By Tammy Mast and Josh Hawley
Mainstream stories told about dense rental areas often directly conflict with tenants’ own experiences living in a tight-knit and supportive environment. Here in Herongate, those wielding financial and political power have constructed a picture of a community that is fundamentally and irreparably broken.
This kind of negative framing of the Herongate neighbourhood in south Ottawa has been one of the main tactics used to justify the ongoing destruction of Heron Gate Village, a large housing complex within the neighbourhood. The complex was built by Minto from the ’60s to the ’80s and is now owned by Hazelview Properties.
As the owner of Heron Gate Village, Hazelview controls housing for around 4,000 tenants in Herongate, making it by far the biggest landlord in the neighbourhood. To help paint a picture favourable for their demolition plans, the landlord has had a heavy hand in the framing of the neighbourhood as both a degraded area and a clean slate.
Hazelview is undertaking a large-scale “repositioning” (a real estate industry term) of their Herongate property. This is when a landlord rebrands a property, usually by changing the tenant base and doing cosmetic “curb appeal” work. The landlord then sells this new image of the property to its investors, which are usually large pension funds, promising a high return on investment. The types of properties targeted for repositioning are overwhelmingly racialized and working class, just like Herongate, and the sought-after image is usually chock-full (or in this case “chalk” full) of whiteness, consisting of upwardly mobile young professionals and wealthy retirees who are downsizing from single family homes.
To achieve this repositioning, Hazelview has used mass demolition-evictions, or demovictions, to clear out the neighbourhood wholesale, giant parcel by giant parcel. The Herongate demovictions, and the ensuing resistance from neighbourhood tenants, have been reported on extensively by The Leveller over the past three years.
The profit motive has created a completely ludicrous and destructive feedback loop of eviction, demolition, performative declarations, and new funding
During most of this time, Hazelview Properties was known as Timbercreek Communities. They changed names in November 2020, a move that seems to demonstrate how important rebranding is to the company. Although the reason Timbercreek rebranded as Hazelview is not publicly known, it sure is convenient. It could have been sparked by some internal division between co-founders Blair Tamblyn and Ugo Bizzarri. (Rumours of internal conflict seem to be subtly confirmed by voting discrepancies in these board elections – note that co-founder Tamblyn is not elected near-unanimously, unlike every other board member – which happened just months before their rebranding). But it also came at a time when their name and reputation took a pummeling from years of serious tenant resistance, widespread negative media coverage, and a human rights complaint. They were even called out by name by a UN Special Rapporteur.
Over the years, the landlord has also been surprisingly candid about its intentions to reposition its Herongate properties. They surfaced clearly at a public consultation event in 2016, which was mainly attended by homeowners from neighbourhouring Alta Vista, one of the wealthiest areas in Ottawa. Company executive Greg Rogers said “crime” and “loitering” would be prevented by weeding out the current undesirable tenants through the high rents at their newly constructed buildings. He called this the “premium nature of the community.” At the same meeting, dutifully reported on by local Ottawa South beat reporter Erin McCracken, Rogers told the Alta Vista attendees, “You know who’s going to live there? You are and other people in this room are going to live there.”
Then in 2017, Rogers told a real estate news publication that putting a coffee shop on the site where 80 Herongate townhouses were demolished the year before would create “a good community feel.” (Apparently getting rid of working class, racialized folks to build a coffee shop is how you create “good community feel”?)
We should not be surprised, then, that Hazelview’s design firm Dialog has recently created a “Community Wellbeing Framework” that has been used to bolster the claim that they are building community, while conveniently ignoring the displacement over the last five years of hundreds of tenants who had established mutual support networks.
In addition, much fanfare has heralded the new “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) between the City of Ottawa and Hazelview regarding the redevelopment plan for Heron Gate Village. But rather than providing reassurance for tenants at the property, the announcement sent a chill through the neighbourhood.
The corporations and political interests with large amounts of money at stake have mobilized language like “rejuvenation,” “a community’s renewal,” and “improve the wellbeing of the community” to attempt to recast themselves as the saviours of the neighbourhood. Furthermore, the massive intensification of Heron Gate Village is framed as a solution to the city’s housing crisis. Actors like the lead architect for the redevelopment, Antonio Gomez-Palacio, of the design firm Dialog, are conveniently reframing their roles as positive changemakers, instead of accomplices to mass eviction. Gomez-Palacio’s website profile reads: “We get one lifetime to change the world. To make it a better place. I have chosen to do so through the craft that I love – city building.”
Meanwhile, the residents of Herongate have invested years of their lives building real and tangible informal social support systems — something that is miles away from what self-proclaimed “city builders” peddle. The efforts of the landlord to cast itself as a city builder demonstrate that those with power over Herongate understand a community is greater than the sum of its parts. However, landlords, developers, and policy makers are not capable of creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is the people who live in a community who are the drivers of the social networks and bonds that make a community work.
To maintain Hazelview’s marketing tale of building community — rather than destroying it — existing tenants have to move with as little fuss as possible. Hazelview and the City of Ottawa have crafted a story where their social framework is a plan to protect tenants.
However, the social framework offers current Herongate tenants arguably even less than what was offered to those evicted in 2018. Some of those tenants eventually got to move to another townhouse in the neighbourhood at similar rent, after a significant resistance campaign. This time, however, tenants are being told to simultaneously downsize from townhouses to high rise apartments and pay significantly higher rents.
There is a reason that both the city and Hazelview are working so hard to control the narrative around Herongate. They are both defendants in the largest housing human rights cases in Canadian history — a case that revolves around their role in the destruction of the tangible support networks between tenants, which are relationships that cannot be monetized.
Although Hazelview is presenting itself as the saviour of a broken community, the reality is the company has already demolished 233 homes since 2016 and displaced hundreds of people, causing tenants material harm and rents to skyrocket throughout the city. We cannot ignore the fact that the highest demand for housing in the city is now for family-sized units — exactly what Hazelview is demolishing. In his report to city council on September 8, the same day the MOU was amended, Director of Housing Services Saide Sayah wrote, “The most significant [rent] increase is for units with three or more bedrooms, which has increased by 20% since 2019, and continues to climb.”
In all, the company’s “social framework” for their multi-billion-dollar project is contingent on the destruction of the remaining 559 townhouse and low-rise apartment units — along with the support systems and connections that have been nourished in this neighbourhood over the years.
“There Is Now an Official Plan to Destroy My Home”
I, Tammy Mast, one of the authors of this article, am a resident of Herongate. There is now an official city plan to destroy my home — a home that I love, in a community where I am profoundly happy and welcomed. I have neighbors who have lived in this community for over 30 years, who still live in the home where they raised their family.
I have had multiple conversations with somewhat frantic neighbors in the days after the redevelopment agreement hit local news — neighbours who, like me, have their homes slated for destruction. Even if some believe this rebranding, the residents I’ve spoken to do not.
In November 2020, when the Landlord and Tenant Board began steamrolling through landlords’ eviction applications by holding massive online eviction hearings, I watched as two neighboring townhouses became empty. These two townhouses, identical to my own, were perfectly fine homes. A large family had lived in one of the units for at least six years. Two young roommates occupied the other townhouse for about two years.
A typical landlord would fill those houses as quickly as possible, increasing the rent to current market rates to maximize their income. But these two houses have been left to rot. No new tenants have moved in, and the upstairs windows of both units have been left open since November 2020.
A neighbor who lives with leaks and multiple other problems has asked repeatedly if their family could move into one of these two units, which have now sat empty for almost a year. Hazelview has denied their reasonable request to rent a decent roof over their heads.
If three or four bedroom townhouse units sit empty, why would Hazelview need to build new units? Their strategy seems clear. A refusal to let families move from houses in dramatic disrepair to better ones only pushes those families out of the neighbourhood in search of housing elsewhere in Ottawa. Each empty townhouse is one less tenant Hazelview has to worry about when the time comes to demolish existing low-income housing.
Hazelview has no plans to build any housing equivalent to the one I currently live in. A three bedroom apartment in a high rise tower is not equivalent to a three bedroom townhouse with a backyard and garage.
I lived in Ottawa for 13 years before I moved to Herongate, and it was only when I moved here that Ottawa became my home. Now, decades of demolition are planned for this community that I love and call home. And yet I must begin every conversation about this situation by explaining why the “social framework” between the company and the City of Ottawa is nothing but a PR maneuver.
A Framework for Repositioning
In a press release, Hazelview’s CEO Ugo Bizzarri said their social framework will “meet the needs of the local community.” He also said the company is “optimistic we can bring this vision, that we have created together, to life in the years ahead.”
Hazelview’s plans, backed by city council and the planning department, are just that — a vision. Tenants’ competing vision, one that doesn’t cost billions of dollars, is a more practical one. They simply want a home in a good state of repair that doesn’t put them in further financial precarity, in the neighbourhood where they’ve established roots. Unfortunately, in our society, this simple vision is the radical one that must be fought for.
An executive once described Hazelview’s business model as a “car wash,” when speaking in 2015 to IPE, a publication for institutional investors. The company will “put in” a residential property they believe has not been “operated to its fullest potential” and “it comes out the other end looking squeaky clean,” according to then-Timbercreek CEO Blair Tamblyn. Given the company’s penchant for mass eviction, this implies that current tenants are viewed as the filth to be washed away to make way for a more desirable tenant base.
In this model, the company expects to wash tenants away with a small payment.When Hazelview, then called Timbercreek, handed out their demoviction notices to tenants in May 2018, they initially offered $1,500 to tenants as a “moving incentive” and said there was nowhere for them to rent in Heron Gate Village. Soon after tenants started organizing, the landlord sweetened the deal by upping the moving incentive to $2,000. Later in the summer, with the collective resistance having created an unpredictable situation as to whether everybody would willingly move, and with the landlord now aware that tenants were getting ready to file a human rights complaint, townhouses magically became available elsewhere in Heron Gate Village.
Hazelview knows the power tenants could muster, then, if they work collectively. A united effort by existing tenants is the only thing that could potentially get in the way of their redevelopment project. Tenants certainly can’t count on support from the city.
Understanding City–Developer Voluntary Agreements
The city supported Hazelview in 2018, particularly behind the scenes with permit approvals and housing case workers who pressured tenants to move. Yet it avoided weighing in publicly, with Mayor Jim Watson going so far as to say they had no say in the matter at all, as reported by CBC News. Their new MOU with Hazelview has proven their public position of non-interference in 2018 to be a lie — because this time the city has very publicly aligned itself with Hazelview.
In an interview with the Leveller, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives senior researcher Ricardo Tranjan said these types of voluntary agreements are part of a “neoliberal consensus” between corporations and governments. Rather than deal with regulation, which would be standardized and rigid, corporations can self-regulate and evaluate every facet of a voluntary agreement, from the initial promises to the messaging and follow-through. These kinds of voluntary agreements allow the company crafting the agreement to also tell the story of its success.
“It’s like a pre-emptive tactic,” Tranjan said. “These companies would rather sign up for voluntary agreements where they have a stronger influence on determining what gets in and what doesn’t, and framing and wording in ways to their liking that gives them options in the future, rather than risk having governments regulate in a more direct and legal robust way.”
Tranjan tied the emergence of urban social contracts to what has been going on for years in one of the most violent and destructive of industry sectors. “Canadian mining companies operating in other countries, after a lot of bad press, started adopting these voluntary codes of conduct relating to local workforce and environmental practice.”
In January 2020, the Ottawa City Council was the first city in the country to declare a housing crisis, or rather, an emergency. Hazelview and the city have nonetheless defended their roles in the mass demovictions.
Meanwhile, council has committed to a record amount of funding for affordable housing, and is even planning on building family-oriented affordable housing a few hundred metres from Heron Gate Village on Heatherington Road. Yet it has no intention of housing demovicted tenants.
In response to an inquiry from the Leveller, the city’s Director of Housing Services Saide Sayah said, “The recommendation would be for the tenants from Heron Gate Village to apply to housing in this area through the Social Housing Registry of Ottawa.” The city councillor for the area, Diane Deans, did not respond to the Leveller’s request for comment.
Tenants simply want a home in a good state of repair that doesn’t put them in further financial precarity, in the neighbourhood where they’ve established roots. Unfortunately, in our society, this simple vision is the radical one that must be fought for.
On September 8, the same day Ottawa city council agreed to sign the memorandum of understanding with Hazelview, city council committed $15 million for affordable housing.
The profit motive has created a completely ludicrous and destructive feedback loop of eviction, demolition, performative declarations, and new funding. Of course, Hazelview thinks this is fine.
“It is not denied that one of the underlying motivations of Timbercreek in its decisions to redevelop properties such as Heron Gate is the making of profit,” Hazelview wrote in its response to the human rights case. “Economic enterprise which is driven by both a desire to build community and profitability is not prohibited by the [Ontario Human Rights] Code.”
For their social framework, Hazelview is relying heavily on their design firm Dialog’s “Community Wellbeing Framework.” Dialog and the Conference Board of Canada partnered in 2016 to develop this “city building” fodder, which supposedly provides concrete metrics to evaluate the health of communities. The framework was released in July 2018 yet it was neither applied to the demovicted community in 2018, nor is it being applied to assess the current “wellbeing” of the rest of the neighbourhood. And of course they haven’t — the framework they have developed is based on the foundational idea that Herongate is fundamentally broken. If they applied to what already exists, it might just score high and undermine their justifications for redevelopment. Instead, they are strategically using their Community Wellbeing Framework to point out what an improvement their new developments would be — without establishing a baseline for comparison.
Taking a deeper dive into the Community Wellbeing Framework exposes the real reasons behind its interest in affordable housing (to whatever degree that interest is genuine). In one of the report’s appendices outlining the “return on investment” if a housing developer were to plan according to the framework, the authors list the benefits: “increasing the quantity and quality of the lower-wage labour pool, which can reduce business costs and increase productivity and competitiveness” and “increases worker fitness and reduces sick leave.” Apparently the only legitimate reason to offer decent rental housing is to make it easier for employers to pay low wages. Our “city builders” seem to be realizing that the people working in Ottawa’s brand new Amazon facilities have to live somewhere.
A breakdown of Hazelview and the City of Ottawa’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)
According to the MOU, there are 957 units across the five large apartment towers in Heron Gate Village. Hazelview is not planning on demolishing these. Of these units, 510, or 53%, will be labelled as “affordable.” According to the MOU, “affordable” for these units in 2020 means $1,244 for a one bedroom apartment, $1,514 for a two bedroom apartment, and $1,850 for a three bedroom apartment.
How can the MOU call these numbers “affordable”? Where did they get them? They are simply the average market rent city-wide for Ottawa, as reported in Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s annual Rental Market Report. This is the metric they want to apply to the existing apartment tower units to call them “affordable.” In this case, “affordable” is not actually affordable at all. It’s just Ottawa’s market rents for that particular year. (Perhaps someone from Hazelview or the city can explain why Ottawa needs affordable housing, if the city’s market rent is already affordable?)
Keep in mind that these Heron Gate Village units already rent for lower than the city-wide average. So, in the topsy-turvy world of agreements between the city and Hazelview, making units “affordable” means jacking up the price.
Meanwhile, none of the recently-built Vista Local units will be deemed “affordable.” These are currently renting for between $1,820 and $3,160 for one to three bedroom apartments.
Out of the 5,122 new units Hazelview is planning on building over the next few decades, 510, or 10%, will be labelled as “affordable.” They are using a different metric to determine affordability for these newly-constructed units, which will make them even more expensive. According to 2020 numbers, a one bedroom renting for $1,476 will be considered “affordable,” $1,886 for a two bedroom, and $2,319 for a three bedroom.
Where do these even higher numbers come from? The second completely unrealistic metric Hazelview uses — this time applied to a select few of their planned new construction units — is based on 30% of average household incomes in Ottawa. This leads to even higher “affordable” rents. The median household income for Ottawa is the second highest in the country, at $102,000, according to the city’s own statistics. Hazelview lists the average household income for a family living in a three bedroom unit as $92,784. They then calculate affordability for a three bedroom as 30% of that income, or $2,320 per month.
This completely ignores local realities. The average household income in the neighbourhood is $40,594. Based on Hazelview’s own formula for calculating affordability, the actual average affordable rent in Heron Gate Village is $1,015. Tenants currently living in three and four bedroom townhouses on the property with front and backyards and basements, and some with garages, are paying around $1,500.
All of this is even more repugnant when we start to understand that financialized landlords, like Hazelview, don’t actually rely on rent collection to make profit. Instead, they make the vast majority of their profit by selling a “value” image of their properties to massive institutional investors, like pension funds.
At that same 2016 public event mentioned earlier, executive Greg Rogers told attendees, “We’re not investing $100 million as a bet on rent. This is an important investment for Timbercreek and its pension plans.” This explains why Hazelview can keep townhouses vacant in Herongate and hundreds of apartments vacant in the West Lodge towers in Toronto, as reported in the Toronto Star.
Hazelview could charge actual affordable rents and it wouldn’t affect their rent collection revenue. What the company fears is losing the potential for deriving profits from the appearance of value, which will be created by repositioning the neighbourhood from poor and racialized Herongate to affluent and white Alta Vista.
Speaking of affordability, if tenants had access to the same preferential deals as their landlord, they just might be able to afford to buy their units. When Hazelview acquired the property in 2012 and 2013 from Transglobe, they paid $194,877,193 for the property consisting of 1,750 units, according to real estate reports from Avison Young and Juteau Johnson Comba. This works out to a per unit price of $111,358. Adjusted for inflation, this is around $129,000 per unit now, showing how arbitrary the housing market is, considering average housing costs in Ottawa are hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Corporations get extremely low house prices while tenants are gouged for rent.
Building negotiating power
Politicians and developers like to present themselves as in control and their plans as unmovable. But this appearance of absolute power and a sealed fate is just a part of the story those with power want to spin. Hazelview’s plans are simply a vision and they are only in control if people act on their terms. Tenants can create their own terms and resist displacement. The fact remains that landlords cannot demolish occupied units. There is the potential to build power if tenants stand strong and force Hazelview to the table for direct negotiations, not mediated by the city.
During the first two demoviction phases of 2016 and 2018, Hazelview didn’t have to bring tenants before the Landlord and Tenant Board. Everybody was pressured out before it reached this point. Hazelview uses this fact to claim in its response to the human rights case stemming from the 2018 mass demovictions that “Contrary to the allegations in the Pleadings, none of the Applicants were ‘evicted’ by Timbercreek.”
The profound cruelty of this assertion cannot be overstated. Tenants were heavily pressured to leave their homes, under threat of being physically removed from their homes by sheriffs and police, having their locks changed and their belongings tossed out on the street. The loss of a home is a traumatic experience whether or not one is brought before the courts, regardless of if a paltry moving allowance was provided to those losing their homes or not. The tenants who have bravely joined the human rights case are facing an opponent who claims they willingly chose their trauma. It is victim blaming and gaslighting of the highest order.
Hazelview and Human Rights
Hazelview continues to operate by the same logic that led to a significant human rights complaint just a few years ago. At the beginning of April 2019, a group of tenants who were demovicted in 2018 filed a joint application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) against both their landlord, Hazelview, and the City of Ottawa. Rather than a typical case of somebody’s individual rights being violated, the tenants’ claim is that their neighbourhood was targeted for repositioning, to change it from an overwhelmingly low-income, racialized one to an affluent, white neighbourhood.
There is a reason that both the city and Hazelview are working so hard to control the narrative around Herongate. They are both defendants in the largest housing human rights cases in Canadian history.
Certain neighbourhoods become “ethnic enclaves,” the tenants’ application states, and develop a network of benefits and support networks based around culture and language.
But these neighbourhoods also reflect structural inequalities, according to lawyer Daniel Tucker-Simmons, who is working on the case alongside human rights lawyer Yavar Hameed.
“Partly because the rents are lower and partly because of systemic racism, white people are reluctant to move there,” Tucker-Simmons told The Leveller. “The rents stay disproportionately low compared to the value of the surrounding area and the value of the land if white people were living there.”
This is why landlords like Hazelview prey on areas like Heron Gate Village.
“You can make a huge profit by removing racialized people all at once and building accommodations and marketing them to white people, who per capita are more affluent and command a much larger share of the total wealth,” Tucker-Simmons continued. “When they start paying those higher rents, the value of the land starts increasing substantially. The normal self-interested pursuit of profit in a structurally-unequal society such as ours automatically produces this outcome. It’s profitable to do this because of these inequalities.”
Tucker-Simmons is confident the evidence collected will support the tenants’ argument. “If we’re successful in this case, it will have a dramatic impact and a positive effect on the right to housing for people of colour.”
In spite of the strong evidence and the structural magnitude of this collective human rights case, there is no assurance it will move forward any time soon. Tucker-Simmons says he is still waiting for a case conference to be held, two and a half years after filing the application. There’s no telling when the conference will take place, since the Ford administration has overhauled the HRTO and its parent organization on Tribunals Ontario as a whole.
The HRTO saw its adjudicators go from 22 down to three earlier this year. Sean Weir, a former federal Conservative candidate and corporate pension fund lawyer with no substantial human rights experience was appointed head of Tribunals Ontario. Ford is being challenged in court by Democracy Watch for his changes to Tribunals Ontario. Weir’s appointment is also being challenged in court.
Tucker-Simmons is hopeful the Ontario Human Rights Commission will intervene and support the case. The commission, a separate body from the tribunal, identifies applications made to the tribunal it sees as having significant relevance to human rights law. It can act as an intervenor, as well as issue policy recommendations.
The Chief Commissioner Ena Chadha, who took on the role in July 2020, has publicly made the case for housing as a human right. In a TVO editorial, Chadha asked, “If housing is indeed a human right, how do we manifest this as a reality? How can we act on this pledge and ensure that marginalized populations do not become even more exposed and disenfranchised by being sent into the streets?”
One opportunity to manifest the right to housing is sitting on the commissioner’s desk. She can start with officially intervening in the Herongate human rights case.
The next few years hold a lot of uncertainty as tenants wait for the announcement of Hazelview’s next big phase of demovictions. During this time, the HRTO will come to a decision on the rights of a working class, racialized neighbourhood to exist. But no matter what decision the tribunal comes to, organized tenants will be the only ones to stop the ongoing predatory repositioning of Herongate.