A tiny cockroach scurries along the mouldy crevice of an unwashed kitchen counter, almost barging into a pile of raw meat, cubed, and ready to cook. It’s headed in the direction of the clogged kitchen sink, half-filled with water that has a murky yellow colour to it. In the living room, an 18-year-old disabled girl lies on a mobile bed, smiling and laughing when she sees her father enter the house. It’s hot in Jamale Hussein’s house — with no ceiling fans or central air-conditioning, there’s little respite from the sweltering July heat of Canada’s capital city.
Hussein — whose wife and their eight children have lived in this three-bedroom townhouse in Heron Gate, Ottawa since immigrating from Somalia in 2014 — has had trouble sleeping lately. “I don’t sleep anymore since I found out we have to move. I’m so stressed all the time, because I worry about what’s going to happen to my daughter,” he tells VICE News, through a translator — tenant advocate Mumina Egal.
Hussein, along with more than 400 residents, were served eviction notices this spring and come September 30, they all have to be out. Their landlord — real estate behemoth Timbercreek Asset Management, which bought a huge stake in the neighbourhood some six years ago — is pushing forward with its grand plan of “revitalizing” the neighbourhood, replacing older, larger townhomes with "a diversity of home types, sizes and affordability levels", including "luxury-style apartments". So far, 58 families have already found new homes, some with the help of Timbercreek. But that doesn't change the fact that when the eviction notices were served, more than 400 people faced eviction — Timbercreek speaks in household terms, and refuses to confirm the total number of people facing eviction.
Each home that is set to be demolished will be given three months in rent compensation, as per Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act, and Timbercreek has tossed in an additional $2,000 per family for moving costs, which they are not legally obliged to do.
“We’re long-term owners and community builders,” Greg Rogers, the senior vice-president of development at Timbercreek told residents recently, at a community meeting to address the redevelopment. The company is offering them the right to move back.
But that’s cold comfort to Hussein, who won’t be able to afford the new units, and still hasn’t figured out where to move his family. Sitting outside on a small plastic chair in his front lawn, Hussein looks exhausted and strained from the sheer burden of this task. He admits that he doesn’t even know where to begin. “I can’t speak English, I need help to fill in all these forms to look for a home. If I am forced to leave this house, I’ll leave. But my daughter’s hospital is nearby, I don’t know if there will be another hospital nearby if I move somewhere else,” he says.
For many keen observers of housing issues, what’s happening in this neighbourhood is emblematic of bigger forces that are dramatically changing cities all over the world. House prices, especially in urban centres like Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, have increased at a rapid and sustained rate over the past two decades — a rate that has forced many people to abandon the idea of home-ownership, and embrace the unpredictability of renting.
Hussein, for example, pays roughly $1,800 in rent each month for a three bedroom townhome — that’s slightly lower than the average rent in Ottawa for a three-bedroom home, which stands at $1,920, according to data from the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CMHC). But prices fluctuate wildly depending on neighbourhood, and Heron Gate is one of the last remaining low-income communities in the Alta Vista ward of Ottawa South. For Hussein to remain in close proximity to his daughter’s hospital, he might very well have to fork out up to $3,000 in rent per month, or figure out how to fit his family of 10 into a two-bedroom apartment.
“It’s hard for these families, you know. They’ve formed tight bonds with their neighbours, they are dependent on them for things like child care, transport, and now they’re being uprooted, just like that,” Mumina Egal tells me. Her parents are also Somali immigrants — she grew up in the neighbourhood, attended nearby Ridgemont High School, and is now deeply involved in the Heron Gate Tenant Coalition, an organization that is dedicated to fighting what they are calling the “largest urban eviction in Canada.”
“This is the second time we are being asked to move.”
Heron Gate has a population of 4,681 according to the 2016 Statistics Canada Census. It is the most densely populated neighbourhood in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, at 11,100 people per square kilometre, compared to the regional average of 195 people per square kilometre. A vast majority of residents — 65.7 percent — are visible minorities. Stats Can data also shows that 1,360 residents categorize themselves as Black, and 670 as Arab. The Heron Gate Tenant Coalition’s own survey of residents who will be affected by the upcoming demolition found that 89 percent are people of colour — 44 percent Somali, and 24 percent Arab. Heron Gate is also a low-income neighbourhood. In 2015, the median after-tax income in the area was $18,746, far below the regional figure of $36,258.
Walking around Heron Gate, one can’t help thinking that the neighbourhood is in dire need of some kind of revitalization. Piles of garbage sit uncollected, lending a stale smell to the air, one that frequently wafts into homes. Roof shingles can be seen peeling, on the brink of falling off almost every other home we walk past. There are few sidewalks to speak of — kids, often unsupervised, run around the streets, deftly dodging oncoming traffic. Most of the parking garages in the neighbourhood are not adequately lit, a violation of city bylaws. There is, oddly enough, a nice-looking public swimming pool in the community — tenant advocate Josh Hawley claims that the swimming pool never used to look that clean, and the recent renovation was a result of media attention Timbercreek was getting due to the evictions.
“This is the second time we are being asked to move,” Abdullahi Ali tells me. He’s lived in Heron Gate for over 20 years with his wife and six kids. Two years ago, they lived in a four-bedroom townhouse a few streets away. That home was subject to Timbercreek’s first phase of redevelopment, where 80 townhomes were demolished to make way for three gleaming new condominium towers. Ali claims that when he was relocated by Timbercreek the first time around, the company did not inform him that his current house would also be subject to future demolition. “We have been long-time tenants. We pay our rent on time. We are law-abiding citizens. Why are they treating us this way?” asks Ali, his voice rising steadily. His question is echoed by many residents, who feel they are becoming the collateral damage of a rejuvenation plan.
“They deliberately don’t want to repair these homes,” Ali claims. There’s apparently been a leak in his basement for months now, and despite contacting Timbercreek three times, no one has showed up to fix it. A similar complaint is expressed by Falah Rashad, whose mother lives in a three-bedroom townhouse subject to demolition this fall. “Timbercreek is not doing sh*t,” he declares. “Our basement was leaking, and my mother fell down the stairs because she slipped on a puddle of water. She’s angry, stressed and in pain, and now there’s mould in the basement.”
Timbercreek refutes those claims. In a statement responding to VICE News’ queries, the company says that they are continuing to “maintain Heron Gate units, and quickly respond to repair requests made by residents.” Timbercreek claims to have reviewed all maintenance requests — “there were a total of 35 maintenance complaints from 13 addresses out of the 1,665 suites in our community. 14 required action on our part, and these items are currently being addressed.”
“A classic David vs. Goliath scenario”
In late 2012, Timbercreek purchased a large amount of real estate in Heron Gate, including five high-rise buildings from the Minto Group, successfully securing a monopoly over real estate in the north side of Heron Gate. It says it has invested over $44 million in the area already, in line with its goal to create more housing in the neighbourhood and “build communities.”
“A big part of what we’re doing is helping people through the transition,” Rogers, the senior vice-president of development at Timbercreek, told the Globe and Mail in May. “We’re in the business of rental communities...the core word being ‘communities.’”
But the fact is the company, headquartered in Toronto, is not just a local landlord — it’s a global investment giant, managing $8 billion in assets and employing over 500 people spread across 18 global offices. Timbercreek Financial, the company’s mortgage lending arm, brought in $22 million in revenue in the first financial quarter of 2018. Its Global Real Estate Income Fund, a financial product for investors looking to make money from real estate, raked in a healthy 3.5 percent in ROI (return on investment) in a single year, according to company filings.
Indeed, the hard truth of Timbercreek’s business model, like that of other big corporate landlords, is that it has to navigate between meeting the demands of its investors, and its tenants. And the former group has much more financial clout in the matter. Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing calls this the “financialization of housing”.
“What I’ve been seeing in a number of cities, Barcelona, Dublin, Stockholm and Ottawa, is big financial actors, whose focus is solely on profit-making for themselves and their investors, buying up tons of real estate,” she tells me over the phone from Ottawa. Much of Farha’s work has been focused on how big private equity or asset management firms like Timbercreek buy up homes in low-income neighbourhoods where rental prices are depressed, demolish them, build newer, often “fancier” housing units, and then sell them off or rent them at a higher price.
“Heron Gate caught my eye because of the numbers. More than 100 low-income families have been issued demolition notices by a very big corporate landlord. This is a classic David versus Goliath scenario. Housing is being treated as a commodity, instead of a social good and a human right,” she says.
The scale to which market forces are dictating how urban landscapes are changing is staggering. A 2015 study published by Columbia University sociology professor Saskia Sassen showed that between mid-2013 and mid-2014, corporate buying of existing properties in the top 100 urban centres in the world exceeded $600 billion. A year later, that number jumped to $1 trillion. It’s a figure that begs a discussion of who really owns our cities, and what, if anything, can be done to ensure that residential housing remains adequate and accessible for the majority of people.
What the law says
From a legal perspective, Timbercreek is breaking no rules. The company gave residents a 120-day notice to move, three months in rent compensation, and $2,000 per family for moving costs (that number was recently increased from $1,500), all in accordance with the Tenancies Act. Provincial law in Ontario allows for eviction of tenants for demolition purposes, or if the landlord has to undertake major renovations of the unit. The only caveat is the landlord must obtain the right permits from the city in order for the demolition to take place — Timbercreek says it has plans in place to do so when the eviction is complete.
But what if Timbercreek, like some residents are alleging, deliberately ignored the maintenance of the townhomes in order to justify their demolition?
“That would definitely raise some ethical issues that could factor in during an eviction hearing, but legally speaking, the landlord would have done nothing wrong,” says Caryma S’ad, a Toronto-based lawyer specializing in landlord and tenant disputes.
Timbercreek vehemently disputes that suggestion, telling VICE News that their vision for Heron Gate has always been to maintain a “diverse and sustainable” community. “We will offer all impacted residents the right to return to Heron Gate when the redevelopment is completed,” reads Timbercreek’s statement.
But S’ad points out that the tenants of Heron Gate do not necessarily have to move by September 30. In fact, the Heron Gate Tenant Coalition has been encouraging tenants not to move, pledging to give tenants legal help to fight the evictions. If they remain, Timbercreek will be allowed to apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board to get them evicted. A hearing will ensue, the results of which will determine what happens to the tenants.
Effectively then, there aren’t laws in place that prevent evictions of this nature and scale in Ontario. This, in concert with the corporatization of housing — the fact that large private companies have free reign to swoop in and purchase large swaths of real estate in what they deem to be lucrative neighbourhoods — leaves the pendulum swinging in keen favour of large real estate companies, and those who have the means to own property.
“Cities and provincial governments really have to start to do some head-scratching and forward-thinking,” Farha says. “Do we really want the corporatization of our cities to happen at this pace? From my vantage point, there’s a conflict between what governments can do and what governments should do.”
By that, Farha means not just accepting, but acting on the fact that under international law, adequate housing is a human right. “The mayor and city councillor [Jean Cloutier, councillor of Alta Vista ward] have both said their hands are tied, but their hands are not tied when it comes to international human rights obligations.” One of her suggestions, which she plans to bring up to housing advocate and Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, at an upcoming meeting, is to give the Heron Gate community their own city planner — a person who’s devoted to helping tenants find new housing, in the context of how dependent they are on each other.
Abdullahi Ali has a sign on his front door that reads “I Refuse To Move.” He obliges my request for a photo of him standing next to the sign, but his tone is one of weariness. “Of course I’m worried, but at the same time, I cannot move in three months. That’s just not enough time to find a new place.”
Ali has an 18-month-old granddaughter, who lives with him, his wife and six kids in their townhome. When the adults are busy or at work, Ali and his wife rely on their neighbours to take care of their grandchild. “It’s like that in this community. Everyone helps everyone, because no one can afford daycare.”
“Do you like my house?” he asks me. I point out that it’s a good size, but the roof is in a dire need of fixing. “Yes, I wish they would just fix it and we could continue staying here. I like it here. But I know they want to build small highrises and charge high rents.”
“It’s corporate greed. We all know it, all the residents here. They think we don’t, but we do,” he quips, before slowly trudging back into his home, shutting the front door.
Cover image of Abdullahi Ali, who has lived in Heron Gate for over 20 years with his wife and six kids. Photo by Jalani Morgan for VICE News.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Timbercreek increased the amount of moving expense compensation provided to tenants from $1,500 to $2,000, and that the redevelopment will include a variety of housing, not just luxury condos.