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concordia 25/11/2020 - 05:00PM

Recording: Discussion on Gentrification with Lulu Wei

On Monday November 23, Cinema Politica Concordia hosted a discussion on gentrification and displacement, urban redevelopment, and affordable housing  with Lulu Wei, the director of the recently premiered THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE THIS PLACE, ANYPLACE. Joining Lulu Wei were community organizer and podcaster Shazma Abdualla, and PhD researcher from Birbeck, University of London, Aaron Vansintjan. The discussion was co-presented with Anti-Eviction Montreal / Anti-éviction Montréal.

THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE THIS PLACE, ANYPLACE looks at the transformation of a much-loved Toronto landmark, the Honest Ed's and Mirvish Village block, through the stories of its community members who are forced to relocate when it is sold to Vancouver-based developer Westbank Corp. While the film focuses on one neighbourhood in Toronto, it is widely relevant to major cities across Canada.

Here in Montreal, the film resonates with the anti-gentrification movement in Parc-Ex, as well as sweeping redevelopment in the neighbourhoods of Hochelaga and Pointe-Saint Charles. As we head into the second winter with COVID-19, virtually nothing has been done by Canadian politicians to address the housing crisis. This crisis may only be starting, however, as evidenced by swelling unemployment, the gradual collapse of the service industry, and many workers left without paid sick days. Meanwhile, temporary housing and tent cities in Toronto and Montreal continue to be dismantled, and the house-less are criminalized.

Hot Docs Film Festival - There's No Place Like This Place, Anyplace 

Director Lulu Wei reflected on how her personal experience with eviction helped shaped the story of THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE THIS PLACE, ANYPLACE. Through this intimate lens, Wei also shines a refreshing light of normalcy on depictions of queer relationships in film, break the cliché mold of coming-of-age stories.

As a resident of the block, Wei connected with local artists and business-owners like painter and gallery-owner Gabor Mezei, and owner of A Different Booklist, Itah Sadu, whose stories represent creative reinvention and resilience in spite of adversity. The audience witnesses an inspiring victory as the city eventually buys back Wei’s old building from developers, destined to become a new home for the bookstore and Black and Caribbean community centre that Sadu has carefulyl nurtured. A Different Booklist holds space within a legacy of Black community at Bloor & Bathurst, which thrived alongside Honest Ed’s – from the historic Contrast newspaper to the barbershops and restaurants that thrived on the block.

Shazma Abdulla, co-host of the podcast The Ethnic Vote, spoke about the significance of the Honest Ed’s block for queer, BIPOC and working class communities in Toronto – communities that are often treated as disposable and unwelcome. While developers often feel like an insurmountable force, Abdulla insisted on the need to aggressively claim space to preserve a sense of belonging that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

Emphasizing the historically low, crisis-level vacancy rates in Montreal, as well as increasing gentrification in Ottawa, Abdulla discussed the unrealistic framing of “affordability”, where it is based on a city’s median income as opposed to the percentage of actual income earned. This places so-called affordability within the range of $2000 per month for a one-bedroom or even a studio apartment, with an expected income of $80,000. These absurd rates are used to allocate a certain percentage of new units as “affordable” housing, when in reality they don’t even come close to being accessible to working class incomes.

Hot Docs Film Festival - There's No Place Like This Place, Anyplace 

PhD researcher with Birbeck, University of London, Aaron Vansintjan spoke about the parallel between gentrification in Montreal and Hanoi, Vietnam. Referring also the normalized social and co-operative housing model in Vienna, Vansintjan emphasized that housing would never be affordable so long as it’s a mode of profit, and that the focus should be on getting housing out of the hands of the market. While current quotas for social housing across Canada are insufficient, social housing is vital to keeping lower-income people in their communities. Canada has the capacity, he added, so why isn’t it doing it?  

Vansintjan spoke about how massive investment in real estate encourages more high-income tenants, and the role of technological and creative industries in gentrification. Reflecting on the privatization of housing councils in London, he described how real estate speculation is shaped by the profit that could be extracted from a neighbourhood, which is often inferred from artist communities.

All the speakers reflected on how housing precarity and renoviction have been defining experiences for Millenial and younger generations, for whom renting means living in a constant state of anxiety of being repeatedly displaced. But as Lulu Wei’s film, THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE THIS PLACE, ANYPLACE shows, there is hope in collective organizing and fighting back against developers.

While community consultations are usually attended by home-owners, and the demographic skews white or older, organizers should participate in these consultations as they ultimately determine the shape of communities. Other strategies include raising awareness and putting pressure on developers by working with the media, and supporting existing tenant advocacy organizations through funding or volunteering. 

Watch the Q&A above, or click here to view.