure themselves. It took the centre over a year to find a space in the north end for under $1,000 a month. The space they found at the corner of Creighton and Falkland is only temporary. They don’t have a lease. Their landlord has sold to a new owner who takes possession in February, 2014.

“They have been explicit that they want to evict the tenants and gut the building,” Davidson says of the new owner. In Vancouver, that’s called “renoviction.”

Rising rents have made it difficult both for the centre to stay in the neighbourhood, and for its members to find affordable housing. “In a very direct way, we feel that we’ve been priced out of this neighbourhood,” Davidson says. “We are both displacing and being displaced.”

If the Roberts Street Social Centre can’t find a new home, the artists will either have to reconfigure their programming, shack up with a like-minded group or move out of the area.

• • •

Condos may be a common theme of gentrification, but not every new north end development comes with a high price tag. In May 2012, Shelter Nova Scotia opened a new apartment building on Gottingen Street to provide supportive housing to men transitioning out of the Metro Turning Point shelter. And according to Shelter NS executive director Don Spicer, it’s already a success story.

Dubbed The Rebuilding after a naming contest with its new tenants (“we’re rebuilding our lives,” the winner said), the shelter’s 19 apartments have been full since it opened. “We have a very low vacancy in that basically there’s already people waiting to get in once someone goes out,” Spicer says.

In its first year, staff moved 100 men through Rebuilding apartments and into low-rent accommodations in Halifax, Dartmouth, Fairview and Spryfield. Eighty-eight percent of them have remained housed, says Spicer.

It doesn’t surprise Spicer that there was demand for The Rebuilding apartments. No, what surprises him is that even after one year and 100 people, both The Rebuilding and 80-bed Metro Turning Point are still operating at near capacity.

“Obviously there’s a lot of demand on that end of things where people that weren’t in the shelter before are finding a need to come to shelters,” he says. “Supply is still coming in at the other end. That indicates there’s a lot of work to do at all the different levels.”

The shelters aren’t alone. Vacancy rates at Uniacke Square and Mulgrave Park are less than one percent. The two north end public housing communities have wait lists of 54 and 71 applicants respectively. That’s a huge change from a few years ago, says Spicer.

Before working with Shelter Nova Scotia, Spicer was a beat cop and a Halifax Regional Police spokesperson. He has worked in the north end on and off for years. “In 2005, there was a waiting list to get out of there,” he said of Uniacke Square. The vacancy rate was 18 percent.

Spicer says there could be a few reasons for the dramatic increase in demand for housing in Uniacke Square. It could be that more people are having trouble finding housing, and it could also have something to do with a drop in violent crime.

In 2006, HRP set up a new police station in the middle of Uniacke Street. The next year, violent crime in the area was down 21 percent, and the vacancy rate went from 18 percent to zero.

The trend is encouraging from a crime perspective, Spicer says, but not from an affordable housing perspective. “I think it’s obvious that if costs continue to go up, and if the income of people who are experiencing homelessness doesn’t, then it’s going to be more difficult to find a place to live.”

The groups Spicer works with estimate that people coming out of shelter are spending upwards of 80 percent of their income on housing.

“You’re not going to find anything affordable at that rate,” he says.

According to the 2006 census, 27 percent of Halifax Needham households made under $20,000 a year. (The 2011 census results breaking down income by municipal or provincial regions haven’t yet been released.) That means, at the current average rental rate, these households would spend a minimum of 60 percent of their gross income on housing. Creating enough affordable housing will be key to maintaining a mixed-income north end as gentrification continues, says Grant.

“There will still be a mix [of incomes] in the north end as long as there’s public housing there,” she says. “If public housing starts to erode then I think the north end will likely tip into more affluent character.”

• • •

Across the street from The Rebuilding on Gottingen Street, a developer is attempting to fill two empty lots. Ross Cantwell of the non-profit Nova Scotia Housing Trust wants to erect two mid-rise buildings in which roughly 50 to 60 percent of the residential units would be market rate. The rest would be affordable to the “working poor.”

When developers talk about 30 percent of gross income in relation to affordable housing, Cantwell asks, “Well, what income level are we talking about?”

Cantwell isn’t targeting people experiencing homelessness. “We’re hoping to target people who are making 80 percent of the [neighbourhood’s] median income.”

That means, based on the Halifax Needham census for 2006, Cantwell’s target tenants make about $41,000 per family and $19,000 per individual. That’s a rent payment of $1,025 a month per family, or $475 per individual. “We’re really targeting the average working Joe,” Cantwell said.

Joe is the tenant who makes enough to qualify for an income subsidy from the province and can’t afford the rapidly increasing rents on the peninsula, says Cantwell. Joe is the single mom working 40 hours a week while paying for daycare.

“The people that are pouring you coffee,” says Cantwell. “Administrative assistants that work downtown. The cashier at Staples. These are people that are getting up, going to work every day, working hard. They might have one job, they might have a second job. Anyone who makes minimum wage. That’s the range that we’re looking at.”

Just under half the units would cater to this demographic. Tenants who qualify for rent-guaranteed income would pay rent with 30 percent of their income and the province would pay the rest. The housing trust intends to charge market rate tenants as much as possible to make up the difference.

But Cantwell has run into obstacles. Construction costs are rising while he waits for approval from the city. At eight and 10 storeys high, HRM says his buildings are too tall. However, Cantwell counters, he needs those extra floors to make the project economically viable.

The proposed developments have also generated flak from the surrounding community about the design and lack of three-bedroom units. As a single mother who is working hard to provide for her kids, Morton wants to know whether she would qualify to live in the housing trust’s proposed building.

At the moment, the plan includes only one- and two-bedroom units. Morton believes the neighbourhood is transforming into one that’s affordable for couples, but not single parents raising kids.

The provincial incentive to build an affordable housing unit is a flat rate of $25,000, no matter where you are or how large the apartment. “In downtown Halifax you’re going to pay $25,000 per unit, just for the land,” says Cantwell.

Morton says the province should provide a higher incentive so Cantwell and other developers can justify building affordable apartments for families. Her larger concern, though, is how higher-income and lower-income people will mingle in the area.

Already it feels like there are walls that cut the neighbourhood in half. Higher-income residents closer to downtown stick to the south end of Gottingen Street, and lower-income residents hang out closer to Uniacke Square.

At the St. Pat’s-Alexandra meeting, Rocky Jones told the crowd he believed integrated housing is the solution, rather than concentrating lower-income people in areas like Uniacke Square. “So now what do we have? We have a very insecure population who believe, as I do, that they’ve got a plan for Uniacke Square,” said Jones. “Uniacke Square is going. What we really need is we need a chance for multi-generational facilities where the grandchildren, children and parents all can live in an area together.”

The future of the school was one of the final issues Jones spoke out about before his death last week. “There is no excuse for not giving this property back to the community, because they will benefit economically, socially, politically and even spiritually with this facility,” Jones said, and sat down.

Proposed and recently completed developments in the north end

View North end developments in a larger map

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