How the fight for this immigrant neighbourhood became a fight for all immigrant neighbourhoods

In just four years, a multibillion-dollar developer has demolished dozens of homes and evicted hundreds of residents in Ottawa’s Herongate neighbourhood. Now, community members are trying to put the company — and gentrification itself — on trial
By Kieran Delamont - Published on Aug 29, 2019
Much of Ottawa’s Herongate community, pictured here in early August, has been levelled and fenced off for future development. (Kieran Delamont)

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OTTAWA — On a Saturday afternoon in early May, Daniel Tucker-Simmons folds out a table in a multi-purpose room at the Heron Road Community Centre. He sets down his laptop, a tablet, some paper, and a large legal reference text, and he waits. A few blocks east lies a patch of muddy, fenced-off land that was once part of Herongate, a community of 4,000 people, more than 70 per cent of whom are visible minorities — mostly Somali, Arab, and Middle Eastern immigrants. The townhomes and apartment buildings that once stood there are now gone, demolished as part of what some critics have called the most egregious forced-displacement campaign in recent Canadian history.

At his pop-up office, stocked with the obligatory coffee and Timbits, Tucker-Simmons convenes what is part legal clinic, part information session, part recruitment drive. While his setup is modest, his ambitions are not: the soft-spoken lawyer, who has a history of taking on housing-rights cases, has teamed up with a group of activists and two dozen ex-residents to take Timbercreek, a multibillion-dollar real-estate company, to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT) — and to put the very mechanisms that power gentrification on trial.

Over the past four years, Timbercreek has torn down dozens of homes and evicted hundreds of residents in Herongate. The demolitions are intended to make way for a “resort-style” development where rents, said Timbercreek senior vice-president Greg Rogers in October 2018, will “reflect the premium nature of the community” — pricing out former residents, many of whom have had to resettle in far-flung corners of the city.

In the statement of claim submitted to the OHRT, Tucker-Simmons calls Timbercreek’s approach to the community, which it bought from competitor Transglobe in 2012, “planned or ‘hyper-gentrification’ — that is, a process of mass and accelerated gentrification driven by a large corporate landlord financed by capital raised on capital markets and the sale of financial instruments to investors.” He argues that Timbercreek deliberately let the neighbourhood decay in order to justify its demolition. He’s seeking $50,000 per resident in damages.

The application lays out both a specific argument about Herongate and a more general one about the development approach it represents. “Timbercreek’s development plan for Herongate is consistent with a broader model of real estate development in Ontario that disproportionately affects people of colour, immigrants, people receiving public assistance, and families,” it reads. “This development model involves identifying real estate that is ‘undervalued’, displacing the existing ‘low quality’ occupants, renovating or building higher-end rental housing or condos, and then marketing them to ‘higher quality’ tenants. The replacement tenants are disproportionately white and non-immigrant, with smaller or no families, and not receiving public assistance.”

Tucker-Simmons’s argument is not that Timbercreek broke the rules: in his view, the rules themselves are unfair, allowing city councils to prioritize developers’ economic interests over everyone else’s. By supporting the project, he writes, the City of Ottawa — which is also named in the lawsuit, because of its role in approving the development — “has failed to ensure that the Applicants’ housing needs are accommodated and incorporated into Timbercreek’s development proposals and that the displacement of the Applicants and their neighbours is only temporary.”

The ex-residents who trickle in — today, they’re all women, and many are accompanied by translators — aren’t concerned with abstract legal issues: they’re looking for possible restitution. But it can be difficult, Tucker-Simmons says, to convince people to sign up for a potentially long court battle, especially as there’s no guarantee of success. “I think some people are worried,” he tells me a few months later. “Especially in immigrant communities, there’s this concern that, ‘Oh, my citizenship will get taken away.’” While that’s not the case, he understands why rumours like that can spread. Many of the ex-residents are still Timbercreek tenants and don’t want to cause trouble. “Even if, in their mind, there’s some kind of risk,” he says, “why would you chance it?”

Most of the people who visit his makeshift legal clinic leave with information in hand. Thirty-two have now added their names to the application. Some of them are members, informal or otherwise, of the Herongate Tenant Coalition — a collection of ex-residents and activists who are publicly advocating for Herongate residents and who have been spearheading the organizing and fundraising campaigns to cover the cost of legal fees. The coalition’s Twitter account has been suspended several times for publishing the public profiles of Timbercreek employees and for what Timbercreek sees as inflammatory statements; members are suing the company in small-claims court, alleging that it defamed them and misled city officials.

protesters
Demonstrators march through Herongate in October 2018 to protest planned housing demolitions. (Kieran Delamont)

Grace Lato and Margaret Alluker are two of the hundreds of Herongate residents who have been forced to relocate — one to a different part of the neighbourhood, the other out of the neighbourhood altogether. On May 7, 2018, both women attended a meeting with Timbercreek at which they learned that they were being evicted. More than 100 other households also received the news that day. Their homes had to be cleared out by the end of September. (Neither woman has added her name to the application; they’re instead working with ACORN, a housing-advocacy group, to negotiate a community-benefit agreement with Timbercreek.)

Lato had been evicted once before, in late 2015, when Timbercreek was preparing to demolish 53 homes in a different section of Herongate, but she was able to find a place to live in the neighbourhood afterwards. This time, she wasn’t. “What am I going to do?” she asked herself when she found out. “How am I going to do this with my kids?”

When she talks about the eviction now, Lato becomes visibly upset. She liked living in a neighbourhood of immigrants. It was home. Now, she says, “I regret coming to Canada sometimes.” She points toward various pieces of furniture in her new home — 14 kilometres from Herongate, in Gloucester, a neighbourhood in Ottawa’s east end — and tells me she doesn’t even want to bother setting them up. Her kids now have lengthy bus rides to get to school (long enough that, during the winter months, it will be dark by the time they get home). If it weren’t for her kids, she says, she would move back to Nigeria. This kind of thing would never happen there, she insists.

Alluker, who immigrated to Canada in 2010 from what was then Sudan, moved into a nearby apartment building following her eviction and still lives in the neighbourhood. According to planning documents, Timbercreek intends to leave that building, as well as four other buildings on the property, up while it demolishes all the remaining townhomes in Herongate over the coming years to make way for more than a dozen condo buildings that will contain more than 5,000 units in total.

She says she moved to Herongate in 2012 in order to be closer to her family. “You have a community of people that can understand the language,” she explains. “You just need to be beside them. That’s what made me come here.” She says the neighbourhood has changed since the evictions: “Many people just moved out … The unity that was among the people here, speaking the same language and coming from the same place — it’s just not united anymore.”

Both Alluker and Lato believe that Timbercreek deliberately let the Herongate properties fall into disrepair to justify knocking them down. “They let everything go,” says Alluker. “When I looked outside, windows were broken, doors are broken. No maintenance had been done. I think they let this happen so people would get out.”

Timberceek’s current development plan, which was filed with the city in April and publicized in July, would be one of the most substantial condo-development projects in Ottawa history if the city approves it. (It’s on the planning committee’s spring docket, although the schedule is subject to change.) Tucker-Simmons’s application to the OHRT alleges that Timbercreek aims to push residents out and transform Herongate from an ethnic enclave into a community that’s demographically and culturally more like Alta Vista, an affluent, predominately white neighbourhood directly to the north. (At one point, Tucker-Simmons notes in the application, Timbercreek considered calling the new development “Vistas South,” although it ultimately opted instead for “Vistas Local.”)

This, he contends, constitutes a human-rights violation. His argument is relatively simple: ethnic enclaves such as Herongate serve as a counterweight against the larger systemic unfairness of market capitalism by providing “substantial socio-economic and cultural dividends that specifically compensate for discrimination experienced as a result of being a member of a protected group.”

For instance, a predominantly Somali neighbourhood is more likely to have a grocery store that stocks Somali ingredients. It may also be more likely to have a mosque, or perhaps a school with other Somali kids. And living close to people who look like you and share similar experiences may simply make life more bearable. In Canada, white people experience this as a default state; for racialized minorities, it is something that needs to be sought out and then consciously and constantly maintained.

Although neighbourhoods such as Herongate, says Ted Rutland, a professor of urban geography at Concordia University, are often byproducts of class-segregationist city-planning policies and societal inequality, they become something that’s worth more than the sum of their parts. “Once people end up in those places,” he says, “they build their own forms of community and mutual aid” that make it possible “to maintain traditions, figure out how to engage with the broader city and society — basically, make low-income life that much more viable.” (Rutland is expecting to provide expert-witness testimony as part of Tucker-Simmons’s case.)

The Herongate evictees — and Tucker-Simmons — believe that their experience serves as evidence of the discriminatory impact of gentrification. They see Timbercreek’s demolition of their old neighbourhood as an example rapid gentrification, which can be far more disruptive than the sort of gentrification that occurs over a long period of time. “It’s no longer this kind of elusive, really high-level systemic discrimination,” Tucker-Simmons says. “It’s still systemic discrimination, but it’s manifested as a concrete industry practice that we can show, with the basis of social-science evidence, actually targets people of colour.”

What’s happening in Herongate, Rutland says, is consistent with a pattern of displacement that’s been repeated since the rise of urban planning in the late 19th century: Low-income and racialized people settle in a neighbourhood. As the land around it is developed, people begin to view the neighbourhood as comparatively undervalued and want to see it cleaned up — and those in a position to profit from such transformation see an opportunity. Today, cash-strapped cities are often motivated by the prospect of increased tax revenue and the fear that, if they don’t give developers a lot of leash, those developers may simply choose to invest elsewhere.

“Planning in one moment creates class segregation and in another moment destroys the communities that class segregation produce,” says Rutland. “It’s a painful thing to talk about … but there’s no way this would happen if the residents were predominately white.”

a laneway
Herongate in October 2018, with vacated townhomes boarded up and a new condo building under construction. (Kieran Delamont)

Timbercreek declined to be interviewed for this story, stating by email, in response to a list of written questions, “While we strongly disagree with the claim, out of respect for that process, the company does not wish to make a public comment on the issues raised in the application.” It continued: “We believe the revitalization of Heron Gate is an outstanding opportunity for both the immediate community and the City of Ottawa … The diversity found in Heron Gate adds to the fabric of the community today and will for years to come.”

The emailed statement also highlighted elements of Timbercreek’s social contract with the neighbourhood: in December 2018, the company made a commitment not to demolish any more homes whose tenants had not been offered relocation to a new unit at the same rent; to ensure that a portion of units were designated as affordable housing; and to create green space and employment opportunities. Contrary to what the name may suggest, the social contract is not legally binding; it’s little more than a goodwill gesture. In an interview with TVO.org, local councillor Jean Cloutier said that he would like to see it codified into a legally binding document: “We have to ensure that we put those documents in place as the planning file goes forward and ensure the legality of those.”

The city generally maintains that it is not in the business of dictating what private owners can do with their properties — a position that has placed it on the opposite side of public opinion on another contentious planning file: a proposed seven-story addition to the Fairmont Château Laurier, one of the city’s oldest and most prominent hotels. Josh Hawley, an organizer with the Herongate Tenant Coalition, says the group will be watching the city’s next move closely: if Ottawa were to step in and block the addition, then it should also be prepared to involve itself in the details of the Timbercreek development.

Mayor Jim Watson has remained largely silent on Herongate. In September 2018, Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden tweeted out footage of a Queen’s Park speech in which he addressed the matter, saying, “I encourage the mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, to pick up the phone and help somebody other than wealthy developers in Ottawa.” Watson posted the following response on Twitter: “I have met with the residents and the owners and have secured additional funds for the tenants to move. I have also ensured that all residents when the buildings are rebuilt can move back to their homes at the same rent Aside from picketing and protesting what have you done?” (TVO.org reached out to Watson, but he declined to provide comment for this story.)

Tucker-Simmons hopes that the OHRT case will usher in protections for minorities and the neighbourhoods they call home. He also hopes that it will enshrine in law the right of return for vulnerable populations — that is, the right of evicted tenants to rent units in the redeveloped property at rates comparable to those they’d been paying before.

He points out that the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights includes the right to be free from dislocation, and that signatory countries — of which Canada is one — may be in breach of this covenant if they allow mass-eviction campaigns without accommodating evictees’ right of return: “We don’t have the same kind of restrictions as other developed countries, like in Germany, all over Europe and South America, where you have to compensate people. You have to guarantee a right of return and minimize the impact of the mass eviction so that you don’t fundamentally change the character of the neighbourhood.”

But in Ontario, as in the rest of Canada, real estate “is really the Wild West,” Tucker-Simmons says. “Property development is really unhinged.”

If his case is successful, it could mean Little Italies with more Italian immigrants, Chinatowns that remain predominantly Chinese. “It could apply to all sorts of places, so developers would just have to be alive to the social composition of the residents,” he says. “You’d have these neighbourhoods that would be preserved, and they’d be more likely to be preserved over the long-term.”

If there are protections to be won through this case, however, they’re still a long way off. The OHRT is backlogged, and the Herongate case is still in its infancy. Tucker-Simmons says that he and his fellow claimants are still waiting for a response from Timbercreek (the City of Ottawa has filed a response, but it has not been made public by the tribunal).

After some legal back-and-forth, Tucker-Simmons and the developer came to an agreement that no applicants will be added to the case after the end of August. Timbercreek will file its response by the end of September. Then, the process of discovery can start, after which there will be a preliminary hearing. All told, it could be another year before the case actually gets a hearing, which itself could take weeks.

For Lato, the wrongs can’t be erased. All that’s possible now is to prevent more from happening in the future. “We have to find solutions to get everything back,” she says. “If you let the landlord do that, it’s going to happen again.”

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