Margeret Allukar, Heron Gate tenant activist
THERE WAS SOMETHING DARK ABOUT IT ALL. Dark enough so that the mass evictions of more than 500 Heron Gate residents last year prompted a human rights complaint against the City of Ottawa and the landlord behind the largest mass eviction in Canadian history.
The claim before the Human Rights Tribunal accuses Timbercreek Asset Management of racial discrimination, and the City of Ottawa of being complicit in the evictions.
According to the claim, 90 per cent of the evicted tenants of the community were immigrants or people of colour. It says their forced displacement destroyed a vibrant community that was welcoming to new Canadians.
Timbercreek tried to explain away the evictions by claiming the 150 townhouses had deteriorated beyond repair.
The demolished homes are now piles of rubble behind blue construction fencing.
The human rights complaint alleges Timbercreek displaced a large group of low-income immigrant families with the aim of building new apartments to attract a “predominantly affluent, adult-oriented, white and non-immigrant community in its stead.”
As for the City of Ottawa’s role, the filing states the bylaw department neglected to hold Timbercreek accountable when they constantly failed to meet municipal housing bylaws.
Consider the reception one tenant got when he made a complaint about a flooded basement. A by-law inspector came around, but nothing was done—because Timbercreek successfully appealed the inspector’s work order to the city’s secretive Property Standards and License Appeals Committee. The tenant wasn’t even notified of the hearing.
The complaint says the net effect of such collusion with Timbercreek means the city failed in its obligations under international human rights law and the provincial human rights code, to ensure that development does not displace members of marginalized groups.
A tangled tale
This is a tangled tale, and some background is necessary. First, we might want to take a look at the landlord in question. Timbercreek took over the Heron Gate properties from the infamous Canadian slumlord Transglobe in 2012, although the same corporate interests appear to remain involved.
Transglobe was called “Canada’s worst landlord” in a CBC documentary; Timbercreek, which controls $8 billion of real estate around the world, was scathingly criticized for similar behaviour last year by Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing.
The corporate strategy is, in a nutshell, to buy up cheap rental properties, and run them into the ground by ignoring mounting repair requests, which ensures that city inspectors are overwhelmed. The poor move out or are forced out, to clear the way for renters with higher incomes to move into the re-developed property.
Farha calls this the “financialization of housing,” and bluntly refers to the company’s “unscrupulous demographic engineering.” But this is everywhere enabled by local authorities.
The mayor of Ottawa and the area councillor have officially washed their hands of the issue. But there may be more to this than political dodge-ball. The targeting of vulnerable Ottawans in Heron Gate has been aided and abetted, by neglect or design, by the City of Ottawa.
The complainants need not prove conscious racism on the part of Timbercreek or the City of Ottawa. Discrimination can be, and often is, a systemic problem, not a result of consciously racist attitudes—but the effect is the same. In this instance, the result of a company’s actions and the City of Ottawa’s inaction has had a devastating effect upon a community that was predominantly people of colour.
Ottawa cozy with developers
In general, Ottawa is a hostile environment for those on the receiving end of runaway property development. The relationship between developers and City Hall is, in a word, cozy. Ex-councillors become developers and throw fundraising parties for their political friends. Developers and city councillors play golf together and schmooze during election campaigns.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that a contest between the Heron Gate tenants and a major international corporation has been an unevenly-matched one, to put it mildly. The current complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal may cast some needed light on just how unequal that battle has been.
Class discrimination a reality
While class is not a prohibited ground of discrimination, the displacement of the poor to make room for the better off is a classic feature of too many cities today, whether racial discrimination is a factor or not. The well-recognized right to housing too often goes by the board as developers scramble for profits, and governments drag their feet on social housing construction.
A determined push-back by the communities involved can, however, turn this back. After all the negative publicity, Timbercreek has announced that no more mass evictions will take place, and that any future displacement of individual tenants will be held off until they can find other places in the same neighbourhood at the same rent.
That’s a victory worth celebrating—even as we mourn the destructive human cost that spurred a community to achieve it.
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