Ottawa Citizen: When money moves in and neighbourhood's identity moves out?

By Kelly Egan
Photo by Brigitte Bouvier

The little house behind us, where the same family lived for 70-plus years, sold this summer for more than $700,000 and — as is commonplace, if not inevitable now — will be torn down.

When people talk about “housing affordability” in Ottawa, it really means $700,000 in a modest, central neighbourhood buys you a piece of dirt, 50 by

100. Pity our children, pity our poor.

Housing affordability is at the heart of a new report about the future of “West Centretown,” or that area that takes in Chinatown and Little Italy, from Carling Avenue in the south to the edge of LeBreton Flats in the north.

Over the second half of the 20th century, it has been home to working class families, waves of immigrants, vibrant ethnic restaurants/shops, affordable apartments or rooms, schools, churches and parks. It was a 15-minute neighbourhood before anyone even knew what that meant.

Now come these crushing market forces and the power, ill or otherwise, of prosperity.

Building Community Together, a three-year effort led by the Somerset West Community Health Centre, asks the difficult question about how west Centretown can grow without whitewashing its identity. How can it develop and thrive without throwing the poor, or the newcomers, out the door and abandoning all sense of itself?

“Many long-time residents can no longer afford to live in the community and those who remain may feel they no longer belong,” the report warns.

“We have to remind the city all the time,” adds Catherine Boucher, of the Dalhousie Community Association, “that there’s a real loss happening on our streets.”

Because it’s located, literally, at the crossroads of our LRT system, the neighbourhood of 13,000 is primed to see much high-rise development around transit hubs (Claridge Icon) while smaller intensification marches to replace lower-end housing stock.

But, in human terms, what happens when condos are built over rooming houses? The poor don’t win that battle unless, as the report advocates, there are affordability requirements woven into new builds.

And, while “rooming houses” may have a negative connotation, they are an important piece of the affordable housing picture and the report says west Centretown has the city’s highest concentration, to go along with 1,400 social housing units.

So it proposes to strengthen that sector — perhaps by using non-profits — not allow it to be bulldozed to make room for lofts and BMWs.

While the report has many red flags, there are actually plenty of moving pieces that suggest west Centretown is well-positioned to hang onto its soul.

A good chunk of the area, for instance, is in public ownership and the City of Ottawa, led by Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, is alive to the affordability crisis — witness its declaration of a housing emergency in 2020.

Rochester Heights is being redeveloped by Ottawa Community Housing, which also has plans for a large expansion called Gladstone Village. LeBreton Flats, meanwhile, does have an affordable housing component in its Library Parcel, which has just gone to the market for proposals.

Another positive cloud on the horizon is the redevelopment of a large parking lot beside the Prescott tavern. Importantly, a grocery store is in the mix, which should help haul the neighbourhood from its “food desert” status.

And further south on Preston, the federal government is lending a developer $86 million to finance SoHo Italia, to consist of 250 affordable rental units, fewer than 200 metres from the Trillium Line’s Carling Station, and scheduled to open in 2022.

Still, there are trends to keep an eye on.

While the report says 32.7 per cent of the population is “racialized” and 32.1 per cent are first-generation immigrants, the immigrant population is declining at a rate faster than in other parts of the city. And the population is aging, with a declining number under 19 — a worrisome trend for school enrolment.

The neighbourhood, too, is getting relatively “richer,” which speaks to the effects of gentrification: the report says the median household income in west Centretown has increased at a higher rate than others during the last 10 years.

“There is lots of exciting potential for inclusive growth,” said Emilie Hayes, community engagement manager with Somerset West. “What we’re really calling on is not for the community to stop evolving and changing, but for that growth and development to be inclusive, so that everyone is able stay in this community and benefit from the changes.”

Similarly, Coun. McKenney said safeguards must be put in place — zoning and otherwise — to ensure growth isn’t just high-end residential and that “no one is left behind,” adding:

“The future of West Centretown is unclear but I always say, ‘You need to yell at us for us to hear you at city hall.’ So please continue doing so.”

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