Peterborough Waterfront Condo Development a Slap in the Face for Those Touched by Housing Crisis

The Little Lake fountain viewed facing Crescent street. Photo by Bob Linsdell via Wikimedia Commons.

As the weather gets colder many are preparing to spend the night in Confederation or Victoria Park, respectively. These parks are located in the heart of Peterborough’s downtown core and are both no more than a few blocks away from The Warming Room, Peterborough’s most low-barrier short-term shelter. The increase of makeshift housing in these parks has left many of Peterborough’s downtown community with a bitter taste in their mouths with some complaining that they no longer feel safe in their own neighborhoods and others turning that anger back onto local politicians, who have done little to address Peterborough’s ongoing housing crisis.

Paul Bennett, the president of Ashburnham Realty, has been buying land around Crescent street and Little Lake near the Art Gallery of Peterborough. The developer says this is all part of his plan to “take back the waterfront and make it part of the public realm.” As for those who live in the six Ashburnham Realty properties on Crescent street, they will be “relocated” in favor of 100 luxury condo units. This “plan” is code for forcing the poor and the vulnerable away from the downtown core. It leaves many working class individuals wondering just who Paul Bennett believes he is “taking the waterfront back” from and who belongs in this public realm he’s describing.

A few blocks over from the proposed location for these new luxury condos is some of Peterborough’s limited subsidized housing units. Peterborough’s waterfront condo development will serve as a slap in the face for the growing poor and homeless population, who as of 2017, face a waitlist of up to 11 years for a one-bedroom apartment in Peterborough. Between 2014 and 2017 Peterborough’s vacancy rate has declined from 2.9% to 1%, giving landlords the opportunity to be increasingly selective in their rentals. This selectiveness and slim vacancies means that anyone who already faced difficulty securing stable housing is now increasingly vulnerable to homelessness. For these individuals, luxury condos have no practical use.

The 2017 housing report for the City of Peterborough counted Peterborough’s median income as 22% less than the province of Ontario. Landlords filed for 568 evictions, a 100 application increase since 2014. In 2017, Brock Mission, Cameron House, The Warming Room and the YES Shelter for Youth and Families combined counted an 86% occupancy of their collective 80 available beds. The Warming Room, a low barrier service available to those who cannot or will not access emergency shelters such as Brock, Cameron House or YES, counted 248 unique guests in 2017. These street-involved individuals often struggle to maintain regular employment and housing due to mental health, addiction, disability, and various other social factors.

As for Paul Bennett, he believes that by creating high end luxury condos for the wealthier members of the community to move into and downsize, their homes will re-enter the market and free up housing for everyone in Peterborough. This top-down approach to housing does nothing to address the social factors which plague Peterborough’s housing crisis. What Bennett and his supporters do not acknowledge is buying a home is equally inaccessible to those who are accessing Peterborough’s emergency shelters, many of whom are also affected by additional barriers to housing like criminal records, failing credit scores, mental health, and addictions. Bennett’s non-luxury rental properties downtown would not be accessible to this same demographic.

This move in favour of luxury condos over affordable rental properties, reflects an alarming trend across Ontario which has revictimized some of the province’s most vulnerable. In Toronto, the long-term residents of the Waverly Hotel at College and Spadina have been evicted and their home torn down in favour of luxury condos. Like the proposed condos on Peterborough waterfront, these luxury condos will also be built just a stone’s throw away from the city’s most vulnerable and housing insecure, at CAMH Centre for Mental Health and Addictions and The Scott Mission.

Long-term residents of The Waverly Hotel had been using the hotel as subsidized housing, paying a mere $700 per month for a room in the downtown core, where the median price for a bachelor apartment has soared to $1500 in 2017. Social Workers had urged developers not to evict the long-term tenants of the Waverly, citing the increased vulnerability of their clients, who would be unable to afford housing in Toronto’s current market and would struggle in shelter environments due to factors such as age, mental health, and disability. The City of Toronto is also facing a severe housing crisis with vacancy rates plummeting to their lowest in sixteen years.

Recently, Toronto developers have come under fire for their attempts to gentrify Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood by rebranding it as “Vegandale,” a trendy restaurant and brewery district. Parkdale is currently a low-income neighborhood on Queen street East, which used to be home to the city’s only low-income accessible food co-op as well as various safe-injection sites, both of which have since closed. Parkdale is also home to The Shepherds of Good Hope shelter and some of the city’s last affordable central housing. Vegandale would assure that most Parkdale’s current residents could not afford to eat in the neighborhood they lived in, all while rebranding the neighborhood as a trendy dining experience for hip, young, career-minded Torontonians – not unlike Bennett’s plan to “take back the waterfront”.

In Ottawa, similar evictions of the Herongate neighborhood have left new immigrants and refugees without housing, in favor of luxury condo development in the city’s east end. Ottawa, which has a vacancy rate of 1.4%, is also in the middle of a housing crisis, which has left entire neighborhoods to become epicenters for social services, public housing, vulnerability, and crime. Despite these serious social barriers to stable housing, Ottawa continues to put up luxury condos to attract the city’s wealthiest, while sending the poor and vulnerable to increasingly destabilized neighborhoods further away from the downtown core.

In his “Peterbio” with MyKawartha, Paul Bennett told Mike Lacey he thought Peterborough had the potential to be a destination that people and industry will seek out. At first glance, to a city with a struggling job market and increasing housing crisis, the promise of increased industry is appealing – but look a little closer and you’ll find the problem in this promise: that there are already businesses and people living and working in Peterborough and these people are struggling. Peterborough’s current housing crisis is, in part, thanks to attracting commuters from the GTA, who are able to afford to buy in Peterborough’s housing market in a way that they couldn’t in Toronto. This need to attract big city business to our city is misguided – what we need is to put our money where our mouth is and start funding social programs which will address these barriers to housing stability and provide real options for our community’s most vulnerable.

Paul Bennett’s waterfront condos bring Crescent street out of a realm where the poor and marginal can imagine themselves living and into a “public realm” where he and his friends in the business community can feel comfortable frequenting without fear of having to look the faces of Peterborough’s housing crisis in the eye.