When a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats

In London’s revitalizing Old East Village, affordable properties and low rents can represent a springboard to a better life — but is there room for everyone to dream?
By Mary Baxter - Published on April 5, 2018
a woman posing in her retail store
The focus is on local goods at Kandice Trickett’s store, The Been Garden, and business is booming. (Mary Baxter)

LONDON — Kandice Trickett and Cornelius Berg couldn’t be more different from each other if they tried, but they have one thing in common: in their search for a better life, they’ve both set their sights on the Old East Village in London. Property values and rents are low in the neighbourhood — but rising. 

Trickett, 28, is a local business owner who rents a house within walking distance of her store. The sole provider for her two boys, aged two and four, she’s a go-getter with ambitions to build her business, which sells local goods. Business is booming; she can now afford to buy a house, and aims to put down roots in the neighbourhood she calls home.

Berg, 35, a former bartender who is recovering from addiction, has spent the past 10 years on welfare. He lives with his four cats in Ingersoll, east of London, but is having trouble meeting his expenses. He had hoped a move to Old East would help him keep a roof over his head: the neighbourhood traditionally offered some of the lowest rents in the city. 

But change is afoot in the once blue collar inner-city neighbourhood, which was known up until the early 2000s as East of Adelaide, the name synonymous with crime and substandard housing. Today, new and renovated apartments, restored historic Ontario cottages, trendy restaurants and specialty food stores rub shoulders with short-term lenders as well as the drop-in centres, soup kitchens and health services that serve the city’s most vulnerable populations.

By now, gentrification — the process of resuscitating a neighbourhood previously on the down and outs — is a familiar phenomenon in North American and European urban centres. Critics say it drives up property values and rents, making neighbourhoods unaffordable for the poorer populations who once occupied them. 

For Trickett, the changes to the neighbourhood are exciting: she believes they’re good for business, and are helping to create a place for her to raise a family. 

Berg, on the other hand, worries rising rents will dash his hopes of finding a home to call his own. The question is, as gentrification gathers momentum, will there be room enough for both Trickett and Berg to thrive here?


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Garden in the rough 

Trickett arrived on the scene in Old East in January 2015. A former rebar ironworker, she was looking for a place to set up a store selling locally made crafts and products. 

She thought Old East Village might offer the possibility of an affordable space. A local service that counsels would-be entrepreneurs advised Trickett not to set up shop in Old East. So did her mother, who had grown up in the area. She told her daughter it was too rough. Yet signs of change on the horizon intrigued Kandice. 

“There was a lot of younger families buying older homes in the area and putting a lot of time and pride into redoing them. I just had a feeling. I felt good about the whole community vibe,” says Trickett as she takes a break in the slender kitchen at the back of her shop, called The Been Garden. It’s her second location, occupying the main floor of a long, narrow building between a laneway and a parking lot. 

“It was a little bit impulsive but I’m very glad now that I took that chance.” 

Across the street from Trickett’s store sits the Aeolian Hall, once the area’s town hall and now a popular concert venue. Nearby there’s a cluster of stores to explore, offering the aroma of fresh-baked meat pies, dumplings and pot stickers, one-of-a-kind clothes, and catchy names like The Hungary Butcher. Some are businesses that got their start at the bustling Western Fair farmers market across the road. To the west, towards the district’s main intersection at Dundas and Adelaide streets, ordinary service providers (a pharmacy, a bank) share the streetscape with artist studios, a performing arts theatre, restaurants specializing in local foods, and shops selling antiques and books. 

Trickett became so attached to Old East that a year after opening her store, pregnant with her second son, she moved to the area. This year, she moved her store to its current location to accommodate a fast-growing inventory and thriving demand, and today the formerly empty stores by her first location are “all full of beautiful little businesses.”

Now, she’s looking to buy a home in Old East. What’s great about the area is there’s room for everyone, she says. “It’s not just upper class, it’s not just lower class; there’s such a combination and it’s so colourful and unique.” The sense of community is strong: people lounge on their front porches, chat with passersby and keep an eye on each other. For the (until recently) single mom, the local support and sense of safety is reassuring.

Yet there’s still a lot of drug addiction and poverty, she adds. Once or twice at her old shop she found used needles in backpacks when she arrived to open up. 

In March, the Middlesex-London Health Unit announced plans to open a safe injection site west of the neighbourhood on York Street. It has also hinted at plans to eventually establish other sites. With the persistence of drug addiction in her neighbourhood, Trickett worries one might end up there. 

Yes, there is a need for such supports, she says. Yet she worries an injection site could thwart the efforts of people like her who are working hard to encourage the neighbourhood to take an upward path. And who wants an addiction clinic beside their home? “I don’t want safe injection sites anywhere near here. I understand the concept, but I don’t want them at all.”

The cost of living 

Berg, 35, knows all about drug culture. He became addicted to cocaine and opioids when he worked at a London bar as a bartender. As his addiction escalated, he sometimes turned to theft to support the habit. 

Today, with the help of methadone, Berg has kicked the drugs. But stable housing, the next step in rebuilding his life, remains elusive. 

Berg was born within a Mennonite community in Mexico, and immigrated to Canada as a child. His family settled in an old-order Mennonite community near Aylmer. Berg left home when he was a teen and settled in London. “I am a gay Mennonite,” he says. He says his community would not have been able to come to terms with his sexuality. 

Two years ago he abandoned his geared-to-income apartment near Old East to move to Ingersoll with a friend. That friend moved out and Berg can’t afford the apartment on his own. His ideal plan would be to return to the city. He’d love to have a “stable home” to share with his cats. Old East is the preferred location, but as Berg is discovering, it’s no longer the haven of cheap apartments that it once was.

a man sitting in a cafe

Ideally Berg would want to live in geared-to-income housing in the area, but he faces several hurdles. He owes money to the city’s housing program, from when he abandoned his geared-to-income apartment two years ago. He lost his documents to prove his citizenship. And given the number of people ahead on him on the list, Berg faces a wait of months, if not years, for subsidized housing.

So for now, he’s looking for an apartment to rent at market prices. In Old East, he may have a chance of finding an apartment costing “say, $650 that includes heat and hydro.”

Even if apartments at that price do still exist in Old East, a rent of around $650 would chew up most of the $721 that a person in Berg’s situation would receive. (That’s the maximum Ontario Works payment for a single person without dependents.) 

Meanwhile, Old East has traditionally offered other benefits for someone who needs access to social services. He wouldn’t have to spend money to travel to medical services or a methadone clinic; both are available within walking distance. Buses stop nearby. He wouldn’t have to worry as much about finding food, thanks to local social and charitable services that offer meals and drop-in centres. 

Brenda Newton-Taylor, an advocacy worker with Ark Aid Street Mission, a faith-based non-profit located in Old East, thinks Berg is being practical and realistic with his plans to settle in the neighbourhood. Having services nearby is especially important when you might not have enough money for a bus ride. 

Meanwhile, Old East tends to be a welcoming place for vulnerable people. Some restaurants, for instance, have been known to open their doors to provide free meals to those in need. Jennifer Pastorius, manager of the Old East Village Business Improvement Association, says long-term residents and businesses generally appreciate the area’s importance for people on lower or fixed incomes, and their work on revitalizing the area doesn’t mean they want to push anyone out. Old East Village possesses one of the greatest concentrations of affordable and geared-to-income housing in London, and Pastorius says it’s widely recognized that it’s important to protect affordability. “We wanted to make sure that people would have options if they were working poor, if they had particular needs, that they were able to still find housing at an affordable rate in our neighbourhood.” 

But there’s one major hitch: rising rents. Last month, when a friend gave him a lift to the city, what Berg saw in Old East made him fear for his plans. When he visited during Ark Aid’s regular afternoon drop-in, the amount of development surprised him. 

Berg heard monthly rents are climbing north of $900 for apartments in one new rental development. Even if he found a roommate, he doubts he could make that price work, because of the way Ontario Works calculates shelter payments for shared accommodation. 

Gentrification is often viewed as a process that pushes people out of low-income neighbourhoods, but Berg’s problem is a less visible one: because of rising rents, he may not get to move here in the first place, and take advantage of the cluster of social services that could have helped him. 

Low-income people face a citywide shortage of housing options, says Shelley Milos, executive director of the London Housing Registry, a not-for-profit whose goal is to help people at risk find affordable housing. The rental vacancy rate in the city plummeted to 1.8 per cent as of November, and rents are going up across the city. “One of our property management companies [who lists vacancies on the registry’s rental list], their one bedrooms are $909,” Milos says. “We used to be able to [find] them in between $625 and $675, so you see there’s a huge problem.”

Provincial rent controls protect people who are already living in an apartment, but landlords can obtain permission to hike rents in vacant units between occupancies. So when an apartment turns over to a new tenant, the rent often goes up. 

As rents climb at the lower end of the market in London, Milos says, “Our folks are basically at risk, and what worries me is that they’re going to become homeless.” 

Back in Old East, some solutions are brewing to help people like Berg. This year, the London Affordable Housing Foundation announced plans to build a five-storey, 41-unit facility on the edge of Old East. The city’s planning and environment committee has approved rezoning for the facility that will rent one-bedroom apartments for $650 a month to people earning less than $37,000. (The application has not yet gone before city council.) Also this year, the Tricar Group, a property developer, bought land in the neighbourhood for Indwell, a Hamilton Christian charity that builds supported and affordable housing.

The Indwell project in particular is encouraging, says Doug Whitelaw, Ark Aid’s executive director, because the Hamilton organization typically focuses on supported housing, which provides social and financial supports that go beyond geared-to-income rents. “That’s the big piece that’s been missing in London …So that is going to be a great addition.” 

Those developments will take time; it will be years before those buildings are built, and that’s time Berg doesn’t have. 

With his former roommate gone from his current apartment in Ingersoll, Berg has fallen behind on paying rent. With eviction looming and discouraging prices on offer in Old East, the dream of a home of his own is on hold. His realities now: preparing for a long stay in a homeless shelter and finding someone to care for the cats until he can find his feet again.

“I mean, you can imagine the stress.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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