A new study of the history of Hamilton neighbourhoods says the city has become one of Canada's most segregated cities by income.

But the study, led by McMaster geographer Richard Harris suggests Hamilton's housing boom and the new desirabilty of older neighbourhoods can help change that.

Ironically, it is the sustained decline and poverty of those central and lower city neighbourhoods over several decades that has turned them into housing bargains — in urban settings that are now seen as attractive to more affluent buyers.

"The long term decline of many of Hamilton's older neighbourhoods has created what, to many potential gentrifiers, appears to be a very affordable stock of housing," says the study.

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Older homes in walkable neighbourhoods are attractive options to many buyers looking at Hamilton's housing market. (CBC)

Dramatic divides between the lower city and upper city, but primarily between west end and the east end, took root in the 1970s and increased in the following decades, the study says.

"No city showed more clearly than Hamilton the consequences of deindustrialization, the polarization of incomes and the consequent polarization of neighbourhoods."

"But just lately, the patterning, if not the degree of inequality has begun to shift. Hamilton is on the cusp of change," says the study.

The starting point of the study is 1970, when, says Harris, most Hamilton neighbourhoods were middle class. Today more are either rich or poor.

A disappearing middle class

Deindustrialization, a large number of refugees and low income immigrants all "help to explain why Hamilton has been  more affected by general income trends than most Canadian cities," says the report, co-written by Jim Dunn, the Chair in Applied Public Health at McMaster University and Dr. Sarah Wakefield of the University of Toronto & the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton.

In 1970, when income inequality was relatively low, seven out of 10 neighbourhoods were "broadly middle class." A small portion were low income and a small portion were high income.

Decade by decade since, the proportion of middle class neighbourhoods has fallen.

By 2000, 58 per cent of neighbourhoods were middle class, and by 2010 it was 51 per cent.

The split away from middle class has gone in both directions, with growth in the number of solely high income neighbourhoods and solely low income ones. In fact, the actual number of low income census tracts doubled between 1980 and 2010.

Notable about that evolution of neigbourhoods is how increasingly segregated by income the city has become.

The neighbourhoods showing increases are grouped in the west (Dundas Ancaster, Waterdown) and the Mountain, while those in the lower city and to the east declined.

"What is most striking about the general map of change, however, is the persistence and indeed the strengthening of the established east-west contrast."

But Harris notes the new forces adding to the affluence of the west are not the same as the historical ones of industry and pollution.

The spread of the GTA commuters into Hamilton means those areas are benefiting from their easier commuter access via Highway 403 or GO Transit, to Toronto.

The housing boom, however, is now spreading into those historically declining neighbourhoods, driven by their desirability as walkable areas, their new access to GO via the coming downtown station and the growth in the arts and cultural scene there.

The key factor is also affordability of the poorer neighbourhood as house prices increase in the more affluent areas.