Gentrification’s toll on the health of long-term residents
Home prices in Toronto are booming, with the average cost of a home in Toronto sitting at $1,280,000. That’s partnered with a staggering building boom. In 2014, the number of new residential high-rises being built exceeded New York City’s by 50 percent.
As the cost of owning property continues to rise, it has gentrified neighbourhoods that used to be affordable havens for low income workers, newcomers and people dependent on government assistance. Neighbourhoods like Parkdale, Bloordale, and South Riverdale have experienced dramatic changes to their appearances, costs of living and landmark establishments have changed dramatically in the past decade.
Gentrification can be the natural result of higher housing costs or caused by intentional urban revitalization. In both cases, it often results in higher rents, increased property taxes and wealthier residents, who can radically alter the physical and social landscape of neighbourhoods. In many cases, it is transforming neighbourhoods faster than longtime residents can keep up, and exacting a high cost on their health.
People with fewer financial resources and limited political power may be forced out, causing migration to unfamiliar spaces that may be remote or underserviced, without adequate access to the basics for a healthy lifestyle, including affordable, culturally-appropriate grocery stores, medical care or facilities for physical activity.
Such dramatic life changes, facilitated by gentrification, have been connected to shorter life expectancy, higher cancer rates and greater infant mortality.
In Toronto, community agencies such as Woodgreen, Good Shepherd, Mustard Seed and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty have been hosting discussions across the city to gather feedback from long-time residents of these transforming spaces.
People who live in poverty report feeling shut out by relational, architectural and symbolic cues that implicitly or explicitly exclude all but the wealthier residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. This may be through high costs of goods and services, implied dress codes, nonverbal cues or police harassment. Better-resourced residents may also be first to sign up for classes and services at community centres, pushing out their less privileged counterparts.
Gentrification can offer some benefits to historically neglected areas, such as new grocery stores and increased transit routes. But while the Toronto Transit Commission has expanded routes to revitalized areas, it’s come at the cost of steep increases in fares.
And the food at many newly-installed grocery store chains may not provide affordable or culturally appropriate food for many residents. This impacts food security for people who are seeing family-run grocery stores erased alongside rising food costs.
A 2016 study by Komakech and Jackson found that owners of small ethnic grocery stores had their contributions to the Regent Park neighborhood largely ignored. As big chains such as FreshCo and No Frills received institutional support, small food businesses were not deemed “viable” by banks. Many of the ethnic grocery stores have since had to shut down.
While the City of Toronto claims that creating mixed income development in areas such as Regent Park is meant to encourage social mixing, when familiar spaces for affordable social gatherings disappear, there is an inevitable shift in neighbourhood structure.
Social loss, or the involuntary severing of deep social ties and stable networks, can lead to feelings of powerlessness, exclusion, rejection and destabilization in residents who lose their sense of community identity.
The ability to congregate without fear of harassment becomes compromised for those whose appearances do not fit in with the growing norm of affluence, and hostility from gentrifiers is a significant detractor of quality-of-life.
To prevent the destructive consequences of gentrification, urban renewal projects must take a social determinants of health approach that includes the active participation of longtime residents.
There must be hard policy measures to preserve welcoming public space, community services and affordable housing in a systematic approach that involves an integrated, meaningful collaboration of diverse voices. For urban renewal to achieve its goals, there must be a formal effort to respect the legacies of communities that have thrived and survived prior to gentrification.
Healthcare professionals, especially family medicine and public health workers, have a critical role to play in advocating and creating policy recommendations that could improve the health of the city’s most vulnerable populations. This might involve rent-adjusted-to-income for the majority of new housing developments, and a commitment to supporting small, local businesses alongside corporate commercial additions to the area.
Furthermore, city programs and public transportation must show a commitment to accessibility to people at all income levels. Toronto City Council just approved a low income TTC pass, starting in 2018, exemplifying a positive step towards fostering an inclusive city, even in the midst of continual commercial and residential development.
Politicians, community agencies, the media and the public have a responsibility to ensure safety nets in these changing neighborhoods. This will help ensure that urban renewal offers a shared benefit, rather than a disproportionate burden on the health of Toronto’s most vulnerable.
Anne Rucchetto is a writer and Research Coordinator at The Upstream Lab, holding a Master’s of Public Health in Health Promotion and Community Development. Cian Knights is the Community Engagement Specialist at St Michael’s Hospital Academic Family Health Team.