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Building tenant power to fight displacement in Ottawa

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Image from Ashley Reyns for Ottawa ACORN, used with permission

The Activist Toolkit has been helping to amplify fights for affordable housing across Canada. On April 15, the tenants of Herongate and allies organized a rally to demand a "No Displacement Community Benefits Agreement" from their "landlords". The story of what led up to this rally and how you can support Herongate tenants is below, in the words of the tenant leaders.

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 per cent of the Herongate community, families who had called Herongate home -- some for over 40 years -- were being uprooted.

Statistically, the most densely populated and diverse neighbourhood in Ottawa, Herongate was a 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 was a place many felt happy to call home. That all started to change when ownership of Herongate began to change hands.

When the first batch of eviction notices landed on tenants' doorsteps, Herongate was owned by Timbercreek. Timbercreek isn't your usual landlord, if "landlord" means a clear owner who can be held accountable. Timbercreek is a multinational corporation with billions of dollars in real estate assets, and multiple corporate entities to diffuse accountability. Its complex corporate structure is part of its brutal approach to redevelopment as a means of maximizing profits. It is a model of corporate gentrification that is becoming more and more common. 

The corporate gentrification model Timbercreek and other developers like CAPREIT and Akelius follow can be broken down into 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.

It became clear to Herongate tenants that there was a reason that their homes were being allowed to deteriorate. Over the years, repairs had piled up. Tenants lived in squalor due to years of neglect, their homes plagued by pests, drafts, leaks, and more. Now, they were being pushed out. 

Many of the low and moderate income families living in Herongate had multiple children and depended on their three bedroom townhouses. However, they were paying below $1,400 for these townhouses. If the property was redeveloped, their units could be rented or sold for a lot more. The current residents knew they couldn't afford similarly sized homes for their families elsewhere. Eventually, the residents found out that 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.

Organizing to build tenant power and fight displacement in Herongate

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 organize mass inspections of problem properties, had hundreds of work orders issued 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. Tenants have not been successful in preventing the evictions, but Timbercreek announced a few small concessions for tenants in the second round of evictions in early 2018.

What Timbercreek offered was not enough. Again, ACORN members organized to fight the evictions, knocking on every door in the neighbourhood, turning out over 100 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, 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 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 per cent affordable housing": not a firm commitment. If Timbercreek really cared about their tenants, the company would agree to sign a legal agreement that binds them to meeting the needs of the community whose rent they collect.

ACORN members launched their "No Displacement Community Benefits Agreement (CBA)" campaign on April 16, 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 to 30 per cent 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!

Read ACORN's report "The Fight for the Right to Housing and a No Displacement CBA in Herongate" here.

TAKE ACTION! Email Timbercreek and local councillor Jean Cloutier here.

Image: ACORN Canada

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