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How residents are fighting a mass eviction in Canada

Housing advocates for Ottawa's Herongate community are taking their battle with real estate giant Timbercreek to court.

by Kieran Delamont
Oct 19 2018, 4:15pm

Many of the homes in Ottawa’s Herongate neighbourhood are empty, with doors boarded up and front windows broken. The neighbourhood’s communal pool, once a bright fresh blue colour, is now a sickly green colour. As you walk through the neighbourhood, it is quiet, almost to the point of being eerie, and you can peer through front windows into homes where the lights have been left on and see household things — cleaning products, lunch boxes, and stacks of opened envelopes — still sitting on counters and tables, as if the people living in them had just vanished.

They didn’t vanish, of course, and given the choice many of them would have preferred to stay. But since that parcel of Herongate was slated for redevelopment after being purchased by the global real estate giant Timbercreek, the residents have known that staying wasn’t really an option.

Sept. 30, the original deadline for residents to pack up and move out, has come and gone. With the exception of one household, the mass eviction of a large chunk of Herongate — by nearly all accounts a vibrant and close-knit neighbourhood made up primarily of immigrants and visible minorities, and the centre of the Somali-Canadian community in Ottawa — is more or less complete. Some residents have moved into other properties in Herongate, while others left it entirely, going somewhere that offered similar accomodations at a similar price point. As Timbercreek awaits demolition permits from the city of Ottawa, construction crews have been gutting houses, leaving piles of construction materials, plumbing fixtures and household items strewn across the neighbourhood’s common areas. It is a neighbourhood that is being dismantled piece by piece.

But for those people fighting on their behalf, the fight goes on. The Herongate Tenant Coalition, who has been the main organizing force in opposition to the evictions, held a demonstration outside Timbercreek's local office earlier this month, inviting media on a tour of what remains of the community. They are also organizing a human rights challenge, alongside lawyers and law students. And with people in other sections of Herongate claiming to have been warned that they too may have their homes slated for demolition in the future, activists are preparing for a fight that could go on for years.

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Herongate, they say, isn’t going anywhere. “We’re gearing up for a while,” says Ikram Dahir, one of the organizers with the Tenant Coalition, speaking to VICE News. The group has retained a lawyer and partnered with a University of Ottawa law class to mount a human rights challenge against Timbercreek. That challenge is expected to be filed in court in the new year, with hearings starting several months after that. “We don’t want it to happen anywhere else,” she says.

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That challenge is a substantial one that could set a precedent that could protect every other racialized neighbourhood in the province. “It’s somewhat of a novel argument. We’re alleging a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code,” lawyer Daniel Tucker-Simmons tells VICE News. “The basis is that when you have, essentially, an ethnic community or a community composed of a certain number of one [race or ethnicity] that the landlord has an obligation to take steps to preserve that community.”

The argument, says Tucker-Simmons, is essentially that neighbourhoods like Herongate can serve as a sort of balancing force to the rest of the world, where racialized individuals experience forms of structural discrimination. In Herongate, “they’re provided these social and economic supports that are not provided by the wider community.”

Framed this way, Herongate is partially a test case for a larger challenge to the idea and process of gentrification writ large. This is what Herongate residents have been saying all along: That they are experiencing a form of gentrification that is discriminatory to them precisely because it’s so conventional. As an identifiably racialized enclave in the city of Ottawa, what they see as the process of gentrification-all-at-once feels like that much more of a blow to their community.

“One of the larger battles that we’re a part of is the battle of gentrification, which itself has a discriminatory effect,” says Tucker-Simmons. “Gentrification disproportionately affects people of colour. We know that. And we know that gentrification will change the social and racial composition of a neighbourhood.”

Tucker-Simmons, who was retained by the Herongate Tenant Coalition in August, says that the case has many moving parts. Since some former residents are scattered across Ottawa, and many need translators in order to provide affidavits, Tucker-Simmons opted to call in the help of his law students at uOttawa. “The students are essentially providing a lot of the muscle and the help to do the groundwork, and they’re getting course credit,” says Halla Ahmed, a case manager with Avant Law and one of the students in the course. The majority of the class this semester, she says, is focusing on the legal challenge.

“It’s a very large case involving quite a bit of evidence. The problem is when you’re up against an adversary like Timbercreek with virtually unlimited resources, they’re prepared to defend it tooth and nail,” says Tucker-Simmons.

VICE News requested an interview from Timbercreek’s lawyer, Michael Polowin, but he did not respond to the request.

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In a more immediate, on-the-ground sense, life goes on in Herongate. There is still a great deal of the neighbourhood that still does have the type of life and vibrancy that advocates bemoan the loss of, and those that remain are trying their best to preserve it.

“Living in Herongate has this multicultural, Canadian culture, that I love,” said Kenneth Laiu, at an October demonstration outside of Timbercreek’s rental office, in the bottom of one of the remaining Herongate apartment towers. He led chants of ‘Stop the evictions! Stop the evictions!’ During the rally several young boys, no older than six or seven came up and start taking pictures of each other with my camera, and asking everyone why they were yelling.

Life has gotten harder for some. Dahir’s parents were among those who had to move out of the neighbourhood as part of the redevelopment. According to Dahir, they were previously paying $1480, plus gas and hydro, per month; now, they’re paying $2050, plus gas, hydro and water, every month. “Me, and my brother in Sudbury, and I have another brother in Toronto, we’ll all be chipping in money to make this place affordable,” she says.

“We’re not even going to unpack our stuff,” says Dahir. “We’re unpacking what we need, because we know in a year we’re going to have to move again. It’s way too expensive.”

Abdullahi Ali’s family of nine is the lone remaining resident of the parcel. They don't intend to leave until November, and because they are still living in the neighbourhood, none of it has been demolished yet. But construction crews have been doing prep work. As you walk through the townhouse complex, there are piles of construction garbage, fences that have been torn down, and deep mud tracks left by construction vehicles on the green space between homes. Some fridges were removed with food still in them and now sit in trash piles with everything else, the food rotting inside. At night the streetlights don’t come on anymore.

There are no set plans for the rest of Herongate, not yet at least. A secondary plan is being developed through community consultations between Herongate residents, the city, and Timbercreek. But with two rounds of evictions having taken place, residents are skeptical that any other outcome beyond more removals is really on the table. “You don’t buy a $200 million piece of property without some sort of a medium- to long-term plan,” says Josh Hawley, another organizer with the Herongate Tenant Coalition. “And it’s clear what that long-term plan is.”

VICE News requested an interview with a representative from Timbercreek and its spokesperson, Kim Graham, but it was declined. The company pointed only to a Sept. 26 press release, which reads:

“Timbercreek’s vision for Heron Gate has always been to foster and ensure a sustainable and diverse community over time. That means a variety of new housing options in addition to the retrofitted towers in order to meet the needs of all types of families in this area of Ottawa. All residents impacted by this relocation have been invited to return to the community when redevelopment of the area currently being vacated is complete. Prepartory site work is already underway in vacated homes and demolition will start as soon as possible and before the end of the year.” (sic)

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Tensions between the remaining residents and Timbercreek have continued to increase.

On Sept. 25 — five days ahead of the deadline to move out — the 15 families who were still in the properties had their gas and hydro shut off. Enbridge, the gas provider, had shut off the gas because that was the date given on the the initial order they had received from Timbercreek in May. That was a mistake, attributed to “human error” by Timbercreek spokesperson Kim Graham.

“I can say that there was certainly no intention to cut off services before all residents had left,” said Paul Saunders, executive director of marketing at Timbercreek.

But it only served to fuel a bitter and divided atmosphere in Ottawa when it comes to Herongate, and the question of how much power developers wield at city council has become a hot-button issue in the municipal election.

As Dahir and Hawley lead supporters through a walk-through of the mostly-abandoned properties, they see signs of the big developer’s power everywhere: warnings of asbestos on some of the properties are viewed as scare tactics to push Ali’s family out earlier, while rumours of homes being covertly marked with black paint to signal future demolition have circulated throughout the community.

Even though there is no hard evidence to support this, or that the utilities were maliciously turned off, it speaks to a larger feeling among activists and residents that Herongate is in the middle of its own Kafkaesque story, a David up against a real estate Goliath.

The residents fear that, while there is a secondary planning process underway, it won’t matter in the end, and that the ticket has already been punched for the five other sections of Herongate that Timbercreek has purchased. “All the units in that whole area are in the same condition,” Tucker Simmons adds. “So it doesn’t make any more sense for them to renovate those other units unless they’re forced to.”

A legal challenge can’t save the homes that have already been vacated, but it could put some brakes on any future demolitions.

But when you boil it all down, residents of the neighbourhood just want to return to a way of life that they knew and that they were comfortable with. “We just want our neighbourhood,” says Dahir. “That’s all we want. We want Herongate to be Herongate. Nowhere else.”

All photos by Kieran Delamont