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By: Sophie Geffros
Community members in Westdale and Ainslie Wood are right to be concerned about the continued growth of so-called “student ghettos” in those neighbourhoods. Given that an increase in student residents leads to higher rents, fewer single family homes and an increase in high-end expensive retail outlets, it is hard to see this growth in its current form as anything other than gentrification in a mortarboard.
One of the great tragedies of gentrification is the rate at which it forces the elderly out of homes they have lived in all their lives. This is partially caused by the fact that businesses no longer cater to them — why bother when there are thousands of young people with ample disposable income — and partially by the rapid increase in the cost of living in a gentrifying neighbourhood. Since 2006 the population of Westdale over the age of 65 has decreased dramatically.
Ainslie Wood encompasses the area east of Osler, south of McMaster, and west of Longwood. A longstanding working class neighbourhood, the majority of the low rises and single-family homes were built after World War II to provide housing for veterans and widows. Many of the single-family homes were sold to veterans in the post-war period for a dollar. Unlike Westdale, it remained a strong working class neighbourhood until well into the 21st century — only recently has the number of student occupants overtaken traditional residents. Many community members have expressed the opinion that the closing of Prince Philip School and the construction of a 15-room student house sound a death knell for the neighbourhood.
To understand how the 18 to 24 year old population of Ainslie Wood could increase from approximately 15 percent in 2001 to 45 percent in 2012, we first need to look at McMaster University’s full-time undergraduate enrollment numbers, which have increased by 129 percent since 2001. In that time, the student population has more than doubled. In the 2009 Campus Capacity Report, it was noted that there exists a 30 percent student housing deficit, meaning that there is not space for 30 percent of students who apply for student housing. In that same period, rents in Westdale Village increased by over 20 percent. In their rush to cater to wealthy students, Westdale landlords had effectively made it very difficult for students — or anyone else — to live there.
Rents have increased in Hamilton as a whole over the past five years, no doubt in part due to the two percent vacancy rate in the city. Since 2012, the waitlist for social housing in Hamilton has increased by six percent. At present, there are 6,000 households waiting for placement in city housing. Many of those households are currently waiting in shelters or in accommodation that is unsafe for human habitation. One of the most common complaints about gentrification is the way that gentrifiers move into a neighbourhood, raising the rents and changing the cultural landscape, and then leave. 35 percent of the residents of Westdale and Ainslie Wood moved there within the last five years.
Ironically, student renters are victims of this gentrification as much as they are perpetrators of it. It is not unusual to see single rooms in student houses be rented for 500 or even 700 dollars — rents that would fetch a onew or two-bedroom apartment on the East Mountain and in Stoney Creek. It’s no wonder that over the past ten years, the non-student population of Westdale and Ainslie Wood has decreased to one third of its previous size.
Students have a responsibility to our neighbourhoods, and to our city. It doesn’t benefit anyone to have the elderly and families with children pushed out of neighbourhoods so that unscrupulous landlords can charge outrageous rents to students. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen and heard these students express disdain towards living in the city centre or in the east end, and by extension, towards the residents who already live there. There is a pervasive perception of the downtown and the east end as dirty and dangerous, and not places where university students should even think of renting. It’s classism in its purist form.
Regardless of what neighbourhood you rent in, students must start thinking of ourselves as residents of a city. Neighbourhoods around the university are not de facto McMaster dorms, they are established communities with vibrant histories. Students must be more interested in integrating into communities, in supporting local initiatives around gentrification and transit justice, and in living with the local residents rather than displacing them. If we don’t, we can’t act surprised when locals object to more student housing in their neighbourhoods.