By Robyn Gillam

It must be 40 years ago that I saw this message spray painted on a boarded-up house in downtown Toronto. Not much has changed.

It’s common knowledge that buildings slated for renovation, redevelopment or demolition often sit empty for a long time. In our neighbourhood, both the Jamesville townhouse complex and 500 MacNab have been vacant for over two years. The old Clarkey’s tavern on James Street, slated for demolition, from which tenants were evicted in late June, still stands untouched.  While all residents of the city buildings were rehoused, the units are removed from circulation, leaving impossibly long lists and wait times for the exploding number of people in need of affordable housing.

Gord Smythe, a former Clarkey’s resident whom I interviewed last spring, was homeless for six months before finding city accommodation. For Smythe, who is on ODSP, it could not have come soon enough. In an interview with CBC Hamilton on November 24, he explained: “It’s definitely not camping, it’s surviving. It’s a really hard life…moving every time you have to move wasn’t acceptable.” Although Smythe’s relieved to be housed, he emphasized that the homelessness problem is devastating and won’t go away.

While a pilot project in Hamilton has successfully rehoused people with complex needs and another in Kitchener has provided tiny homes, the visible homeless are only the tip of a very large iceberg. The overvaluation of real estate, exacerbated by the Pandemic, has all but abolished security of tenure in residential properties.

Those responsible for redevelopments argue that the process takes time, with planning permits, environmental assessment and remediation, tendering contracts, seasonal working conditions and so on. However, time is a luxury that the precariously housed and homeless do not have. Smythe told me he wondered how the Jamestown complex across the street could be empty in the midst of a Covid related housing crisis and others have also asked the same question.

The city’s plan for redeveloping social housing stock for mixed use and\or with private-public partnerships has generated much discussion, but it has begun to study possible reuse of vacant buildings and lots downtown. However, estimates of their extent, let alone their utilization, cannot be agreed upon. The most popular fix proposed for the affordable housing crisis, exacerbated by the economic fallout of the pandemic, is building new stock. This appeals to all levels of government as it stimulates the economy locally, regionally and nationally. However, elsewhere in the world, cities are looking seriously at how to refurbish buildings or else reuse their components as a means of carbon reduction. For example, in the UK, the building industry uses 60% of all materials and produces 45% of all CO2 emissions, which includes demolition, as well as construction. Put in local terms, it could take many years before the LRT is even carbon neutral, factoring in the demolition and proposed replacement of over 80 units of housing.

Of course, it also takes time to rehabilitate abandoned or badly maintained housing stock, but it’s possible that some or even most work can be done without displacing people. Housing advocates have noted that emergency accommodation in hostels and hotels is not a permanent solution. Surely it would help if buildings can remain inhabited for longer periods, while awaiting redevelopment or refurbishment, as, for example, in the planning stages. It’s also common knowledge that buildings deteriorate much faster when they are vacant and can pose significant health and safety risks, as in the case of the toxic fire at the former Mr. Used on Barton Street East this summer.

If we don’t want to see people living in parks or on the street, there needs to be a more thoughtful and time-sensitive response to their needs. In many cases, the solution could lie in not displacing them at all.

The issue of homelessness in Hamilton is covered by the Hamilton Spectator; building sustainability is discussed in the Guardian’s Cities in Depth.