Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Redlining puts barriers in front of urban rejuvenation

The 2006 census findings that were released last week show that, after decades of steady decline, some of Winnipeg's central neighbourhoods actually experienced population increases.

One major factor in this has been the rising number of immigrants from Africa and Asia moving into downtown neighbourhoods. And while the census results are statistical proof of immigration's positive impact, anecdotal evidence is found in newly opened African grocery stores and Asian eateries along West End streets like Sargent, Notre Dame, and Isabel, or in a Central Park that is noticeably safer than it was five years ago.

Another has been the resurrection of the local real estate market and increased property values, which have created a moderate boom in the construction of condos and infill houses across the city, and led to some buyers searching "down market" for a house -- the West End, say, instead of Wolseley; Point Douglas instead of St. John's.

Still, the rate of growth was quite modest. The largest gain, in the West End neighborhood of Spence, was only 12 per cent. When compared to the brisk growth in most of Winnipeg's suburban neighbourhoods and the city's surrounding municipalities, the population growth in the city centre seems even smaller; clearly not enough to slow the 60-year trend of suburbanization in the Winnipeg region.

One way this can be allowed to occur is to do away with the practice of redlining, which occurs when a bank or credit union will not lend money within a certain geographic boundary drawn up according to socio-economic factors.

An acquaintance of mine, for example, recently had his pre-approved mortgage cancelled because the Toronto Street bungalow he made an offer on was on the wrong side of his credit union's "do not lend" line -- as if choosing to purchase in the West End would have any bearing on his credit rating or income dependability.

Commonly practised in the U.S. following the Second World War, redlining facilitated the rapid "white flight" from cities, and gave way to the archetypal American post-war slum. Today, it has had a similar impact -- though less cataclysmic in scale -- on the physical, social and economic condition of Winnipeg's centre. This has contributed to a decline in population and property values, a diminished tax base, and the ghettoization of certain low-income neighbourhoods.

Apart from being unjust, redlining puts barriers in front of natural urban rejuvenation processes that depend on borrowed money: an immigrant family looking to switch from renting to owning -- moving up without moving out; a young first-time buyer looking for historic character, urbanity and proximity to downtown; an existing owner wanting to renovate, or build higher density housing.

However arbitrary and unfair this practice is, it has yet to be prevented, or even questioned, by local government officials, who instead look for ways to better accommodate the endless stream of sprawl at the city's edges.

While politicians offer nominal, nauseating non-statements such as "creating opportunities for young people," young people are without the opportunity to buy in neighbourhoods that are in dire need of physical restoration, economic uplift, and sidewalk vibrancy.

Established city neighbourhoods do not grow like suburban ones do, where large supplies of undeveloped land are available (if one could consider prime farmland undeveloped). They grow through increased densities; upward, not outward. The civic and provincial governments can no longer think, plan and grow the way small towns do. Compact infill development means a strengthened tax base and improved services for all residents of the city, increases the city's desirability to potential residents and businesses, and could give Winnipeg a better showing come Census Day 2011.

Even for those who have no personal use for downtown neighbourhoods, living in a suburb of a declining city is undeniably less desirable than living in the suburbs of a healthy city.

The recent wave of immigrants, a modest sprinkling of condos in the Exchange District, and public dollars for housing rehabilitation and infill programs have all done good things in recent years, but they will not be enough to outweigh the effects of unchecked mortgage discrimination and sprawl, or turn the tide against undervalued, underpopulated and dangerous central neighbourhoods.

Which of course, gives middle-class families just as much reason to leave Winnipeg for Oakbank as it does for creative young people to leave for Vancouver.