Opinion: Ottawa’s LRT plans are railroading the right to housing of Nepean residents

Posted November 24, 2020

COVID-19 is not the only thing causing instability and fear for households in Ottawa. The residents of Manor Village — one of Ottawa’s few remaining affordable housing communities — will soon learn whether their homes will be slated for demolition. On November 25th, Ottawa City Council will be voting on whether to continue to pursue the extension of the City’s Light Rail Transit system along a route through Nepean to Barrhaven that would result in the demolition of approximately 120 homes in part of Manor Village and a neighbouring community, displacing over 300 low- and moderate-income residents.
 
The tension between improving the transit system for the general benefit of City residents at the expense of a particular community losing their homes, begs a number of important questions: Who are cities for, who gets to decide and according to what criteria?
 
Earlier this year the City declared a housing and homelessness state of emergency in response to an increasing dearth of affordable housing in Ottawa. Rental costs in Manor Village are currently below market rate. Manor Village residents currently pay roughly $1,100 to $1,300 a month for a 2–3 bedroom townhouse, while the market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in the area increased to about $1,700 in 2019. If the LRT expansion goes through as planned, those displaced face paying twice the amount of rent if they can secure alternative accommodation close by.
 
According to the City government, running the LRT right through Manor Village is the most cost effective approach to expansion. Of the six proposals that were considered, only two required the demolition of existing housing, but those that diverted the rails to save the Manor Village and nearby homes were deemed too expensive.
 
The City’s assessment of expenses fails to consider the true costs of destroying the Manor Village community. As testimonies of residents assisted by Ottawa ACORN have emphasized, not only will it likely result in them paying increased rents elsewhere, the residents will face dislocation from a community that many have lived in for years and all of the practical and emotional consequences of that. They will also face the stress and anxiety of trying to find new homes they can afford in a city that is increasingly expensive. The City itself will also suffer a cost. Destroying Manor Village undermines part of what makes cities great: providing spaces and places for diverse and inclusive communities where people of differing incomes and backgrounds are respected, supported and live together.
 
One has to wonder — would the City even consider an LRT extension if the most cost-efficient routing was through an affluent neighbourhood requiring the demolition of million-dollar homes or would they find a way around them?
 
While the City of Ottawa may have scant concern for residents of Manor Village, they might want to think twice about alienating a significant likely partner in the LRT extension — the federal government. In the recently adopted National Housing Strategy Act (2019) the Government of Canada has stated clearly that it recognizes as its housing policy that the right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right affirmed in international law. Under international law all orders of government have human rights obligations and ensuring affordability and legal security of tenure are two cornerstones of obligations under the right to housing. There is little doubt that a City decision to demolish Manor Village is non-compliant.
 
Members of ACORN and other advocates, including the University of Ottawa’s Prof. David Wiseman, have also raised the question of whether the City’s LRT proposal may also be discriminatory under Ontario’s Human Rights Code in light of the harm that will likely be suffered by the population currently living in Manor Village, many of whom are low income and from other disadvantaged groups.
 
It will be a few years yet before shovels are in the ground on this project. Supporters of the demolition of Manor Village argue that there is plenty of time for current residents to find alternative housing. But so too is there time for the City to conduct a full human rights impact assessment of the displacement, to consider the effects it will have on the current residents and community at Manor Village. And surely there is time to determine how to extend the LRT without losing much needed housing and dislocating lives.
 
The City failed to prevent demolition of affordable housing in Heron Gate on the grounds that it couldn’t interfere with a private property owner’s redevelopment plans. The City can’t so easily dodge responsibility for what happens to Manor Village. City governments also have direct and clear obligations to uphold international human rights law.
 
If COVID-19 has exposed anything, it’s how important adequate, affordable housing is to human health, well-being and life itself. That’s why it’s a human right. Here’s hoping that Ottawa City Councillors will use the lessons from today to inform their decision about the future of Manor Village and its residents.
 
 
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