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Heron Gate: Testing Canada's rights-based approach to housing

Friday August 24, 2018
Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Timbercreek says it 'continues to maintain Heron Gate units' [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Mass eviction in low-income community in Ottawa is 'litmus test' for Canada's promise to treat housing as a human right.

Ottawa, Canada - Margaret Alluker's backyard is overrun by tall blades of grass. The landlord used to mow the lawn, but she says that since she was handed an eviction notice, the maintenance work has all but stopped.

Alluker is among more than 100 families in Heron Gate, a neighbourhood in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, who were told in May that they need to leave their modest townhouses by the end of September.

"I had it in my mind that the eviction time is coming, and we don't know … what will happen next," Alluker told Al Jazeera earlier this month.

The mother of four said she hasn't found a new house yet. Like many of her neighbours, she wants her landlord, mega-real estate firm Timbercreek Communities, to give her more time.

But more than anything, Alluker said she doesn't want this situation to happen again.

"We need the support of the government, especially to force the laws on landlords and have more affordable housing," said Alluker, who is also the secretary of the South Ottawa chapter of ACORN, a housing rights group active in low-income communities across Canada.

"We need a long-term plan, [so] that next time something like that won't happen to any area of Ottawa."
The 'financialisation of housing'

Timbercreek announced plans in May to demolish about 150 units in Heron Gate, to make way for a massive development project in the neighbourhood. The company has followed the provincial laws that regulate tenant evictions.

In fact, it says it's gone "beyond the requirements of the law in providing relocation assistance" to displaced residents by offering three month's rent, as well as $1,530 ($2,000 Canadian) compensation and employing a relocation group to help tenants find other properties.

It also told Al Jazeera it "continues to maintain Heron Gate units and quickly respond to repair requests".

But Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, who is based in Ottawa, said every alternative to eviction must be pursued under international human rights law.

The community must also be consulted, and "that simply did not happen" in Heron Gate, she said, likening the evictions to "a David and Goliath type of situation".

"It's the little people against the behemoth, and it's very deeply concerning," she told Al Jazeera.

Farha said the situation in Heron Gate isn't unique to Ottawa or even Canada, however.

"It's the little people against the behemoth, and it's very deeply concerning."

Instead, it involves what she describes as "the financialisation of housing" - the growing trend of multi-billion-dollar firms owning and operating residential real estate for maximum profits - and it's a pattern she said she's seeing around the world.

Farah said while she's not necessarily against profit-making, governments need to set clear directives for what is allowed in profit-making ventures.

"We are living in a time where the actors in residential real estate are principally financial actors, and they have zero interest in people and a complete focus on maximising profits," she said.

"While that may be OK with other commodities like gold and steel, it is not OK in the area of housing because unlike those other commodities, housing is a human right."

In that light, Heron Gate is "almost like a litmus test for here and now housing issues".

Legislation coming this fall

Last November, the federal government unveiled a 10-year, $31bn ($40bn Canadian) National Housing Strategy - the first of its kind in Canada - to help ensure Canadians have access to affordable housing.

Among the programme's main families are cutting chronic homelessness by 50 percent, building 100,000 new housing units, repairing 300,000 others, and removing more than half a million households from the "housing need" category, which includes those living in inadequate or unaffordable housing.

The plan, which says it will take a "human rights-based approach to housing", also seeks to provide 300,000 households with a subsidy known as the Canada Housing Benefit, to help offset housing costs for low-income families.

It also sets aside over $12bn ($15.9bn Canadian) to a National Housing Co-Investment Fund, to encourage property developers to build affordable housing, and pay for the upkeep of existing units. Over two-thirds of that money will be disbursed in the form of low-interest loans.

Michael Brewster, a spokesperson for Jean-Yves Duclos, the minister of families, children and social development, which includes housing, said the government is "going further than any previous government has gone on the issue of housing rights".

In an email, Brewster told Al Jazeera the government would introduce legislation this fall "that enshrines the rights-based approach to housing, and will ensure Canada maintains a national housing strategy in the future".

He didn't elaborate, however, on how Ottawa plans to enshrine those rights into law.

"We will protect and promote the housing needs of Canada's most vulnerable people, reduce homelessness by 50 percent, and ensure that more Canadians have a place to call home," his statement read.

When asked by Al Jazeera to comment on the situation in Heron Gate, and whether what happens in the community will be a "litmus test" for Ottawa's rights-based approach to housing, Brewster said the minister had nothing to add beyond the previous statement.

On August 14, more than 170 organisations signed an open letter urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to guarantee the right to housing in law

The letter calls on Ottawa to make sure any legislation has accountability mechanisms in place, to allow homeless people and people living in inadequate housing to get recourse from the government.

It also demands that Ottawa address distinct barriers to housing that affect vulnerable people, such as Indigenous people, women and people of colour.

Enforcement a lingering question

Indeed, enforcing "the right to housing" is easier said than done.

"You can enforce a negative right - you can't do something, and if you do it, we'll stop you - but to enforce a positive right which says the government must ensure everybody has a right to housing, what does that mean?" said Steve Pomeroy, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Urban Research and Education at Carleton University in Ottawa who specialises in housing policy.

He said the government must increase the funding it has earmarked for the plan if it wants it to succeed, as well as provide real incentives to entice developers to build affordable housing.

There isn't a lack of housing per se in Canada, Pomeroy said, but the housing that's being built doesn't meet the needs of many Canadians, especially families.

"You can say to developers we want you to build two- or three-bedroom units. 'They say, well the economics don't make sense [and] I'm not going to make any money, why would I bother?'" he told Al Jazeera.

"That really is the policy challenge. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

"You can say to developers we want you to build two- or three-bedroom units. 'They say, well the economics don't make sense [and] I'm not going to make any money, why would I bother?'

Pomeroy said he didn't expect the federal government to step in to prevent the evictions in Heron Gate. Doing so, he said, would be costly, and potentially stall new development.

"That then challenges what they really mean by a human rights-based national strategy. So then they've got egg on their face and it's a very, very dicey situation," he added.

Daniel Tucker-Simmons, a lawyer representing some of the residents in Heron Gate, said he sent a request for accommodation to Timbercreek's lawyer and to Mayor Watson.

He is asking that if parts of the neighbourhood need to be demolished, that the current tenants receive more relocation assistance, and be guaranteed a right to return once the redevelopment is finished, to units with similar rents. It also asks that the existing units be preserved if they can be.

The request is currently being considered, Tucker-Simmons said, and the case could eventually be sent to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, if he doesn't receive a timely response.

What power do governments have?

While Canada has seen steady population growth in its major cities, very little is available for people on the lower half on the income spectrum, said Greg Suttor, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Institute focused on housing policy.

There is also a shortage of subsidised housing units.

In Toronto, the country's largest city, more than 92,000 applicants were on the active waiting list for social housing last year. In Montreal, about 25,000 households are currently on the list to receive low-rent housing, but only 2,000 units are made available annually. About 10,500 families are currently on a waiting list for subsidised housing in Ottawa.

Commenting in general terms about the housing market in Canada, and not on Heron Gate specifically, Suttor said Canada is at "a particular moment in time" in its housing sector.

"You would have to go back 30 years to find the equivalent price pressures and low vacancies and this extent of supply-demand squeeze in either the rental market or the home-owner market," he told Al Jazeera.

Over the years, people of colour and new immigrants have been particularly vulnerable to discrimination in the rental sector.

People of African descent deal with many stereotypes when searching to rent a property, such as a belief among landlords that "they are criminals or have too many children", according to a 2008 report on rental housing and human rights by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

"You would have to go back 30 years to find the equivalent price pressures and low vacancies and this extent of supply-demand squeeze in either the rental market or the home-owner market.

Based on testimonies made by individuals and non-profit groups, the report found that some people of colour also said they faced discrimination when they eventually were able to rent a home.

"Tenants stated that their requests for repairs and upkeep of the rental unit would be denied while those of non-racialised tenants would be met."

According to Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur, the Canadian government should be using the pending evictions in Heron Gate as a test to draft its right-to-housing legislation.

"What can governments do in cases like this? What power do governments have - and at what levels - to make sure this predatory behaviour doesn't continue?" she said.

In the meantime though, the tenants that remain in the community don't have much time. "You're thinking about it every single day," said Heron Gate resident Margaret Alluker.

"You don't know what will happen tomorrow, so it's not easy."


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