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Hamilton’s fate didn’t need to be predetermined

Hamilton’s foray into LRT sadly takes the same track of many other cities that have not considered how to maintain affordability in transit corridors. As Joey Coleman writes in The Public Record, rather than protecting existing affordable housing in the corridor, properties were sold and about 150 people have already been displaced.

“The affordable housing crisis is skyrocketing since the first announcement of LRT. Rents have almost doubled in the corridor area. The homelessness situation is at a peak. I have never witnessed in my lifetime. There are more tents and countless forming across the city, and they tend to be concentrated near the LRT corridor.” –Karl Andrus, Hamilton Community Benefits Network

This project again illustrates a few classics tenets in transportation planning. First, there is a poor understanding of municipal revenue: municipalities’ main source of revenue is property taxes. Thus it is in their best interest for properties to be redeveloped to meet the definition of “highest and best use” which usually means higher density and higher property assessment value. Unless we come to an agreement that low-income people, transit users, rental units, or older buildings have some other value than monetary, these decisions are likely to continue. Equity arguments often rely on giving greater priority to groups that have been marginalized in the past–what if we apply that lens to building types?

Second, even when there are means available to protect existing affordable units, public authorities usually do not take this action (exceptions include Portland’s TriMet and Seattle’s Sound Transit, and many myriad examples from Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.–see the fourth chapter of my latest book for a look at TOD equity tools). However, private developers do: look who’s buying up these affordable rental buildings in Hamilton. And they begin buying as soon as the LRT infrastructure is announced: look at Kitchener. It’s time for Canadian municipalities and transit authorities to have property divisions to allow them to buy such properties, either selling them to non-profits to keep affordable, or to arms-length municipal development corporations like CityHousing Hamilton. Looking into inclusionary zoning as a tool to encourage affordable housing in new developments is much more difficult and time-consuming than simply protecting existing affordable units.

Third, the people being displaced are low-income, less likely to own cars, and more likely to walk or take transit. In other words, the exact demographics who take transit regularly. If you’re a public transit agency, aren’t you trying to maintain and increase ridership–not lose it? Especially after the hit most agencies took during the past two years? And as a municipality, isn’t it in your best interest to ensure people take transit to keep single-occupancy vehicle traffic to a minimum?

Fourth, the consultation process, and the official decision-making process, associated with the transportation infrastructure is deeply flawed. City of Hamilton staff literally changed its definition of quorum to 50% as there were not enough councillors present at the LRT Committee meeting, and MetroLinx has not met with or recognized the Hamilton Community Benefits Network, a coalition of community organization, neighbourhood associations, and the Hamilton-Brantford construction trades. That’s a fairly broad representation of interests–to ignore them is to face future legal challenges, at the very least. Ensuring broad acceptance and ownership of such a major piece of infrastructure would have helped ensure its successful implementation and future use. There are no future meetings scheduled for the LRT sub-committee, and Council is now adjourned for the municipal election in September.

Best of luck to you, Steeltown! ….exactly. The city is literally known for its blue collar workers.

Ren

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