by Mavis Finnamore

I

moved into my Herongate townhouse with my husband in late 1983. It had been built by Minto in the 1960s and was still in great shape. We were actually only the second tenants there, as my best friend grew up there and we found out her mother wanted to move out. The units were large, well maintained, and with a central heating plant, the heat was included in the rent. You had to apply and be making at least over $29,000.00 annually to be considered acceptable. Many families lived there in harmony, with some quite nice gardens, and a small village feel.

My two children were born there, and my mother came to live with us in the early 90s. It was a comfortable middle class development, and we had no complaints with the maintenance or the management.

Things started to change when we became aware Minto was selling various parts of Herongate starting in 2009-2010. Our section was the last to be bought, and immediately it was apparent the new owner, TransGlobe was nothing like Minto in terms of maintenance and professional staff. General cleanliness, lawn and shrub maintenance, and garbage pick up, became haphazard and infrequent. Repairs took ages to get done, and only if you bugged them. Sometimes grass would be a foot tall before it was cut. People began moving in who didn’t seem to care about others, throwing garbage outside, and having loud parties that kept many of us awake past midnight. One elderly neighbour of mine was threatened by a newcomer, so she moved out. Others started doing the same. I stayed with my family mostly because I liked my home and we couldn’t afford to move at this time.

When repair and maintenance problems kept mounting and things didn’t improve, I saw ACORN, a social advocacy group, come in and offer to help tenants organize to solve these problems. They were the only group who showed the tenants how to combine their power to get the attention of media and politicians about the massive build-up of maintenance problems. The Mayor and others became aware of the huge number of complaints against TransGlobe that were reported to bylaw officers. I, myself, was successful in getting a judgement at the Landlord and Tenant Board against TransGlobe for its terrible maintenance. With encouragement from the Mayor and ACORN, I volunteered to act as a tenant representative for my section of Herongate (2816 – 2838 Sandalwood Drive) and to work with the management of TransGlobe to sort out and fix these problems. Along with other tenant reps, we reported on problems and sought timelines for repairs and maintenance. Meetings were sometimes rushed, but it was a start.

Very suddenly, about in 2012, we found we had been sold again to Timbercreek. In terms of customer service, they weren’t much better than TransGlobe, as I explained to the president of Timbercreek. At the first meeting, I berated him for his lousy staff who sent out as a first letter a notice of eviction! Since no one was notified of the sale and the new location to drop off rental cheques, Timbercreek hadn’t received any cheques and promptly sent out an avalanche of eviction forms. It never occurred to them to actually phone a tenant to see what went wrong. So much for professionally-trained staff. So much for respect for tenants. To add insult to injury, they also included with my eviction notice a form letter outlining their great customer service policies.

Several units in the core of the development remained unoccupied and needed extensive repairs, with broken windows, fences, and broken furniture in the backyards. Wondering if this was the beginning of the end, I enquired of management if demolition was planned. They claimed not to have heard anything of this idea.

We continued meeting and reporting needed repairs and in the beginning we did start to get at the backlog of necessary work. Our underground garage floor holes were blocked, garbage mostly cleaned up and some repairs were finally done to our broken garage doors. Some security patrol of the underground garage was supposed to take care of drug dealers operating there, but they were seen so rarely there was hardly any change. I also pointed out larger issues, like overgrown and dead trees and shrubs, broken windows, damaged roofs and broken pavement. Soon I noticed while other parts of Herongate were getting new windows, paint jobs and appliances, my area was not being treated the same way. Meeting after meeting, certain items kept repeating, and no timelines were provided for these items. It took several meetings just to get 7 dead pine trees cut down, probably because I said they were fire hazards. Others were put off till the next spring, and then nothing was heard of them. I also started to hear rumours of demolition from some tenants. Around this time, I also noticed several units in the core of the development remained unoccupied and needed extensive repairs, with broken windows, fences, and broken furniture in the backyards. Wondering if this was the beginning of the end, I enquired of management if demolition was planned. They claimed not to have heard anything of this idea. Still, tenants continued to tell me Timbercreek staff told them the company was stopping repairs in our area since it was going to be torn down. I tried two other times, contacting Timbercreek management, and asking the president to answer this important question. There was no response.

It became glaringly obvious the number of vacant units in the core had grown, with windows blacked out, mailboxes nailed shut, and garbage left in backyards. I started to feel like I was being surrounded by a creeping slum … People got scared and moved out.

I had tried without success to get TransGlobe to repair a very eroded paved path behind the development and I continued also with Timbercreek. Like TransGlobe, they pretended they didn’t own the path, and only plowed it in winter, out of the goodness of their hearts. This ownership I had to establish in court, at the Landlord and Tenant Board, where they were ordered to repair their path within 30 days. Then they claimed they were planning on doing it all along and this whole process was unnecessary. Unfortunately, the adjudicator seemed to agree and did not penalize them.

Prior to my going to court, I had sought the help of my municipal councillor, Jean Cloutier, showing him the path and the decayed buildings. I asked if he could contact Timbercreek about their intentions here and I waited in vain for a response. Only much later did I find out not only did he know about the demolition planned, but laws protecting business at planning sessions required secrecy from the public.

Timbercreek did the cheapest and the worst looking patchwork of the paved path – uneven, broken sloppy edges that didn’t line up with other pavement, and some areas just covered in black paint. I had to call three times to point out the holes they missed. They refused to do a proper topcoat. Since there are no pavement repair standards in Ottawa, we were stuck with the landlord’s idea of a proper repair.

As the year progressed, it became glaringly obvious the number of vacant units in the core had grown, with windows blacked out, mailboxes nailed shut, and garbage left in backyards. I started to feel like I was being surrounded by a creeping slum. Maintenance had slid again, with shingles missing, paint peeling, and grass left uncut, and garbage piling up. We were embarrassed to bring friends there. Some of the vacant units were broken into and used as party houses by gangs. Gang graffiti started to appear in the basement and we could see the dealers hanging around again. People got scared and moved out. More were told to move elsewhere in Herongate, as there would be no more repairs here. But when I asked the management about the behaviour of their staff and the lack of repairs, they claimed to know nothing.

Abruptly, tenants' meetings were cancelled and never rescheduled in the summer of 2015. I was preoccupied with a new breast cancer diagnosis and was totally unprepared for the eviction letter sent at the end of September 2015. With ACORN’s help, we tried to negotiate for better terms – like extending the date from February 2016 to June. We sent a letter to Timbercreek’s communication representatives to give to management. They acknowledged nothing from the tenants, but did state their offer of a payment of $1500.00 would expire November 30th if we hadn’t signed the eviction notices. At the same time, they offered special deals to relocate elsewhere in Herongate. Unlike the other tenants who had moved because staff said no repairs were being done, and had to pay transfer fees of $250.00, we were told they would waive those fees. How unfair and deceitful Timbercreek was to all the tenants.

I knew we had to get out before I was heavily involved with chemotherapy, as I didn’t know how I could physically handle a big move. I also knew moving in the winter would be chancy, as there were no real access roads into the development, just narrow brick paths, that were often poorly plowed in winter. I didn’t trust Timbercreek to plow, so I planned to leave in December, hopefully before snow was too deep for moving trucks.

Like many others in the development, we were not well off, just getting by with one income. If we didn’t have a line of credit, it would have been devastating for us. What many people don’t know is the money offered by Timbercreek was not available to use for first/last months payment at a new location other than Herongate. Neither was the moving allowance. It was only paid after the move at their appointments. If you didn’t have your own money to get out, you were sunk.
Many of our neighbours didn’t have ready cash. So to get out in a hurry, many of them were forced to dump their good furniture, grab their clothes and a few mementos and stuff them in a car to leave. For weeks before we moved, I was faced with the dismal sight of a new batch of furniture dumped overnight, as I trudged each morning to my car. How depressing to see good mahogany bedroom sets, upholstered settees, wall units and more. I thought of the money lost here and the memories of better times. Ironically, each day when the furniture was removed, the underground garage area was the cleanest I’d seen it in months.

Furthermore, after we left, we saw on TV that our former homes were being blown apart by Police using them for terrorism practice. It just seemed like one more insult.

We were told to be out by February 2016 so they could start building in June. Well they have torn it down now, but I don’t think they’ll start building in winter now. Why such a big rush, and why not tell the tenants earlier, so they could have more time during the summer when more units are on the market? By waiting until September, tenants were forced to look when there was least choice. Also, many people had children already registered for school and were reluctant to uproot them. So these people were most likely to take Timbercreek’s offer to stay in Herongate, with no transfer fees, and no need for a new first/last months deposit in a new unit in Herongate. So simple, and yet so costly. For those who had to dump their furniture because they didn’t have money up front, they now had to buy new or used stuff or do without. And moving into another townhouse unit elsewhere in Herongate would not mean the same rent. No, with a new lease, you could count on at least another $100.00 per month. In addition, you would also have to pay for heat because those units have their own furnaces, so add on another $100.00. So Timbercreek was able to keep some of their former tenants and profit from the evictions.

The only group not profiting and being treated badly all round by business and government were the innocent tenants. They were the last to know, the most disadvantaged, and the ones forced to give up personal furnishings. Furthermore, after we left, we saw on TV that our former homes were being blown apart by Police using them for terrorism practice. It just seemed like one more insult. Many were pushed out of the neighbourhood, and some like me left because I wanted nothing to do with Timbercreek, who had lied so often to me and other tenants.

Since then, Herongate has been levelled and we hear the new units will not be like their surroundings. They are luxury units, geared for downsizing adults or young professional families with one child. As one Timbercreek manager said, the new development was supposed to seed the further development of Herongate. By that, I take it he means the rest of the older family size townhomes are going to be replaced with more luxury apartments as well. We will lose more large, low-cost housing for families and more people will be using food banks because of paying higher rents from new developments.

Herongate was a painful object lesson to me, a real life demonstration of the faulty, and very unequal, relationship between landlords and tenants in Ottawa.

More low income families could be pushed out of the neighbourhood. What happened in Herongate can happen to any older development in Ottawa. Low income people are vulnerable across Ottawa.

Herongate was a painful object lesson to me, a real life demonstration of the faulty, and very unequal, relationship between landlords and tenants in Ottawa. In law, owners are king, regardless of whether or not tenants are hurt by landlords’ actions. The right to protect their business was considered more important than the right of tenants to know the fate of their own homes. Furthermore, their own municipal councillors are forced by law to protect business privacy over the welfare of their own low income constituents. Isn’t this really a perversion of democracy, where some groups get special privileges? Or put another way, isn’t this discrimination against non property owners, usually lower income people?

This is the real and most important reason for landlord licensing. It would treat landlords and tenants as equals participating in a contract. For too long, the landlord has had all the advantages and power to evict in law. The tenant currently cannot withhold rent payment for lack of services and there are practically no penalties for bad landlords. Even the repairs are subject to the landlord’s arbitrary standards, and his timeframe.

Beyond developing a true, respectful, and equal partnership in business, landlord licensing will set some standards to be enforced by the city, along with regular inspections, thereby freeing the hapless tenant from chasing after landlords for repairs. Having the city able to bill those laggard landlords will also help speed up repairs and punish the bad landlords. Having regular schedules for maintenance and cleaning will also lead to longer life of buildings and much happier tenants with cleaner premises.

As part of respecting tenants, landlords should be forced to give tenants the best conditions for moving in the case of evictions due to demolition. They should have at least 6 months to move, and the notice period should have to include all those months from April through to September. No winter evictions ever.

Finally, all payments to tenants, whether it be the mandatory 3 months rent, or moving fees or other money owed to the tenants, should be payed immediately upon signing the eviction notice due to demolition, regardless of when in the six month period following, they plan to move out. Again, the tenants must be given the fullest consideration of making good housing choices, utilizing their payments for their benefit, not the landlord’s benefit.

It has been several months since ACORN members staged a mock funeral for Herongate and I found it hard to be there, staring at buildings half torn down. I last went with my son, when it was completely levelled, and he took a brick, a reminder of his first and until now, only home. It is my earnest hope, that what happened in Herongate doesn’t occur again to another group of low income tenants. We need to fight for better laws respecting renters, and better enforcement of those laws. ACORN has provided a good template in the Healthy Homes Platform and I will continue to promote, demonstrate and support its ideas, aiming for the time when it becomes law.