One Person’s Revitalization is Another’s Gentrification

I’m thrilled with the growth of the NetSuite office in downtown Kitchener – seeded with the TribeHR team as part of an acquisition, we’ve taken over a floor at the Canada Trust Centre at 55 King St W, and we’ve become a strong part of the changing face of Downtown Kitchener. However, with any change this intense, there are side effects. One that’s been on my mind a lot is gentrification.

Amidst all the excitement and celebration we still need to accept some responsibility

People in tech circles are well familiar with gentrification challenges in San Francisco and those who are local to Waterloo Region may be aware of similar debates (albeit on a smaller scale) in Kitchener. It’s a difficult message to hear when you’re the leader of a tech company. Your job is to speak in superlatives and announce victories – things are always “rocking” and your team is always “growing like crazy”. Sometimes, though, it’s worth stopping to think about the side effects of all this growth. Amidst all the excitement and celebration we still need to accept some responsibility for unintended consequences.

This responsibility isn’t just a big-picture sense of accountability to the broader community – it’s also acute and immediate. Let’s look at our office as an example. We encourage our people to be green and live in the core by offering cash incentives to those who don’t use parking spaces. We also pay our people well – so many can afford to rent nicer properties or buy nicer homes. When they move into the city core, they create demand for property developers to upgrade and enhance downtown properties.

Although we celebrate this change as revitalization, it often means that rental properties are upgraded in a way that makes them unaffordable to vulnerable portions of our community. This problem is material and is getting worse. Although 2,000 new affordable and supportive housing units have been opened in the region since 2000, this addition is woefully inadequate since we still have over 3,500 families on the regional wait list for such housing.

It’s easy to point out that the trend is bigger than one person or one company and that this is a place for government to take a leadership role. But sometimes the trend hits closer to home. Our office is expanding and we’ll soon begin renovations on the 1st floor space in our building, a former TD Canada Trust branch. Telling a friend about it, she pointed out that the alcove where the bank housed ATMs has been a frequent shelter for the homeless – a shelter that we’ll be sealing as we turn the floor into high-tech office space.

This isn’t an isolated story of homeless shelter loss. Over the last 12 months a number of shelters have closed, dramatically impacting the Out of the Cold Program and more recently, transitional shelters have also closed. These problems are complex and not easily solved. Homelessness and Mental Health issues are incredibly intertwined and our region is terribly under-served with 22% fewer psychiatric professionals than recommended for our size.

While we’re busy building exciting software that changes the world, it’s easy to forget about unintended effects on the local community; or to despair when we do think about them and struggle to understand how we can make a difference. But we’re trying: paying attention to our effect on the community, both positive and negative, and doing what we can to mitigate the downside. That’s why, right now, we are contributing to organizations that address the symptoms of poverty (like the Waterloo Region Food Bank), we are pushing our employees out of the office to engage with the community around them (like teaching at local schools) and we regularly run donation drives for items like food, clothing and toys.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a post offering a magical solution or incredible new insight. It’s simply a post describing a growing frustration and concern within the tech community.

We can do better. We should do better.

Returning to the example at our own front door, although we haven’t finalized our plans, we’re working on them. I’m taking the time to learn and to meet with the people who best understand the situation. We’re counting on them to help us figure out how we can help mitigate adverse affects of this downtown revitalization. In the mean time, we’ll continue connecting with the community, hosting meet-ups, and supporting local cultural organizations.

I know we can do more to make sure we’re having a positive impact on all of those around us – especially those whose voices are often missed by the tech community. Once our plans are finalized, I’ll share them here. If you have suggestions or think there’s someone or a group I should connect with – drop me a line. I’m open to ideas and would love to chat.

Image Credit: Pepsi Sign by Mac Armstrong

Joseph

VP HCM Products at NetSuite and Founder of TribeHR and Lewis Media. Waterloo Region Enthusiast and active volunteer.

17 comments

  • Great work on an important issue, Joseph. Good on you for shining a light on it from within the tech community. While DTK is still a long way away from being fully gentrified, now is the time to start thinking about this issue, so that we can play a role in mitigating the unintended effects that you so ably have highlighted here, before they become entrenched problems.

    • Thanks Tony – I agree that now’s the time to look at these problems, so we can get onto a better path while it’s (somewhat) easier.

  • I think you raise a lot of great points here Joseph – one of the things I think about when I see awesome loft / brick & beam residences and office space is what was there before, and where did it go? Where did the jobs go? The Tannery, Kaufman, Goudies, Breithaupt, Seagrams, Bauer just to name a few – all really great adaptive reuse projects that employ or house people today, but the businesses and factories that were there before, and employed many many people for generations, are not here anymore, and in most cases, the specific jobs lost didn’t remain in the community. Similarly, in a few decades, we will all think about how awesome whatever is on the Schneiders plant lands has become, but we also need to remember that the opportunity to reuse that building is only available because the manufacturing company closed down a factory, and took lots of good paying jobs out of our community. [ I thought about that site specifically as I saw the Schneiders (now Maple Leaf) float go by this weekend in the Oktoberfest parade … ]

    • It’s somewhat cyclical in nature – people moved into the core for jobs (perhaps at a factory?) and those demographics are some that are struggling now that other people want to move in for newer jobs (perhaps at a software company). Your comment about the float is an interesting one though – I don’t have any data to back it, but it definitely feels like the newer breed of downtown companies aren’t as supportive of those core community activities (parades, concerts, festivals, etc) that the previous generation was. I love seeing things like the Kik float, Christie sponsoring the KW Art Gallery and NetSuite’s sponsorship of the KW Symphony, but I’d love to see more of our tech peers doing the same and more.

      • Agreed – I’d love to see the tech community as a whole embrace the culture of being a good citizen in the core (to all, not just in terms of our business community) like NetSuite and others have.

  • I spend a lot of time out on King Street, all year long. I’m privileged to be invited in to tech company parties serving fancy food and complimentary drinks amid six-figure salaries. I also get into art shows where annual incomes hover below the poverty line and you buy your own beer. And then all of these adventures end with my feet back on the street where a lot of people are not-so-slowly freezing and going hungry: two conditions about which I have no personal experience and very limited understanding. There are two things I like most about your post, Joseph: #1 You called it out as a tech leader, #2 You acknowledge there are no easy answers, but we must work on this anyway. For our community to be whole and for us to prosper, we gotta put a hand out to those most in need. When you look, you see. DW

  • Last I heard, the working centre was looking at opening something of an entrepreneurial support / coworking space for users of their services. I wonder if there’s room for you to share your expertise with them.

    • Thanks Matt – I wasn’t aware of that initiative. I’ll check that out.

  • Thank you for addressing these issues from the vantage of the tech sector, where all too often greed and growth are the only priorities.

  • I work with the Homeless (and under-housed) in Kitchener and it is nice to see those from other areas of our society addressing this issue.

    But something else is happening to Down Town Kitchener….polarization the only new housing being created DT is low income or high income. Buildings are being renovated into high or low income units. What is lacking is housing in our core for mid-income people.

    I dread a core populated by only the well to do and the poor. We are loosing that complete mixture that makes a down town vibrant and moving to one that will breed envy and intolerance. We need to ensure that there is a balance of residential unit that encompasses all income levels.

    • Great point – a lot of the suggestions I’ve received from people are pointing me towards the end-points (low-income units). I agree entirely about providing inclusive options for the full spectrum (it’s the only way to build a resilient community) so thanks for the reminder.

  • Well said Joseph. Thank you. Economic diversity is the next largely unchallenged frontier after gender and race.

    Glad to have you and your team Downtown!

  • There are many ways to respond to your missive here Joseph: I can continue, like some, to bask in your mystical aura as a tech guru/savior on one hand, or I can out you as a party to the disintegration of stability in our community on the other. But either would be disingenuous as they would be symbolic and easy to counter; as with oppression and privilege though, you have to take ownership.

    As an observer of the change in the downtown over the past 25 years, I have caught the tail end of the once great cornerstones of our manufacturing sector – the complete localized systems of paternalism and patronage. Factory towns with their own sports leagues and ecologies of supportive services within walking distance willing to unite when things were tough, and their resilience in this contribution to the whole entity that they could see – they could touch.

    This is gone. It’s not coming back. With a global economy of talent migration and off-shore manufacturing, the new economic system is obviously global. Productivity is no longer localized, and commerce happens not at a teller window or a shop front. Living the dream has less to do with back yard barbecues and talking to the neighbor over the fence as it is a beach in Thailand, and one is easier to organize from your desktop, or co-space.

    This is a demographic reality, and I am not a critic – though I am aware that the multitude of coffee shops and food trucks are indicators of a new, more polarized economic engine. The natural progression is – as you exemplify – the logical extension: stability comes when this younger generational paradigm settles down, establishes family, and begins to care about the community that surrounds them.

    The only trouble with this model, is what is left behind. The entire system of parasitic low-wage, low education jobs will migrate to larger centers – and gentrification will lead to “District 9” and “Hunger Games” style dystopia, or the Detroits of the future. Nice huh?

    And, I don’t have an answer! Seems to me though, if we don’t apply a systems lens, we continue to encourage a trajectory blindly. Resilience in systems comes from engagement between parts that find new values in interdependence. If you are looking at the Food Bank for example, you are looking in the wrong place. The job of a Food Bank is actually to go out of business. Short term, low hanging fruit of injecting capital into solving end-user problems will be a waste of time rather than looking for sustainable solutions that encourage newer levels of productivity not immediately recognizable, in different value chains like social responsibility, local economies, neighborhood cohesion and community engagement – even a sense of permanence. Or, you might feel good for a while if your stock doubles in the first quarter next year, but that kind of success is a drug; a thrill seeking ride – kind of like that beach in Thailand.

    • You are absolutely right about the objective of the food bank (and others) being to go out of business. Lessons like this are often counter intuitive and it’s good to be reminded about that.

      It’s a tough problem. I don’t presume to think that my small group of peers is going to solve it, but at least we can be less ignorant of our impact and we can focus our CSR efforts in more responsible ways.

  • Hi, Joseph, and thanks for a thought-provoking post (which I found via Communitech). I met you several years ago when you had just started TribeHR and I was working at a startup in K-W. I recall you being wise beyond your years, and it seems that hasn’t changed! I’m actually from California and sort of bucked the trend of Canadian techies moving to Silicon Valley by moving from down here to live and work in Canada’s main tech hub. Although I’m back in California, my time in K-W was an unforgettable experience in a lot of different ways. I was impressed that downtown cores like Kitchener and Waterloo, as well as smaller downtowns like Preston and Galt, had not been entirely abandoned for the suburbs and strip malls, as has been too often the case in the US. There seemed to be a nice balance between urban and suburban, providing choices for people based on their personal preferences, age, family situation, income, etc. With the transportation improvements being made, the linkages among those areas should get even better. Keeping that balance is definitely the big challenge, but it is essential.

    The first step, as you suggest, is being part of a community and recognizing the value of the entire ecosystem. The second step is ensuring fairness within that ecosystem. That doesn’t mean everyone lives in the exact same circumstances, but it means everyone does their part in an equitable way. The service industries that form around areas with growing tech industries deserve to be part of the economic rise of those areas, and not in some distopian, Hunger Games-ish elite class vs. worker class way. I think that’s what’s often been poorly executed here in the US. We shouldn’t have ‘trickle down’ economics; we need ‘flow around’ economics. The most livable and sustainable areas are those that have a balance and are able to maintain that balance as sources of work and living styles ebb and flow over time.

    If any area is poised to be a leader in that model, it ought to be K-W. The Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular, are skewed so far in terms of economics and constrained so much in terms of space and geography, that the solutions there will be much harder to realize. K-W, especially in light of the Liberals coming back into power, can perhaps get it right — or at least ‘righter’ — sooner. I look forward to seeing what the community up there can do as a positive role model of an equitable, sustainable community built around technology, creativity and innovation!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Tony – let me know when you next swing through KW and we can catch again. Hopefully by then we’ll have figured out how our office and others can best get more involved.

  • The gentrification of KW is a direct result of corporate welfare. Local governments hyper-compete for jobs by offering tax dollars incentives collected mainly from the middle class. The tax dollars essentially become profits for private entrepreneurs who usually hoard the dollars instead of increasing investment thus strangling the economy. This mindset continues into public services from health care to social programs. Across the region we see ‘3P’ partnerships that further exacerbate the gentrification of this region through profitization. Extracting profit from essential public works is inherently anathema to a socialist system which crumbles in the face of crony capitalism. It is only through the will of government that we can see a stabilization of civic goals. As long as governments ignore these basic tenets we will continue to see boom and bust economic cycles along with extreme elitism, gentrification and the inherent violence of poverty associated with these social practices.

    The very idea that donations to the food bank or the local symphony are in any way helping the problem is utter folly. These donations demonstrate a profound ignorance and contributes directly to elitism. You might as well release a city wide memo titled ‘Let Them Eat Cake!’ Donations to the food bank show that you are specifically planning for more poverty. Donations to the symphony show you support subsidised entertainment for the rich! If you really want your donation dollar to have an impact use it to hire people and pay them a living wage, after all, the poor spend 100% of their money and that’s good for the economy.

    A common theme expressed by the elite is that these problems are mysteriously hard to address. They don’t have ‘any answers’. We need ‘more study’. This is fallacious. Well established science and the internet offer reams of info on these topics. Social engineers the world over agree on how to directly fix these simple problems. The re-distribution of wealth that is anathema to the rich is the solution.

    So my advice to you is get educated and pick a side because class warfare is upon you. I applaud your rudimentary effort to make the world a better place. I wish you success on your journey for knowledge.

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