People & Places

“I’m sad and I’m struggling, but I’m going to fight” — Inside the Human Rights Tragedy at Heron Gate

The bright new apartment buildings rising on Heron Road can easily distract from the immense community upheaval that has occurred in their shadow. In the pie-shaped strip between Walkley Road and Alta Vista Drive, blue fencing obscures the remnants of demolished townhouses; excavators loom over houses reduced to little more than kindling.

South Ottawa hasn’t seen this much densification in decades. The first phase of rental corporation Timbercreek’s revitalization of its 40-acre Heron Gate is close to completion, and the result is a U-shaped cluster of three six-storey buildings that will someday hold approximately 120 units each, for a total of 360 units. Prospective tenants are promised “resort-style” living, with shops on the main floor and access to a clubhouse boasting an indoor saltwater pool, a gym and yoga studio, plus a rooftop patio.

But to make way for this change, 80 townhouses were demolished. And this year an additional 150 townhouses have been torn down to clear the way for Timbercreek’s expanding vision to make money — and a profit for its shareholders.

Photo by Ashley Reyns for Acorn Canada

When Maha Jabur, 39, drives by her old neighbourhood, she breaks into tears. Hers was among the more than 100 families displaced by Timbercreek last year in the corporation’s second round of evictions. According to the Herongate Tenant Coalition, more than 500 residents were forced to move out last year after being told their homes were beyond repair, too costly to fix. The Iraqi mother of three is now living in Orleans and feeling out of place in the predominantly French-Canadian subdivision. She’s paying $400 more a month to rent a similar sized three-bedroom townhouse. True, it’s in much better condition than her former Heron Gate unit — the doors and windows in her new Chapel Hill home don’t freeze over with ice in winter. There’s no mould on the walls, nor is there a crack in her basement that extends from floor to ceiling. Yet Jabur yearns after what she has lost.

It was a frigid January afternoon in 2011 when City of Ottawa Housing staff handed her the keys to unit 1544-K in Heron Gate.

“I couldn’t believe it was mine.” Jabur recalls joy and disbelief sweeping over her when she walked into the house. She was compelled to kiss the front door, a rite she would repeat every morning of each day she lived there. “I loved that house — it gave me power,” Jabur says. Prior to moving into Heron Gate, Jabur and her family fled sectarian violence in Syria. When she arrived in Ottawa with her elementary-school-aged children, she had to depend on the city’s emergency housing program, which meant living in a Vanier motel for several months.

Unit 1544-K was Jabur’s first home in Canada and the place where her future took root. War had stripped her of her security, but her subsidized Heron Gate house helped her regain a sense of stability. The attached brown-brick house came with instant connection to a community. Most of Jabur’s neighbours were immigrants and former refugees; many spoke Arabic. They understood her past struggles and could anticipate her future challenges. They showed her what bus to take to ESL classes and helped her find work. Heron Gate residents embodied the oft-repeated African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” When Jabur needed to take on a second job to pay the bills, the Iraqi Canadian relied on neighbours to care for her children during her split shifts. The pressure of starting work at a shawarma restaurant before dawn, racing home to cook dinner for her kids, then rushing to another job as an office cleaner in the late afternoon was less of a struggle with the support of the people next door.

She had ambitious plans to save enough money to sponsor her husband, who fled Iraq after her and is currently living in Jordan. She joked with her eldest daughter, Diana, that the two of them would one day be sitting side by side earning their university degrees. But those plans, like her house in Heron Gate, have been reduced to rubble since her eviction.

A psychiatrist has recently diagnosed her with depression. As proof, Jabur pulls a vial of prescription pills out of a plastic bag. She turns away from the sunlight spilling in through the windows to wipe away the tears welling up in her eyes.

“I felt strong in Heron Gate — like I could do anything. Life is so hard now,” said Jabur. Her friends, once a few doors down, have now been scattered across the city. She has a roof over her head but has lost the support system that once rooted her in the community.

Mohamed Yussuf was one of the first Somali immigrants to move to Heron Gate. Photo by Rémi Thériault

When 60-year-old Mohamed Yussuf was told at a May 2018 tenants’ meeting that 105 families were living in homes that were irreparable, the IT consultant lashed out at the landlord. He accused Timbercreek officials of laying the groundwork for mass eviction through planned neglect.

“I told Timbercreek, ‘Don’t give us this bullshit.’ This has been going on for a minimum of seven years. That’s why they were not fixing anything,” Yussuf said.

For example, Yussuf’s roof had been leaking for nine months. His pleas for repairs were ignored despite repeated calls to the building manager and city bylaw services. The steady drip of snowmelt and rain had formed a hole in his bathroom ceiling that he could fit his hand through. A bucket had become a permanent fixture next to his tub.

The long-time Heron Gate resident also suspected something sinister at play. Yussuf had lived in the planned community since 1991, when it was still owned by Minto. When he first arrived from Somalia, he resided in the apartment towers on Cedarwood Drive; as his family grew, he moved into a four-bedroom row house on an adjacent street. He and his wife raised five children in the neighbourhood. In 2015, his townhome on Sandalwood Drive was targeted for demolition to make way for the resort-style condos currently being built. Management offered Yussuf a similar home on Baycrest Drive, only to send him another eviction letter three years later, using the same justification. But this time, Timbercreek didn’t offer him another home in Heron Gate. Yussuf saw the evictions as discrimination.

“They want to push out immigrants and low-income residents and build condos and change it to middle-class guys,” Yussuf says.

As one of the first Somali immigrants to move into the area, Yussuf felt a duty to remain in Heron Gate until he was sure all the displaced tenants found new homes. He watched as one family, desperate to stay in the area, squeezed eight people into a two-bedroom apartment. Others moved further out into the suburbs where they could find comparable rent.

Yussuf found another four-bedroom townhouse near Mooney’s Bay, but his housing costs have risen to $2,700 a month. While living at Heron Gate, his combined monthly bill for rent and utilities was less than $2,000.

“I’m sad and I’m struggling, but I’m going to fight.”

Photo by Ashley Reyns for Acorn Canada

In late March, Yussuf and Jabur joined 12 former Heron Gate residents to launch what is considered the first ever human-rights challenge against a landlord in Canada. In their filing with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, this group of Somali and Arab Canadians accuse Timbercreek of systemic discrimination by setting the stage for the evictions through planned neglect.

The crux of their fight is found in the first sentence of their human-rights claim. They want the tribunal to decide “whether a landlord has the right to displace a large group of residents of a low-income, family-oriented, racialized and immigrant community in order to create a predominantly affluent, adult-oriented, white and non-immigrant community in its stead.”

As evidence, the human-rights complaint references Timbercreek’s own marketing strategy for the neighbourhood, noting that in public consultations, Greg Rogers, the company’s senior vice-president of development, has said Timbercreek hopes to entice Alta Vista residents to move south. He wants to attract people who are downsizing and transitioning to the luxury rental market.

The human rights application also points to the latest 2016 census figures, which state that 20.7 per cent of Alta Vista residents are visible minorities compared with 70 per cent in the greater Heron Gate neighbourhood. It also notes that more than 90 per cent of Heron Gate residents are renters, and nearly half the households earn less than $40,000 annually.

Daniel Tucker-Simmons is representing the displaced Heron Gate Residents in their application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. Photo by Rémi Theriault

Daniel Tucker-Simmons of Avant Law is representing the displaced residents, all of whom are people of colour. Some of them were newcomers who spoke little English. Most were former Somali Canadians who were attracted to Heron Gate because of the affordable rent but also because they desired to live near people who shared the same culture and language. Tucker-Simmons accuses Timbercreek of using the strategy of “squeezing” to increase profits and drive out lower-income tenants. He says squeezing involves letting properties deteriorate, then using that as a justification to demolish and build more expensive housing to rent to higher-income tenants, and notes squeezing often happens in poor neighbourhoods that are undervalued because of racist perceptions of communities with large concentrations of immigrants or visible minorities.

“There is a reason why this is happening in Heron Gate and not the Glebe. If you tried to do mass evictions in the Glebe, you’d come up against substantial resistance from people with substantial material power who are able to enforce their rights in ways that poor people cannot,” Tucker-Simmons says.

Media coverage of the situation at Heron Gate, as well as anecdotal reports by residents, indicate that units in the planned community of Heron Gate were well maintained under its original owner, Minto. In 2006, bylaw officers visited the complex less than 10 times, but after the property was sold in 2009, the number of complaints skyrocketed: in two years, bylaw services attended 150 times. Tucker-Simmons says Timbercreek continued the practice of squeezing after it became the landlord in 2012.

According to figures provided by Jean Cloutier, the councillor for the area, in the 17 months between January 2017 and May 2018, when the second round of eviction notices was issued, the city received 99 property-standards complaints from residents.

Timbercreek is accused of ignoring a long list of tenant complaints, including leaky roofs, flooded basements, front doors that don’t close, broken windows, and cockroach infestations.

“This is gentrification being implemented in a way that’s racist and offensive. And it violates the human-rights code of Ontario,” says Tucker-Simmons.

The human-rights application also accuses the City of Ottawa of being complicit in not holding Timbercreek accountable for its failure to make repairs. Each of the plaintiffs are seeking $50,000 in compensation. The claims have not been tested in court.

Alta Vista Ward councillor Jean Cloutier at a town hall meeting in late March. Photo by Rémi Thériault

Under the Residential Tenancies Act, landlords can evict tenants in order to demolish or renovate and repair units. But tenants have to be notified at least 120 days in advance and be compensated for three months’ rent. Timbercreek owned the property and followed the law. Under pressure by municipal politicians and negative media reports, the corporation also agreed to give tenants an additional $2,000 in moving costs.

Alta Vista Ward councillor Jean Cloutier remains adamant that the city had no legal ability to stop Timbercreek’s evictions but says he wants to prevent it from happening again. Before Timbercreek can continue with its next phase of revitalization, it has to get approval from the city for its secondary plan — and that, Cloutier says, gives the city some leverage. He expects that Timbercreek will want to demolish the remaining 400 townhouses in the area over the next few years to build even more rental units. But he wants to make sure that won’t lead to another round of mass evictions.

“Such a disruption in the community is completely unacceptable,” says Cloutier. “I told them [Timbercreek] I would not suffer such evictions again.”

In February, Timbercreek unveiled a “social framework” that would serve as its road map for development. The framework includes a promise not to demolish any occupied units in the future unless affected tenants can relocate to a new unit at the same rent. In a news release, Timbercreek also says it will work with the city and the councillor to ensure that 20 per cent of its newly built apartments will be “affordable,” which is defined as rent that doesn’t exceed 30 per cent of income. In its social contract, Timbercreek also agreed to build a diverse mix of housing, such as three- and four-bedroom family-style units that are accessible from ground level.

Right now, Timbercreek’s promises are not legally binding. Changing that is the next challenge for Cloutier.

“I don’t know if there are any provisions within the Planning Act to include these elements,” he says. “But I want to officialize this so I have comfort and the community has comfort that Timbercreek will follow through on their commitment.”

At a town hall meeting held in late March, John Loubser, Timbercreek’s vice-president of operations, said that the remaining row houses, built in the 1960s, will likely be demolished in the years to come. Some of those homes have four or five bedrooms. Loubser says those living in the soon-to-be-demolished buildings will get to move to a new unit at the same price, but it may not be the same size.

“When we say equivalent home, we’re talking equivalent useable space for the number of people who live there to be happy. We’re not talking about building some tiny little thing with five by five bedrooms — that’s not on.”

It’s also clear that Timbercreek’s social contract doesn’t apply to its new resort-style apartments scheduled to be completed later this year. The modern condos will likely be high demand in a city with less than two per cent vacancy rent, but it won’t put a dent in Ottawa’s social housing wait list. More than 10,000 families, like Maha Jabur’s, need rent geared to income. Jabur may long to move back to Heron Gate, but she won’t be able to afford the steep market prices.

Timbercreek has designs  to build bigger and denser on the razed land, where Mohamed Yussuf’s home once stood. Now that 150 row houses are gone, the corporation is floating the idea of putting up a 25-storey tower surrounded by lower stacked condos in its place.

Yussuf believes the courts are the only way to prevent Timbercreek from squeezing out remaining Heron Gate residents. His once tight-knit community has been destroyed, but Yussuf is hoping the human rights challenge will make a difference for the people who still live in the neighborhood and the immigrants yet to come.

“The whole idea for me is that Timbercreek will think twice before they evict people. I was looking for the future. It’s not about us. I want to stop the next eviction.”