by Kieran Delamont
As Ottawa faces down a second wave of COVID-19, around 50 mostly low-income tenants living in a block of rooming houses on Osgoode Street in Sandy Hill are fighting eviction.
Housing activists and tenants say this would be the largest mass eviction in the city since hundreds of racialized families were evicted from Herongate between 2016 and 2018 — after years of systemic neglect — to make way for “resort-style” apartments.
The buildings in question are primarily rooming houses, offering cheap rents for small rooms and shared facilities. Because of their low costs, they are popular choices among students and those experiencing housing instability. Even if rooming houses often suffer from unsafe conditions, pests, and general untidiness, they can be a lifeline for people who might not otherwise be able to put a roof over their heads.
Tenants were served with N13 eviction notices, a form that indicates the landlord intends to renovate or demolish the units, on June 30. (See The Leveller’s Guide to Eviction Notices for more fun details on these kinds of notices. ) The notice states that tenants are to vacate the property by October 31 — a date that tenant organizers have suggested is arbitrary, unnecessary, and “totally off the table.”
“A lot of these people will be directly on the street.”
The properties are owned by 146 Osgoode St. Holdings Inc., a holding company owned by Binny Kuriakose and Jon Bielecki. Kuriakose is a doctor at the Ottawa Cardiovascular Centre whose LinkedIn lists him as a self-employed medical specialist and the former owner of Hooley’s Pub. Bielecki is the founder of a property management company called Dwelling Artist Inc., whose website features an image of a smoking building with an animated red splatter pattern (blood?!) and which darkly describes itself as “the next generation of property management” that “rehabilitates real estate to unlock its full revenue potential.”
Most of the tenants living in the block of units between 146 Osgoode and 170 Osgoode pay well below market rate for rent — between $450 and $650 for a room. Many of them depend on Ontario Works and ODSP for their income. Finding comparable rent will be a challenge, if not outright impossible.
The landlords have offered tenants three options:
1) a compensation package that offers 12 months’ rent for tenants who find a new place on their own;
2) a package of three months’ rent and an offer to help find, furnish, and move into a new place;
3) a threat to take tenants to the Landlord Tenant Board, with no compensation beyond what is legally required.
“Some of us have been homeless in the past,” a coalition of tenants wrote in a letter delivered to Kuriakose’s home and office. “Many have various forms of disability and many are on social assistance. Some of the tenants are students living with disability and struggling with student loans. Your decision to renovict is unfair, unreasonable and cruel.”
“They know that they can’t afford something,” says Josh Hawley, an activist who became involved when tenants reached out to the Herongate Tenant Coalition that he helped organize. “A lot of these people will be directly on the street.”
Yugesh Jaypal, a 58-year-old graduate student who relies on social assistance income, is among those facing eviction. At $570 a month, his rent is considerably lower than what is available in Ottawa’s rental market. (According to rentals.ca the average rent for a one bed apartment in Ottawa is a $1600.) Finding a place that is accessible — Jaypal is visually impaired — only makes that more complicated.
“The rent we are paying now, we won’t get anything at that price,” he told The Leveller. “I have no plan. My income will stay the same. It will not increase.”
While tenants acknowledge that work needs to be done on the units, they are suspicious of the landlord’s claim that renovations would require them to completely vacate. They suspect the real motive here is to boot them out so that the rents can be raised.
It is this kind of legally-compliant eviction that allows the city to wipe its hands clean of any consequences.
“Since [property manager] Howard Kravitz said the buildings are being renovated one at a time the most reasonable and fair approach is for current tenants to move into already or newly renovated units,” tenants wrote in a letter outlining their demands. They believe they have offered a reasonable compromise to the landlords where existing tenants would shuffle between units in order to let renovations go forward.
Instead, tenants say both Kuriakose and Bielecki have been unwilling to communicate with tenants, instead relying on pressure tactics to get them to sign — telling tenants that they need to take one of the offers or else they’ll get nothing, and lawyers threatening action against those involved in collective organizing. “He’s putting pressure, it’s like he’s intimidating us,” Jaypal says. “I feel the pressure. I feel the threat, like they are threatening us.”
The Leveller’s attempts to reach the owners of the properties were unsuccessful. However, only a few hours after making these attempts, freelance PR consultant Sherrilynne Starkie reached out on behalf of Smart Living, a property management company. Smart Living manages the units in question, as well as a number of other buildings in the neighbourhood. (That said, part-owner Jon Bielecki seems to have muddied the water by using the letterhead of Dwelling Artist, his boutique property management company, on some correspondence with tenants. If you’re feeling confused, that’s about right.)
In any case, Starkie offered the following statement on behalf of Tamer Abaza, CEO of Smart Living. “Our aim is to perform necessary improvements to the building which had fallen into serious disrepair in the past. In fact, the building is almost unlivable, and it’s not possible to complete the renovations while tenants are there … We recognize that moving is a major upheaval to anyone’s life, so it is important to help and support the tenants in finding a new home.”
Tenants and organizers say they are seeing something very similar to Herongate: a mass eviction, cloaked in the language of repairs, upgrades, and necessity, but which nevertheless forces vulnerable tenants into a rental market that has only moved further out of reach to them. It is this kind of legally-compliant eviction that allows the city to wipe its hands clean of any consequences, saying that rules were followed and requirements met.
Other municipalities have created bylaws that actually protect tenants in these kinds of situations. New Westminster in BC has banned renoviction and created rental-only zoning, while Toronto has bylaws supporting tenants right to return and moving compensation.
As we’ve previously argued in The Leveller, “Ottawa is a Wild West of housing development, even compared to cut-throat housing markets like Toronto … Ottawa has no replacement laws (which would require redevelopments to replace any demolished affordable units), no inclusionary zoning, no foreign ownership tax, and no vacancy tax. “
A city planner working in BC who spoke with The Leveller on condition of anonymity noted that “An often overlooked element of affordable housing is old rental housing that is cheap not because it is subsidized but because it is old. In any given year, there is only a limited amount of new subsidized housing that can be built.”
This implies that to that take affordable housing and homelessness seriously — and Ottawa city council did declare a housing and homelessness emergency in January, before the pandemic even began — municipalities should work proactively to preserve existing affordable housing, rather than allowing landlords to eliminate affordable housing in the name of renovation.
Jaypal says that at no point have the tenants seen any support from Councillor Mathieu Fleury, who represents the area. Tenants say he has not met with them or come to see the properties, despite their calls to his office.
“We don’t get a response from him,” Jaypal says. “It’s his first duty … we cannot get through to him.”
Fleury, who is also the chair of Ottawa Community Housing Board, declined The Leveller’s request for an interview. In an emailed statement, an assistant said that “we have had tenants reach out to us and we have asked the City’s rooming house response team to proactively reach out to tenants to support them and provide information on their rights in addition to other housing resources.”