On Being a Student in a City with a Housing Crisis

A Peterborough house with the front door and window boarded over, and a notice on the door. Photo by Nick Taylor.

Ruth Glass, the British-German Sociologist, once wrote that the city was “too vast, too complex, too contrary and too moody” to be known entirely. Despite its size, I like to think of Peterborough as no exception. The more time I spend here, the more I am able to peel back layers of unfamiliarity, and often, layers of my own ignorance, to try and get closer to a more fulsome understanding of this odd little city I call home.

I first moved here in the late summer/early autumn of 2016. My first impression of the city was that it was entirely unremarkable. It seemed similar enough to my hometown, and frankly, I didn’t think much of it at all.

In my second year, I lived in a strangely suburban, middle-class neighbourhood in East City that only confirmed my initial hypothesis that Peterborough was just another shade of Whitby. All the houses on my street looked the same. Many were filled with aging folks, their kids having long since moved away from home. The newer parts of my neighbourhood had younger families, but it remained quiet, with no tangible connection between the folks who shared this space. Everyone seemed pretty content to mind their business, go about their days in peace, manicuring their lawns, washing their cars, keeping up appearances. Oh, suburbia.

It was also in my second year that I began working at Arthur. We were doing an issue on housing in Peterborough and as a naïve 19-year-old reporter with little direction, I thought it might be fruitful to interview a few of the homeless folks I had come to recognize downtown. I soon realized that I was surely out of my depths. As a student coming from a very middle-class suburb in the GTA, I knew surprisingly little about the issues that threaten the livelihood of my own neighbours.

To remedy this, I attended a City Council Budget Meeting specifically focused on Peterborough’s “Housing Crisis and Shelter Emergency.” There, I learned that at the time, Peterborough ranked first in Canada for highest core housing need among metropolitan census areas, with a vacancy rate under one percent. For context, a healthy vacancy rate is between three and five percent. I learned that there were 1406 people on a waitlist for rent supplements. I learned that all the shelters in Peterborough were at capacity ahead of the cold winter months. I learned that this issue was one of life or death. I heard countless testimonies from shelter workers, public health representatives, and other frontline workers about how severe the issue was, and how we might hope to solve it. I also noticed that the one voice that was missing from the conversation was the voice that mattered most – the voice of the folks who live this reality everyday.

I left that meeting feeling like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. How could I be so blind to the struggles of the people in my own community?

As an International Development Studies student, I thought I had a decent understanding of poverty, of what happens when basic needs are not met. And maybe I did, but only in the abstract, and surely not in my own backyard. The realization that I had been so ignorant to the ways in which unfettered capitalism, hegemonic gentrification, and rampant wealth inequality were wreaking havoc on the city I had come to love was gut-wrenching, but so important. It shaped how I would relate to this space for the rest of my time here.

I started to notice that Peterborough was changing very rapidly right in front of me. In just a few years, so many downtown establishments had shut down or moved away. Some had opened, too, but were indicative of a certain kind of shift towards a certain kind of city: yoga studios, tanning salons, chain restaurants that sell $7 juices. Construction had begun on a luxury condominium complex right around the corner from a homeless shelter. Sub-divisions were going up seemingly overnight, and always on the outskirts of town. None of it made sense. There was no coherence to this strange city. I realized that this place was fragmented, disarticulated even, and that perhaps, there was a multiplicity of Peterboroughs, and I only knew just one.

What helped me come to understand this incoherence were rumblings from activists and community members about the city being in the midst of a process of “gentrification.” For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, gentrification was first coined by Ruth Glass in the 1960s, who wrote that “one by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

Much has been written about gentrification since Glass coined the term in 1964. Neil Smith argues that it has become the dominant logic of urbanization – that it has become global in its scope; that essentially, gentrification is simply how cities grow under neoliberalism. Unfortunately, Peterborough is the rule, rather than an exception.

In this sense, my original impression of Peterborough as wholly unremarkable holds true. What happens here is simply a microcosm of a very macro problem – a global crisis of housing unaffordability, precarity, and homelessness. Of course, Peterborough has its own brand of gentrification, complete with its own context, its own complexities, its own unique challenges to overcome.

Part of this complexity resides in Peterborough’s long time tradition of being a manufacturing powerhouse. For decades, Peterborough was home to industry that provided citizens with decent blue-collar jobs that put food on the table. Unfortunately, recent decades have seen a mass exodus of manufacturers, and Peterborough’s factories have become a tangible reminder of a not-so-distant past: the Outboard Marine Canada plant, the United Canadian Malt building, the Westclox clock factory, and perhaps most notably, General Electric, which once employed 6000 people here.

This departure of manufacturing jobs is indicative of a larger shift in Ontario’s economy. It is estimated that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the province lost over 300,000 manufacturing jobs. Many have argued that this can be attributed to Free Trade agreements like NAFTA, and other symptoms of the neoliberal, globalized economic model.

In many ways, Peterborough has been left behind. Its citizens have been left behind. Loyal working-class folks who dedicated decades of their lives to these manufacturing companies suddenly found themselves jobless, in a local economy that no longer had a place for them. Of course this has an impact on housing affordability, but its implications run deeper than that.

Most Trent students are likely unaware that the reason our university exists is because a bunch of working-class factory employees pooled together their hard-earned wages to fund the construction of this institution. They did this because they wanted their children to have access to higher education, because they knew the value a place like Trent could bring to their community. Of course, Trent has surely bolstered the local economy throughout the years, but it’s important to ask whether the university has done enough to give back to its working-class roots.
In many ways, it hasn’t. At the turn of the century, when Peterborough had begun to feel the effects of the manufacturing exodus, Trent’s administration made a controversial decision to close its downtown colleges, a decision that was met with community uproar and protest. This withdrawal signified a fracture in the relationship between the city and the school – one that has never fully healed.

This is one of many examples of how the presence of students in this place is not neutral, and never has been. In occupying this space, we drastically drive up the demand for affordable housing. This means that students and low-income, long-time citizens of Peterborough are at odds over the very limited amount of available housing.
Students are a landlord’s wet dream. We come in with OSAP loans or parents with deep pockets, and seek out the cheapest rent we can find. We don’t complain too much about landlord neglect. We don’t know our rights. And when it comes down to renting to us versus renting to low-income Peterboroughians, landlords will always pick students. Classism prevails. And we benefit from it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Downtown businesses want to profit off of us, too. We are often the objects of marketing strategies, or the expected clientele for entire businesses. In many ways, the city caters to us. In turn, we stimulate the local economy. However, if we take a closer look at where students spend their money, we might come to realize that this economic prosperity remains to be seen for many downtown establishments. Many students no longer even live downtown, as Peterborough grows outward.

Most students seem to indiscriminately spend their money at both local businesses and chains. Some small business owners manage to bring in the student population and thrive because of it. Others are not so lucky and face the consequences. Many of these businesses also rely on students to serve as their workforce. In many ways, it can be a symbiotic relationship.

The majority of students don’t often stop to consider where their money is going, but I’m not here to shame them for it. If we locate the problem in terms of how folks spend their money or the “purchasing power” of the individual, we devise a neoliberal solution to a neoliberal problem. We place blame on apathetic or unaware students and not the structures that confine us to the status quo; that manufacture our consent.

In all honesty, there are many folks far more worthy of our blame. We can ask our university administration why they have chosen to accept so many new students in recent years – a decision that has surely exacerbated the overwhelming and insatiable need for affordable housing – or why they didn’t build housing for this onslaught of students. We can ask our provincial government about the cuts to universities that put pressure on Trent to accept new students to compensate for revenue lost. We can ask the provincial government about how they halted funding for a safe injection site in the city, despite 30 overdose deaths in the city in 2019. We can ask the municipal government what they’re doing to prevent gentrification, to support low-income folks through rent supplements and constructing more affordable housing units, or how they’re exercising their political will in standing up to developers. We can ask them how much money they spent to police Tent City, or about how their policies criminalize poverty. We can point fingers in many different directions.

I think we can ask ourselves a few questions, too.

Henri Lefebvre, the French Marxist philosopher and sociologist, once wrote that “the right to the city is… a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

Graffiti reads “LOCALS ONLY” on a wooden fence. Photo by Nick Taylor.

Who has a right to this city?

How do you shape urbanization in this city? As a student, do you feel entitled to space in this place, and why? Does your presence here help or hurt the city and its citizens? What is your place here? What does it mean to you?

A few weeks ago, I was on the West Bank Bus and I overheard a conversation wherein a young woman, probably around my age, was complaining about having been propositioned by a sex worker on Bethune Street. She recounted the event with disgust, shaming the woman for trying to earn her living. I wanted to yell across the bus about how she was being classist, but I said nothing. I didn’t do anything. I thought about how the people I know back in my white middle-class suburban hometown think of, and speak of the poor. I thought about how this young woman is one person, constrained by structures of oppression that motivate these sentiments.

I felt similarly when I saw vitriolic Facebook comments on local media outlets posts about Tent City this summer. Comment after comment, espousing hatred for the poor, rife with stereotypes about the unhoused, often from people who don’t even go downtown anymore. Working-class folks looking for someone beneath them in the hierarchy to shit on. How far will you push our most vulnerable into the periphery? Class solidarity is dead. Capitalism is a violent beast. It teaches you to hate your neighbour, and all too often, yourself.

As students, I think we can do something to change this narrative. At the very least, I hope we can agree that students contribute to this housing crisis, and the general gentrification of this city. I hope we can agree that often we benefit from it, too. I hope that out of this collective responsibility, we can derive some collective obligation to do something about it

As for solutions, I think we can start by asking ourselves how we interact with our city’s most vulnerable, and whether we perpetuate classist violence. We can interrogate the language we use to speak about the homeless, about sex workers, about those who struggle with addiction. For many of us, there is a lot to unlearn.

We can maybe then begin to think about taking action. That might look different for folks with different capacities. Maybe it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen, or donating money to a local organization that does frontline work. Maybe it’s mobilizing around a politician that will actually do something to combat the problem, or putting pressure on your political representatives to do more. Write a letter. Sign a petition. Give money to a panhandler. Ask them what they need. Donate to the YES Shelter for Youth and Families, or one of the other shelters in town. Do what you can! Educate yourself! Pay attention to what happens in your own backyard.

There is a Peterborough we might never come to know, a city that will always remain strange to us; a city “too vast, too complex, too contrary and too moody” to fully grasp. A city full of laid-off industrial workers. A city with a low-income south end and a wealthy north end. A sprawling suburban east and west. Students and locals. Friends, neighbours, strangers. A city divided a million different ways. A city built on the backs of the folks it turns its back on. A city that we recreate; a city that changes us.

About Nick Taylor 39 Articles
Nick Taylor is a queer settler living and learning in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough. He is in his fourth year of an International Development and Philosophy BAH with a specialization in Ethics. His journalistic interests include politics, student affairs, gentrification and urbanism, and arts and culture. They write from the left of centre. (he/him/they/them)