Posted August 27, 2021
Ottawa's planning committee has given Hazelview Investments the go-ahead for a massive redevelopment of the low-income Heron Gate area, one that will include a first-ever legal document for the city designed to ensure many units remain affordable.
The definition of what level of rent is affordable for families in one of poorest and most diverse areas of the city, however — and the terms of that proposed contract between Hazelview and the City of Ottawa — was the subject of much debate Thursday.
Ever since Hazelview, formerly known as Timbercreek, evicted two waves of residents in 2016 and 2018 and then demolished their rental units, community groups such as ACORN have been fighting for those who remain.
The group is balking at some of the details of the so-called "social contract" it has been pushing for.
Only one-sixth of the site's 6,427 units would be affordable, and those in new buildings initially would have remained so for just a decade — although that was stretched to 15 years during Thursday's meeting.
Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier said he understands residents' fears, but the contract — the result of difficult talks — can guarantee both affordable and new rental housing stock at a time it's badly needed.
The memorandum of understanding will be tied to the land title so any future owner would also have to uphold Hazelview's social promises.
"It will be a benchmark that others can follow," he said.
Community advocates like Mavis Finnamore, however, argued time limits on affordable housing units should be eliminated.
"This plan is nothing more than a slow-motion gentrification," said Finnamore, who had previously been evicted from Heron Gate.
She said the point of the social contract was to avoid displacing families, and the 1,010 promised affordable units shouldn't "evaporate" after a number of years.
ACORN members also argued the city's definitions for affordable rents are too pricey for Heron Gate, where the average total household income was $44,770 in the 2016 census.
For instance, councillors heard from 12-year-old Faiza Ibrahim, who lives at Heron Gate in a household of 10 people.
She, her parents and siblings currently pay $1,530 per month. The city outlines an affordable brand-new three-bedroom unit could have rents as high as $2,319.
"Everywhere we move, they threaten to tear our home down," Ibrahim said, reading comments for her father who speaks only Somali. "Please don't pass this plan. We are very scared."
Extra 4,563 units planned
Rents wouldn't jump for residents like the Ibrahims, however, said Colleen Krempulec, Hazelview's vice-president of brand marketing and corporate social responsibility.
Instead, the company promises those living in 559 lowrise units to be demolished will be offered an equivalent unit at the same rent.
Some councillors weren't convinced the contract was ready, however, with Coun. Shawn Menard calling it "weak."
"We're in virgin territory," said Coun. Riley Brockington, as he questioned Hazelview. "We've got to make sure [the agreement] is bulletproof. We've got to make sure it addresses those key issues and themes that the public has raised today, and has raised for years."
In the end, planning committee voted six to three to approve the official plan changes and memorandum of understanding.
If the decision is also endorsed at city council on Sept. 8, Hazelview could build higher buildings and add 1,439 more units than Ottawa's official plan currently allows on the 21-hectare site.
It would be a major redevelopment that could take 25 years to build, with some 50 buildings envisioned, more than 4,500 new units added, and all existing structures demolished except for five towers. The company said the plan adds housing stock and intensification at a time when the city wants both.
Article by Kate Porter for CBC News