In spring 2018 in Ottawa, Timbercreek Asset Management issued eviction notices to 105 working-class, primarily immigrant, families to vacate their Heron Gate townhomes by Sept. 30 in order to allow the development of luxury rentals. This followed eviction notices from Timbercreek to over 80 families in Heron Gate in 2015, forcing them to pack their bags and leave their homes in the middle of winter.

In both cases, Timbercreek said the townhomes were beyond repair and had to be demolished. If this were true, why were these homes allowed to deteriorate to such an extent?

Now Herongate ACORN has launched a campaign for a No Displacement Community Benefits Agreement, continuing the group’s decade-long history of organizing in the neighbourhood with tenants fighting for affordable, livable housing and more.

Timbercreek’s mass displacement campaign in Heron Gate

The first eviction notices came in September 2015. After surviving five different landlords and battling each one for better maintenance, service, and respect (particularly for racialized tenants, who make up 89 per cent of the Heron Gate community), families who had called the neighbourhood home — some for over 40 years — were told they had to uproot.

Statistically the most densely populated and most diverse neighbourhood in Ottawa, Heron Gate was a unique place where people from many different cultures had built a community together. It was the kind of place where neighbours would greet each other in the street and look out for one another’s kids — generally a happy place to call home. That started to change when Heron Gate was sold off to various owners.

By the time the first batch of eviction notices landed on tenants’ doorsteps, Heron Gate 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.

This vision had no place for the low- and moderate-income families who had built the Heron Gate community over the years.

Timbercreek isn’t your usual landlord, although their model of corporate gentrification is becoming more common. 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 tenants that there was a vision behind the chaos.

Many of the low- and moderate-income families living in Heron Gate had multiple children. The three-bedroom townhouses they were paying less than $1,400 per month for in Heron Gate 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 Heron Gate into a neighbourhood of “resort-style” luxury rental apartments; this vision had no place for the low- and moderate-income families who had built the Heron Gate community over the years.

Corporate gentrification in four steps :

  1. Buy up properties where land values are seen as underrealized;
  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; and
  4. Collect much higher rents, all at a significant profit to satisfy investors and creditors.

Fighting displacement when landlords profit from evictions

ACORN has been organizing in Heron Gate 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.

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.

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, holding local community meetings led by our members, developing new leaders on the campaign, organizing direct actions, and working with the press to draw attention to the urgent need to address this crisis as well as 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 Heron Gate. 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.

While change is inevitable, displacement is not.

ACORN members launched their No Displacement Community Benefits Agreement campaign on April 16, 2019, putting pressure on Timbercreek to make a real commitment to the people of Heron Gate. Community benefits agreements 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 community benefits agreement that provides a minimum of 25 to 30 per cent affordable housing and includes 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!

Herongate ACORN is a group of current and past tenants of the neighbourhood of Heron Gate in Ottawa.