By Neal Rockwel
he story of Heron Gate, a massive low-income housing complex in Alta Vista has featured prominently in the pages of this paper since last September. In May of 2018, corporate landlord Timbercreek informed 105 families that they were being evicted by September 30, their homes to be demolished to make way for luxury apartments.
These familes were living in a block of aging townhomes in the Herongate neigbourhood, bordered by Sandalwood Dr. Baycrest Dr. and Heron Rd. Most of the affected residents were immigrants, a large portion forming an important Somali community. The population is working class and primarily low income, but only a small number of people have a subsidized rent. The rest are paying market rent.
Since January there has been a growing challenge by residents to Timbercreek’s above guideline rent increases (AGI) in two Heron Gate tower blocks located on Cedarwood Dr.
As this is the final scheduled edition of The Leveller until next September, it seems fitting to offer a summary of where things stand at the moment, including tenants’ ongoing struggle for decent living standards. I also wanted to follow-up on my first Leveller article highlighting the cosy links between Timbercreek consultant Jack Stirling and city planning chair Jan Harder.
A Cold Reception
Demolition crews began tearing down townhouses at Herongate in late January, a process that is now complete. I visited the site on the January 25. Work was proceeding quickly, yet there was an almost laid-back, casual quality to the movements of the solitary excavator. It effortlessly tore through the walls of houses, which until recently had been homes to a thriving, mainly immigrant community.
Down the street, residents of Heron Gate’s two towers on Cedarwood Drive had their own difficulties. Heating systems in both towers had been malfunctioning during a period of extreme cold. The problem persisted for several weeks.
I spoke to Bryanna Parrish, a young single mother who described how the problem was affecting her daughter. “She’s almost three years old and you know, it’s freezing,” she said. “I send her to bed in sweaters.”
Parrish said that when she complained to the rental office they provided her with a tiny space heater, which she stated was inadequate to heat her apartment. This solution also passed on heating costs to her electric bill, which she said was just one more burden on top of the $1,265 per month she already pays for the two bedroom apartment.
Parrish also explained that since moving in the previous July, her apartment had been overrun by cockroaches. Despite several half-hearted efforts by Timbercreek, the infestation continued. Things were so bad that cockroach waste products were aggravating her daughter’s asthma.
I also spoke with a resident from the adjacent Cedarwood tower who gave his name as Jonas. Apart from the malfunctioning heating, he described other maintenance problems. Like Parrish, he also experienced infestation issues — of bedbugs, in his case. Timbercreek had likewise implemented an extermination process that didn’t work.
Jonas said that in the end, he ended up paying around $1,000 out of pocket to hire his own exterminators and pay for hotel bills and storage fees in order to regulate the problem. He was never reimbursed.
Jonas also explained that one of the elevators consistently malfunctions. This puts residents in an unpleasant bind, he said, because the stairway was filled with a terrible stench. Either people had to wait a hellishly long time for the elevator or take the stairs — and, as he put it, “you literally have to plug your nose in the staircase. It smells like poop.”
While the reader might be forgiven for thinking that maintenance is far from Timbercreek’s top priority, it has recently applied to the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board for an above guideline rent increase — while citing maintenance expenditures as a primary rationale, ironically. As a previous Leveller article reports, Timbercreek is seeking a rent increase of 2.07 per cent above the province’s 2019 guideline of 1.8 per cent — for a total increase of 3.87 per cent.
Tenants organizing with the Herongate Tenant Coalition rejected this increase at a Landlord and Tenant Board Hearing on January 18. The decision has now been delayed until it can be heard at a second “Merits Hearing,” which will offer a final ruling on the above guideline increase. The date for this hearing is yet to be determined.
Given the state of the towers, Jonas offered “it’s absolutely crazy to raise the rent like that!”
Area Subject to Flooding
There was also a recent incident on January 30 where a water-main broke, flooding a number of Cedarwood townhouses.
I spoke to Tammy Mast about the flooding. Mast, who lives across the street from the flooded homes, has been a Herongate resident for five years and has been organizing with the Herongate Tenant Coalition since the end of 2018.
The break happened in the evening, on one of the coldest days of the year. Mast said that the fire-fighters who were called to deal with the incident were up to their ankles in water. Crews worked diligently for the next 24 hours to contain the accident.
In Mast’s estimation this process was about as orderly as could be expected, given the circumstances. But she was critical of the way Timbercreek dealt with the repairs and remediation process – which didn’t even begin until a month afterwards. “The problem has been communication with tenants afterwards” she said.
Between February 27 and March 1, workers came to complete repairs to damaged houses giving prior notification only one day before. They arrived wearing full haz-mat suits and respirators and simply announced that tenants needed to leave while they were working.
Repairs typically took between one and two days and residents were permitted to return to their homes in the evenings. Yet they were disturbed to find warning signs fixed to the exteriors of their homes outlining a litany of hazards, including asbestos warnings.
Tenants were in no way briefed about these repairs or any hazards that may have been associated with them. After the remediation efforts were completed, people simply moved back into their homes and the signs were removed.
This harkens back to another issue in October. When workers first began preparing recently vacated townhouses for demolition, asbestos warning signs were affixed to doors. Similarly no residents were given notice — despite the Occupational Health and Safety Act requiring surrounding residents to be given “Designated Substances Reports” whenever asbestos is present and work is about to commence.
A Stirling Reputation
Lastly, I wanted to touch on the issue of developer influence at city hall. This influence seems to go a long ways to explaining how Timbercreek can so effortlessly demovict residents and systematically neglect properties, despite the way this flouts bylaw regulations.
In September, I wrote about how Peter Hume was in business with Jack Stirling as planning consultants who help developers streamline development proposals through the city government.
Hume is the ex-councillor for Alta Vista (the ward of Herongate) and former chair of the city’s Planning Committee. Stirling is a former developer cum Nepean planning commissioner cum Minto executive cum planning consultant.
All of this is relevant because Stirling is consulting for Timbercreek on their Herongate project. Hume, while not officially involved, has very close ties to Jean Cloutier, the current councillor for Alta Vista. In fact Hume managed both of Cloutier’s election campaigns.
Hume and Stirling are also connected to Barrhaven councillor Jan Harder, who is the current chair of the Planning Committee, as well as being a member of the Finance and Economic Development Committee and the Planning Advisory Committee.
Harder used to organize a little-publicized event called the Jan Harder Charity Golf Tournament, where a handful of councillors got together to play golf with developers and ask for sponsorship money. Senior bureaucrats in the planning department also attended.
As reported in the CBC, the optics of this event became more unseemly once Harder was appointed chair of the Planning Committee. But rather than stopping the event, its name was simply changed to the Just Happy Golf Tournament and its organization was outsourced to Hume and Stirling.
Stirling’s relationship with Harder goes back at least to the late 1990s, before amalgamation, when he was the Nepean Planning Commissioner and she was a Nepean councillor. Another CBC article from last September notes that Planning is City Hall’s most powerful committee. It further notes that Stirling organized a campaign fundraiser for Harder and that she considers him an “old friend.”
Recently it has come to my attention that one Alison Stirling is currently working as an aid for Harder. At the same time Alison Stirling’s LinkedIn page lists her current job as a project manager for the Stirling Group — that is to say Jack Stirling’s consulting firm. The LinkedIn profile has no mention of her working for Harder.
Alison is presumably Jack’s daughter — but ironclad verification proved elusive. The Stirling Group has no web presence and the elder Stirling seemingly prefers to keep an extremely limited public profile. So I posed these two questions to Councillor Harder’s office:
1) “Do you think there’s anything inappropriate about Jack Stirling’s daughter, Alison Stirling working both as an aide for you and at the same time working for her father’s consulting firm, The Stirling Group?”
2) “Do you think this gives the impression that developers have too much influence at City Hall?”
Since Harder didn’t respond to my questions and I wasn’t able to get in touch with either Stirling, I can’t say with 100% certainty that Alison is in fact Jack’s daughter.
At the very least, they are closely related. Alison shares his last name, is approximately one generation younger than him, and is presently listed as working for his consultancy. She also previously worked as a junior sales representative for Minto at the same time that Jack worked for the same company as the Vice President of Land Development and Acquisitions.
I continue to find myself bemused by the way things are done at Ottawa City Hall. There is an extreme casualness and fluidity with which developers (and their agents) mingle and even blend with elected officials. Developers become councillors, councillors become developers; professional relationships and friendships become indistinguishable.
There is inadequate regulation surrounding how these types of relationships are permitted to be conducted. People have an unfortunate tendency to adopt a blasé attitude to an environment of quasi-institutionalized grifting because many of these activities are not strictly illegal.
Ironically, the fact that these relationships and transactions are not illegal testifies to the depth of regulatory capture by business interests. There is an alarming normalization of practices which are fundamentally inimical to the democratic process.
In a certain way I feel like the conclusions to my Leveller pieces are becoming repetitive in that they all follow the format:
City Hall and developer insider graft
heartless increasingly financialized real estate market
extremely low vacancy rate in Ottawa
misery for low income tenants
This misery is particularly notable among the Herongate residents whose situation I’ve been reporting on for the last ten months. Their rents keep going up and their properties are crappy to a level which does not even manage to meet low-level legal norms. Timbercreek has engaged in a pattern of systematic neglect, aided by hobbled and ineffectual municipal regulatory bodies.
This time I think I’ll leave off not with my usual formula, but with something else Tammy Mast said to me. She and her husband were originally from Alberta but have lived in Ottawa for the past 17 years. For the first 12 they lived in Centretown, until the building they rented was destroyed in a fire. They’ve lived in Herongate for the past five.
Mast told me, “I’ve been super happy here. I really love this neighbourhood. It’s part of what made Ottawa feel home. I didn’t feel at home in Ottawa the first 12 years I lived here.” She highlighted the openness of her neighbours and the strength of the community, something she had never experienced in a similar way elsewhere in the city.
This is another message that numerous people have stressed to me since I began reporting on this story — and I think it bears repeating. Stereotypes about Herongate persist across Ottawa and it’s easy to focus on what is wrong about it. It is important, however, to recognize that the fight to save Herongate from gentrification is not simply about helping people in a precarious situation, or as a half-measure to prevent victimized people from being even further victimized. It is a fight to preserve something which is in fact strong, vital and unique across the city.
Because of common preconceptions, many people might find it hard to believe that someone like Mast could prefer Herongate to Centretown. It is a reality that flies in the face of Timbercreek’s marketing about “revitalization.” I think this is a good message to close on for this last Leveller edition of the season.