Building tenant power in Ottawa's Herongate neighbourhood

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Building tenant power in Ottawa's Herongate neighbourhood

Tammy Mast and Kenneth Aliu are residents of the Herongate neighbourhood in Ottawa and active members of the Herongate Tenant Coalition. Scott Neigh interviews them about the coalition's ongoing work to fight mass evictions, chronic disrepair, rent increases, and gentrification in a neighbourhood containing one of the largest clusters in the country of rental housing owned by a single private sector landlord.

These days, there are areas in most major cities that are experiencing some version of gentrification – the rapidity and intensity vary, as do the exact mechanisms, but the outcomes are broadly similar. Generally speaking, one or many corporate entities, usually with government support, decide that they can make more money out of a neighbourhood if they change it somehow. These changes generally displace the people who already live there, who are most likely poor and often racialized, tearing apart communities and making space for new residents who are richer and often whiter while making buckets of cash for the corporations in question.

Herongate is a neighbourhood in south Ottawa. According to today's guests, it is a vibrant neighbourhood with a welcoming community feel. It is multi-racial – the majority of residents are Black or Arab – and it is predominantly working-class.

Herongate is also home to a 23 hectare area encompassing both townhouses and highrise buildings, all owned by one landlord. Since 2012, it has been owned by Timbercreek Asset Management, a corporation that controls something like $8 billion worth of real estate and related assets in North America, Asia, and Europe.

In 2016, Timbercreek evicted the residents of 80 units in Herongate. The units were demolished to make way for new upscale apartments, and the residents were displaced.

Again in the spring of 2018, Timbercreek notified the residents of an additional 150 homes that they were being evicted. This time, though, people in the neighbourhood started to get together and resist. Youth in the community began connecting people via social media. Pretty soon, the Herongate Tenant Coalition was up and running.

Most of the people who were involved didn't think of themselves as "activists", just as people defending their homes. They knocked on doors and talked to their neighbours. They had meetings and picnics and community gatherings. They connected with student groups at the local universities and with organizations based elsewhere in Ottawa. They secured a lawyer who was committed to approaching the issue from a human rights perspective and started raising money to pay for that legal support. They took residents from other parts of the city on tours of the neighbourhood to make them aware of the issues. They defended active coalition members who were targeted by Timbercreek in various ways. And they regularly spoke out, demonstrated, and protested against the evictions.

Though this organizing was not able to stop the evictions, it did manage to win some concessions for the evicted residents. It also seems to have been enough to push Timbercreek to change at least the rhetoric it is using around its redevelopment schemes – their recent language has included talk of a "social contract" and of an end to mass evictions, though this does nothing to undo the harm the company has already done to the community and it is too early to tell what it actually means in practice. Certainly there are tactics other than mass evictions that landlords use to displace residents, and other modes of gentrification that may be somewhat more gradual, so it seems likely that the struggle will continue.

Since the evictions, the coalition has continued to fight back against the realities of a multi-billion dollar company making profits on the backs of working-class residents. Two of the largest highrises in the neighbourhood had inadequate heat for a period earlier in the winter, and they mobilized around that issue. And they are actively resisting Timbercreek's efforts in those two buildings to get approval to raise the rents above the provincial guideline. In theory, above-guideline rent increases are supposed to be to cover the costs of repairs that have already been completed, but chronic disrepair is an issue throughout Herongate and the coalition has collected examples in the affected buildings of requested repairs that have simply not been done. Tenant organizers in other cities have pointed to the aggressive use of above-guideline rent increases as one element of more gradual strategies of gentrification and displacement.

Image: Used with permission of the Herongate Tenant Coalition.


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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