Ottawa Citizen: Ottawa newsmakers 2018: Heron Gate demolition became symbolic of the housing squeeze for low-income families
Posted December 28, 2018
This year was one of disasters, tragedy, boondoggles and love.
Posted December 28, 2018
It was either a “relocation” or an “eviction,” depending on the perspective. But for many, a plan to demolish 150 aging townhouses in the Heron Gate rental complex this year crystallized issues around the lack of affordable housing in Ottawa.
Last May, landlord Timbercreek announced it was demolishing the 150 townhouses in the six-hectare Heron Gate rental complex south of Heron Road. Timbercreek bought the 1,665-unit Heron Gate rental development in 2012, and spent $45 million on upgrading. In 2016, Timbercreek demolished 86 similar townhouses, affecting 53 families.
The new announcement sparked a flurry of protests. Some argued that the townhouses were too rundown to be worth saving. Of the 150 townhouses slated for demolition in this round, 45 units were already empty. But the redevelopment also raised questions about the changing urban fabric and the city’s obligation to its poorest residents.
Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, called it “unscrupulous demographic engineering in search of profits: replacing poor and vulnerable people with those who possess greater purchasing power.”
Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden compared moving the residents from their homes to the destruction of Africville, a black community on the outskirts of Halifax, in the 1960s. The city of Halifax had argued that relocating the residents would improve their standard of living, but there was no meaningful consultation with them. In 2010, Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly apologized for the eviction as part of a $4.5-million compensation deal.
“I feel that we’re not learning from our own history,” said Harden. “People didn’t want to move. They wanted an opportunity to fix up these places.”
A deadline of Sept. 30 was set for residents to vacate the the townhouses, but a handful hung on for weeks longer, claiming it was next to impossible to find new housing for the same cost.
Vacancy rates are low in Ottawa — 1.6 per cent, according to the latest rental market report from Canada Mortgage and Housing. Rents are high — an average of $1,174. It’s hard for families of limited means to find housing they can afford. One Heron Gate family reported that they had found a new apartment, but the rent would jump from $1,480 to $2,050.
The matter dragged on into the municipal election. Capital Ward candidate Shawn Menard, who ultimately won the ward, criticized Mayor Jim Watson on Twitter, saying the mayor’s policy objectives “favour developers over people.”
Watson pledged to make more city land available for affordable housing. Watson called for “inclusionary zoning” regulations that would require developers to incorporate affordable housing in new developments. But he didn’t put a number to how many units in a development should fit into the affordable category.
Meanwhile, Timbercreek has argued that its relocation staff have worked through the spring and summer to make sure all the affected tenants would have new homes. According to Timbercreek’s figures, six of the families bought new homes, some moved to other cities and some rented elsewhere in Ottawa. Of these, more than 80 per cent found new accommodations within five kilometres of Heron Gate.
Timbercreek also maintained that most of the departing residents have found new housing in a similar price range. The average new rent of this resident group is $1,394 as compared to the average rent of $1,370 for Heron Gate, according to Timbercreek’s figures.
Ottawa South MPP John Fraser says affordable housing is the greatest urban challenge. “A lot of people come to us about housing. A lot of people have four or five kids,” he says. “Moving is the most stressful thing.”
Mavis Finnamore, a member of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) lived in Heron Gate for 30 years and and was evicted prior to previous round of demolition. She said she would like to see rental replacement bylaws and inclusionary zoning.
“Another major help would be landlord licensing, causing the landlords to better maintain their properties and not allow them to fall apart so much so they can apply for demolition,” she says.
The story isn’t over yet. The Herongate Tenant Coalition vows it will fight on. The group says it continues to organize the neighboruhood and will be submitting a case to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in January.
Timbercreek has said that all affected residents would be offered the right-to-return to a home to Heron Gate “when the redevelopment of the community is complete,” but was not specific about what this means.
Demolition of the townhouses is proceeding as planned. Safety fencing has already been installed on the perimeter of the site and demolition will occur between the months of January and March, beginning from the east end of the site and moving westward. The demolition will run for three consecutive months, according to John Loubser, director of operations in a statement.
Fraser is sure this isn’t the last round of demolition for Heron Gate. “The next time they do this, they have to make it better,” he said.
Article by Joanne Laucius for Ottawa Citizen