By Herongate ACORN Tenant Leaders
Timbercreek’s mass displacement campaign in Herongate
The first eviction notices came in September 2015. After surviving five different landlords, battling each one for better maintenance, service, and respect (particularly for the racialized tenants who make up 89% of the Herongate community), families who had called Herongate home – some for over 40 years – were told they had to uproot.
Statistically the most densely populated and most diverse neighbourhood in Ottawa, Herongate was a unique place where people from many different cultures had built a community together. The kind of place where neighbours would greet each other in the street, look out for one another’s kids, and generally a happy place to call home for many. That started to change when Herongate was sold off to various owners.
By the time the first batch of eviction notices landed on tenants’ doorsteps, Herongate was owned by Timbercreek. Repairs had been mounting and tenants were living in squalor due to years of neglect, their homes plagued by pests, drafts, leaks, and more.
It’s worth noting that Timbercreek isn’t your usual landlord, although their model of corporate gentrification is becoming more and more common (see CAPREIT, Akelius). A multinational corporation with billions of dollars in real estate assets, Timbercreek has a complex corporate structure and actively promotes its brutal approach to redevelopment as a means of maximizing profits.
It became clear to Herongate tenants that there was a vision behind the chaos.
Many of the low and moderate income families living in Herongate had multiple children; the three bedroom townhouses that they were paying below $1,400 for in Herongate would fetch hundreds of dollars more in other parts of the city. They couldn’t afford similarly sized homes for their families elsewhere.
A plan had been put in place to redevelop Herongate into a neighbourhood of “resort-style” luxury rental apartments; a vision with no place for the low and moderate income families who had built the Herongate community over the years.
Corporate gentrification in four steps:
1) Buy up properties where land values are seen as under-realized;
2) Perform cosmetic upgrades in common areas while ignoring necessary repairs inside tenants’ units;
3) Apply for above guideline rent increases and price out lower-income families or renovict the tenants;
4) Collect much higher rents, all at a significant profit to satisfy investors and creditors.
So how do you fight displacement when housing is becoming increasingly commodified and landlords profit from evicting tenants?
ACORN has been organizing in Herongate since 2007, door knocking in the neighbourhood and asking tenants what change they want to see in their community. It quickly became apparent that the protection and realization of tenant rights was a key concern for residents. Over time, ACORN members organized tribunal cases with the help of law students from the University of Ottawa to help tenants win over $200,000 in abatements and repairs; worked with city inspectors to mass inspect problem properties and issue hundreds of work orders to secure repairs for tenants; and helped tenants to understand their rights.
When the first round of eviction notices was issued, ACORN members quickly organized to fight back. Herongate ACORN organizers and tenants knocked on their neighbours’ doors, organized community meetings, led a series of direct actions and engaged the press, allies, and local representatives. Despite not being successful in preventing the evictions, the impact of organizing was clear when Timbercreek announced a few small concessions for tenants in the second round of evictions in early 2018.
But there was still so much work left to be done. Again, ACORN members organized to fight the evictions, knocking on every door in the neighbourhood, turning out over 100 low-income tenants to fight for their neighbourhood, held local community meetings led by our members, developed new leaders on the campaign, organized direct actions and worked with the press to draw attention to the urgent need to address this crisis, as well as the need to advocate for long-term solutions from the City.
Where are we now?
In February 2019, Timbercreek announced their “Social Framework Commitments”, outlining their plans to incorporate weak community benefits into the redevelopment of Herongate. This approach is intended to placate community organizations, tenants and everyone else who is angry with Timbercreek’s blatant attempts to disrupt and destroy a neighbourhood of working class families. The framework they’re promoting is not legally binding and therefore not enforceable. For example, the housing commitment is “up to 20% affordable housing”: not a firm commitment. If Timbercreek really cares about their tenants then they will have no problem signing a legal agreement that actually requires them to meet the needs of the community whose rent they collect.
So ACORN members launched their No Displacement Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) campaign on April 16th, 2019, putting pressure on Timbercreek to make a real commitment to the people of Herongate. CBAs are legal contracts between developers, government agencies and community groups to ensure the provision of community benefits with residents of the neighbourhood driving the process. Herongate ACORN members, along with our allies from the South East Ottawa Community Health Centre and the Ottawa District Labour Council, are demanding an enforceable CBA that provides a minimum of 25% – 30% affordable housing including deep affordability, with first right of refusal to the tenants that have been evicted, as well as other community benefits like social enterprise, affordable childcare space and local hiring from equity seeking groups.
While change is inevitable, displacement is not. ACORN members will continue to organize and fight to be included in a true community benefits agreement that rejects displacement and protects the right to housing. Let’s keep the pressure on!