"We're the tenants past and present and we aren't going away. We're going to be a bloody thorn in their sides until we get what we want."
By Megan Gillis, Marco Vigliotti
Tenants and supporters marched through a wild-flower dotted field in Heron Gate where homes once stood Saturday, calling for a signed “social contract” before a massive new development is approved by city hall.
“After the last wave of evictions, they made some verbal promises that mass displacement would not happen in Heron Gate again, but there are currently no protections for tenants attached to the official plan that are legally binding, so it’s all just words,” Mavis Finnamore told the crowd at the event organized by Ottawa ACORN.
“Tenants are being asked to trust that Hazelview will just keep their word and not do anything bad to tenants,” she added to boos from a lively crowd gathered along a crumbling street dotted with signs bearing the names of people who once lived there.
“We want to remind everybody: We’re the tenants past and present and we aren’t going away. We’re going to be a bloody thorn in their sides until we get what we want.”
Finnamore’s family, including her spouse, mother and two children, were issued an eviction notice in 2015 for the townhouse they’d rented for more than 30 years in a neighbourhood she called welcoming, diverse and affordable.
Three upscale six-storey buildings now sit on the site at Heron Road and Sandalwood Drive, while Finnamore had to move to the west end to find a new home at higher rent.
The evictions were were “traumatizing” and “terrifying” for residents, many of them people of colour and newcomers, upending lives busy with working multiple jobs, going to school, raising families and learning the language, she said.
A second wave of evictions followed and now a plan for a vast redevelopment by developer Hazelview with an official plan amendment set to go before the planning committee and city council.
ACORN says it wants the City of Ottawa to grant Hazelview a green light to proceed with its redevelopment plans for the area only if it signs a legally binding contract committing to no further displacement of remaining residents, setting aside 25 to 35 per cent of future units for affordable housing, providing rental replacement for previously evicted residents and improved maintenance of existing buildings and units.
Hazelview — then known as Timbercreek — acquired the Heron Gate rental development near the convergence of Heron and Walkley roads in 2012 and 2013 and spent $45 million to upgrade the property. It demolished 86 of the townhouses in 2016 and another 150 units in 2019 after having evicted or relocated the remaining tenants in 2018.
Amid community backlash, the developer inked a “social contract” with Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier and neighbourhood residents in February 2019 for future development of the 20-hectare property, pledging 20 per cent of all total units would be “affordable” housing and promising diversity of housing types and sizes as well as new amenities and green spaces, plus training and employment opportunities for Heron Gate residents.
Hazelview also promised there would be no more demolitions of occupied units until tenants were able to relocate within the community.
Then, in the summer of 2019, Hazelview unveiled its plan for the future of the now empty site, envisioning 55 new buildings, including townhouses, 16 low- and medium-rise buildings and a central highrise that could soar 40 storeys. The plan, which would be implemented in phases over 20-25 years, would add approximately 5,600 units to the neighbourhood. It was decried by critics as “hyper-gentrification.”
Before any work starts, the developer must secure approval of its application for an official plan amendment from city council. The application was published in December, with the city hosting a series of community information and comments sessions in March.
City staff confirmed that the application would be presented to the planning committee on Tuesday, and staff’s report will be released to the public on June 28. City council would then look at the application on Aug. 25.
Speaking to this newspaper on Friday, Cloutier said the terms of the social contract weren’t that different from the demands from ACORN, but requiring 25 to 35 per cent of units to be set aside for affordable housing was not “attainable” and surpassed any threshold the city had mandated for other developers. A 20 per cent requirement is “reasonable,” he said.
“We have never asked any other landlord in the city of Ottawa for these levels of affordable housing. I would celebrate 20 per cent.”
Nevertheless, Cloutier said he and ACORN were “in agreement in the principles” of the redevelopment of Heron Gate and he would only support the Hazelview application if it met the terms of the 2019 social contract.
“Those are the conditions under which I will support the application, and those are the conditions that I encourage my council colleagues to support as they consider this application.”
Although there has been no discussion of a potential sale of the site, Cloutier added that the commitments in the social contract must be “attached to the property” as opposed to the developer, especially as work is expected to take place over two decades.
When reached for comment, Hazleview said it would “continue to work earnestly” with the city on finalizing details of the master plan for Heron Gate redevelopment along with a “social framework that meets the current and future needs of the community, the city and Hazelview.”
The company expects to be able to share further details about the project in the “coming weeks ahead,” Colleen Krempulec, Hazelview’s vice-president of brand marketing and corporate social responsibility, said in a statement.
“We remain fully committed to ongoing transparency through the process and to ensuring that stakeholders have various means to stay engaged on the progress of the plan. We are invested in this neighbourhood and remain committed to supporting a sustainable, affordable and diverse community that supports the long-term viability of Heron Gate.”
In a statement, Mayor Jim Watson’s office said that he “remains optimistic that the application will be responsive to the community concerns and the cultural diversity in the Heron Gate community” and that Cloutier was advocating for residents throughout the process.
Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, council’s liaison for housing and homelessness, thanked people for attending Saturday’s rally and cited Ottawa’s “shameful history” of evicting low-income people from their homes from LeBreton Flats in the 1960s to Heron Gate and the future displacement of residents of Manor Village for the expansion of light rail.
“As we move forward now in the official plan process, I can tell you that it is too often focused on supporting the wealthy development industry and does not do enough to help our most vulnerable citizens,” McKenney said in a statement. “Without the tireless work of ACORN and others, this would never change.”
Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden, who attended the rally along with Cloutier and Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, said low-income families evicted to demolish their neglected homes should be able to return to affordable units at Heron Gate. Voters should press politicians on their support for them.
“This is not going to be forgotten,” Harden told the crowd. “It’s not going to be forgotten because people here are reminding us and I know this organizing is going to continue.”