By: Jon Willing
Council on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved an official plan amendment and “social contract” with a developer, allowing the company to build a high-density rental project at a 21-hectare site in Heron Gate, but some councillors thought the city could have inked a better deal for affordable housing.
Council voted 18-6 in favour of the application from Hazelview Properties to build a 6,427-unit rental community along Baycrest, Cedarwood and Sandalwood drives.
The planning file was unique because of the side deal with the developer identifying more than 1,020 units as being affordable for 15-20 years, though there’s no consensus on a rental price that would make a unit “affordable.”
The city in part is basing it on average market rent across Ottawa. The average market rent in Ottawa in 2020, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp., ranged between $1,000 for a bachelor unit and $1,850 for a three-bedroom unit. Based on calculations in its official plan, the city identified $1,476 per month as an affordable unit, regardless of the kind of unit or the number of bedrooms.
Coun. Catherine McKenney, council’s liaison for housing and homelessness, warned colleagues the rental rates for affordable housing in the Hazelview project could still be unaffordable for many families.
“This is a bit of a break on some rent, but that’s it,” McKenney said, pointing to the 12,500 households on Ottawa’s affordable housing waiting list as a reason to be concerned.
But other councillors were lauding city staff, Hazelview and the local councillor, Jean Cloutier, for hammering out an unprecedented memorandum of understanding that commits a private-sector developer to below-market rates for a large number of units in a redevelopment.
“This is a legally binding agreement with protection for current and future Heron Gate residents,” Cloutier said, acknowledging he was voting in favour “knowing full well the work does not end today.”
Hazelview (formerly Timbercreek) demolished end-of-life rental homes in recent years as it prepared its redevelopment plan. The evicted families will have opportunities to move into similar units when construction is done. Hazelview expects the full redevelopment will take 20-25 years.
The company’s eviction-and-demolition program drew heavy criticism from advocates for affordable housing and low-income families. The Heron Gate community is one of the most racially and linguistically diverse in Ottawa.
On Wednesday, social justice group ACORN rallied outside city hall before the council meeting.
About 40 people gathered at the Human Rights Monument to protest the redevelopment plan. They shouted, “Mr. Mayor, come down,” and “Fight, fight, fight, housing is a right,” as they looked up at the second-floor windows of the mayor’s office.
George Brown, a lawyer who’s been representing ACORN, says the major sticking point has been how the city decides if a rental unit is affordable. The city should be looking at neighbourhood-level rents to help determine affordability, Brown said.
There are currently 1,864 units on Hazelview’s 21-hectare site and 1,305 units would remain as part of the redevelopment. Another 5,122 units would be built.
Some councillors wanted to forever mark the units as affordable rather than having an expiry date when market rates would apply after the 15- to 20-year period.
However, city staff said there was no way to force a private company to provide discounts on rental units.
When the topic of what’s affordable to Hazelview came up during the debate, Coun. Jeff Leiper scoffed at the notion of a private housing developer worrying about costs when tenants are trying to pay rents. “That leaves me queasy,” Leiper said.
All through the debate, city staff were trying to emphasize the “landmark” nature of the memorandum of understanding and the city’s takeaway of securing more than 1,000 units at below-market rates. Earlier this term, council declared a housing and homelessness emergency in Ottawa.
Hazelview wasn’t legally required to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city under provincial planning rules.
Lee Ann Snedden, the city’s director of planning services, told council the memorandum of understanding was “the best agreement we were able to make.” She noted the number of affordable units that would be in the project and called the deal a “home run” for the city.
“It’s an occasion to celebrate a success,” Mayor Jim Watson said after the council meeting.
The councillors who voted against the official plan amendment were Rawlson King, Mathieu Fleury, Diane Deans, Shawn Menard, Leiper and McKenney.