Lessons from Herongate Tenant Coalition workshop

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to participate in a community-led workshop about gentrification and the financialization of multi-unit rental housing. The workshop was hosted by our friends, Herongate Tenant Coalition, and was led by University of Waterloo Professor Martine August. I think this workshop was valuable for KUT members for a number of reasons, and—perhaps at some point in the near future—we should look to hold a similar kind of workshop to talk about Kingston multi-unit rental housing, specifically.

The presentation began with August providing us with a working definition of financialization and an unpacking of what constitutes a ‘gentrifier.’ Based on my memory, August used Aalbers (2016) definition of financialization to help attendees understand the kind of processes that are contributing to housing affordability crises around the world. According to Aalbers, “financialization refers to the increasing dominance of financial actors, markets, practices, measurements and narratives, at various scales, resulting in a structural transformation of economies, firms (including financial institutions), states and households.” As August and Walks (2018) point out, financialization is “marked by the increasing penetration of financial practices, logics, and strategies into non-financial sectors,” including housing. Additionally, to give us a broader historical context, I would argue that finance capital and processes of financialization come to be a ruling force only in times when production is concentrated to the point where oligopolies and monopolies are able to be formed. I’ll delve into this more in subsequent blog posts. 

August also provided a working outline, identifying prominent ‘gentrifiers.’ This include private equity firms, asset management companies, real estate investment trusts, and institutional investors. Gentrification can refer to a number of different things. In its initial usage, gentrification was a term used to describe unique patterns of urban change in London (Glass, 1964); “gentrification or ‘gentry-fication’ means the replacement of an existing population by a gentry” (Lees, Slater, and Wyly, 2008). Lees, Slater, and Wyly argue, somewhat boldly, that gentrification is a process that began in post-war capitalist countries (2008, pg. 5). Taken together, I think you can understand gentrification, generally, as the replacement of a poorer, sometimes racialized, community by a richer, most often ‘whiter’ community, generally composed of the “upper-middle” working class and the petit bourgeoisie. In Kingston, from the rallies I’ve attended and people I’ve spoken with, this process has been happening most viciously around the Skeleton Park communities; As students have poured into the city and sought places close to Queen’s University, working class families have been pushed further north, into communities that are over-policed and not as close to markets, stores, and other important resources. This is something that deserves more recognition and is a topic I will focus on in the future.

The most interesting part of the evening for me was the information that August presented in her slideshow. If I’ve jotted the information down correctly, real estate investment trusts (REITs) have gone from owning less than 20 000 units in 1999 to owning over 160 000 in 2017. Furthermore, the top 25 landlords collectively own over 300 000 suites in Canada, equivalent to 13 percent of the total housing stock (and, it should be noted, this number is rising every year).

How much the rise of REITs and other gentrifiers have impacted Kingston is obvious to those who have experienced it. That said, it would be beneficial for KUT to conduct research into Kingston’s housing stock and determine exactly how much of the 13 850 private apartment units are owned by the landlords listed in the top 25. In conjunction with this, it would behoove the movement to also gain a better understanding of where these big landlords own their property, and explore the types of jobs tenants in these units hold. This can be done in a rudimentary way by looking at Stats Canada tract data, but more in-depth research that surveys tenants will be much more useful in the long term. We’ve made some strides by beginning to chart this information via KUT’s Map of Grievances, but this work is far from over. By understanding and being able to relay the conditions of the working class to those interested in studying and improving housing, KUT may be able to make a qualitative and material difference to the lives of people living under the hegemony of finance capital. Kingston’s 0.6 percent vacancy rate is the lowest in the province, and rent has increased to an average of $1 181 per month. While there are certainly issues with supply and demand that can be addressed through conservative reforms, tenants must also strive to look beyond this superficial idea and connect the struggle to that of the working class. Improved wages, funding legal aid clinics, better healthcare, and other progressive changes like universal childcare are also important to materially changing the lives of people under this repressive system. But the struggle will also have to include a critique of our profit-driven system writ large if we are to come out from under the boot of capital’s dictates; A grassroots’-developed campaign for dual power—wherein the working class organizes to the point where they are positioned to take control from the capitalists whose world we currently live in—is becoming something that needs to be considered, in my opinion. How long are the people willing to wait for solutions? Why should the same people and institutions who’ve exacerbated housing issues be put in charge of solving them? How can we effectively mobilize and offer substantive pushback? Though I have thoughts on each of these questions, I will leave my ideas for another day.

Overall, August’s workshop was helpful in understanding the broader processes causing gentrification in areas across Canada. With about 12-15 of us in attendance, the discussion was lively and thought-provoking. I’d like to thank both Martine August and the organizers from Herongate Tenant Coalition for inviting me to attend. 

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