Building on the strengths of Uniacke Square

May 27, 2008

UNIACKE SQUARE provides 184 units of good quality, affordable rental housing at a time when low-income rental housing is in short supply all across the country, including Halifax. As such, it constitutes a very valuable asset, and should be protected and preserved.

Yet forces are at work that place the Square at risk. There is considerable evidence of gentrification in the area around the Square: expensive condos going up along the harbourfront; old houses being bought, renovated and re-sold for higher prices; rising rents. Uniacke Square may become an island of low-income, affordable housing in a sea of rising prices and rents and changing neighbourhood demographics.

This is especially so because Uniacke is so close to downtown Halifax. At a time when gasoline prices are rising and environmental concerns are growing, people making long commutes to work may be saying, "I'd sure like to live there, and be able to walk to work, save on gas, and enjoy the downtown amenities." This may add to the pressures to remove Uniacke Square as low-income housing.

How could governments justify the removal of 184 units of good quality, low-income rental housing at a time when low-income housing is in such short supply?

My fear is that the justification may arise from the stigmatization and stereotyping to which the Square and its residents have long been subjected. Uniacke Square is looked upon by many in Halifax as a source of crime, violence and drugs. To be sure, these are present at Uniacke Square, but they constitute a partial and one-dimensional view of a much stronger and more vibrant community. Yet the negative image that has been cultivated for so long by those outside the community may be used as the justification for removing Uniacke Square. The claim may be made that getting rid of Uniacke is "in the interests of those who live there." After all, that is what was said 40 years ago to justify the bulldozing of Africville.

All across North America, public housing projects like Uniacke Square are being bulldozed, and replaced totally or partially with market housing that is beyond the financial reach of low-income residents, who are then displaced and forced to find housing in the private market. But the private market produces almost no low-income rental housing, with the result that rental rates are very high; those displaced from public housing are forced to take from their food budgets to pay the rent, and then line up at food banks to feed their families. Their lives are made worse, much worse, when public housing is eliminated.

Could Uniacke Square be eliminated? Yes, such a shortsighted policy decision is possible. The way it could happen is by offering existing units for sale to current tenants at prices they can afford. This has in fact been called for in a 2004 HRM report, the rationale being that homeowners take greater pride in their homes than do renters, and so the neighbourhood would soon improve following the sales.

But this would be a mistake. A big mistake.

Shortly after purchasing their current units, residents of Uniacke Square would be offered many thousands of dollars more than their purchase price to sell them, because of the attractive location. Many would accept the offer to sell so shortly after buying, because the capital gain would be attractive, especially to low-income people. But once sold, those units would become part of the private housing market, their price subject to market forces just like any other commodity. As the price escalated because of the location of Uniacke Square, the houses would be lost forever as low-income rental units. An already very serious shortage of low-income rental housing would be made worse.

There is a better way. It is to invest public dollars in Uniacke Square and to build on the many strengths in the neighbourhood.

What are those strengths? If we look beyond the stigma and the stereotypes, we see: good quality, low-income rental housing; many strong individuals and families; a strong sense of community; and some very capable community-based organizations that work in the neighbourhood.

If governments were to invest in a patient, long-term and strategic fashion to create educational and job opportunities tailored to the needs of Uniacke residents, with supports to enable them to take advantage of those opportunities, the strengths that are already present in Uniacke Square would grow, and the neighbourhood would become a healthy and happy environment for low-income people.

This is a much more attractive option than eliminating Uniacke Square. We should be building more low-income rental housing, not tearing existing housing down. To eliminate Uniacke Square - either by bulldozing or by selling it - would be to repeat the mistakes made at Africville. Strategic public investment, together with community engagement in a revitalization process, is the real solution. All it requires is political vision and leadership.

Jim Silver is chair of the department of politics, University of Winnipeg. He took part in a panel discussion on public housing recently in Halifax. His paper, Public Housing Risks and Alternatives: Uniacke Square in North End Halifax, is published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

This editorial was originally published in The Chronicle-Herald – Halifax.