Residents of Ottawa's Heron Gate neighbourhood are hoping a legally binding agreement will hold Timbercreek to its community-minded pledges as it redevelops the site.
The company presented a "social contract" to the community in February. Of the five promises in that contract, the neighbourhood cares most that Timbercreek lives up to its pledge not to evict any more tenants until they can move into equivalent units at the same rent.
The community has experienced multiple evictions in the past, including one last year that saw more than 500 people forced from their homes.
"Words are words. Are you going to back them up?" said Mavis Finnamore, who lived in Heron Gate for decades until her townhome was demolished a few years ago.
There has always been an issue of trust. - Mavis Finnamore, Heron Gate advocate
To cement those promises, community groups have been pushing for a legal contract known as a "community benefits agreement."
Now, both Timbercreek and the local councillor and company are on board, and community organizations are pushing to also be signatories.
A first for Ottawa
Community benefits agreements ensure that commitments about affordable housing, job opportunities, recreation and daycare spaces are agreed to before the development goes ahead.
They've have been signed in the United States and some Canadian cities, but a contract at Heron Gate would be a first for Ottawa.
"It's an important tool that communities have not had in the past," said George Brown, a lawyer who is working with ACORN, the Alta Vista Community Association, the Ottawa and District Labour Council and the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre.
Brown explained that in many developments, gentrification leads to higher rents, causing residents to be pushed out.
He said community members are already suggesting the National Capital Commission create a similar agreement at LeBreton Flats to ensure that development offers a range of housing.
Mix of housing, improved green space
The first test, however, would be negotiating the agreement for Heron Gate.
Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier and Timbercreek have already set out five promises to the community that shape how the site should be developed over the next decades:
- No homes would be demolished until tenants can find newly built units at the same rent.
- Of the new units built at Heron Gate, 20 per cent would be affordable units. Timbercreek would use the City of Ottawa's definition for an affordable rental, set at 30 per cent of income or roughly $1,400 to $1,500 for a family earning $57,000 per year.
- There would be a mix of housing, including three-bedroom and four-bedroom units, as well as accessible units on ground floors.
- There would be training and job opportunities, along with a meeting space for community and youth organizations.
- Sandalwood Park and other green spaces would be improved.
Timbercreek says it has no problem signing a legally binding version of that agreement.
"We would not make this commitment unless we are fully comfortable standing behind it," said Paul Popovici, Timbercreek's vice-president of real estate investment management.
Popovici said the agreement would form part of a secondary plan for Heron Gate, which should go to the city's planning committee in early 2020.
Finnamore and other members of the group ACORN insist they need to be part of the process, however, to both set up the contract and hold the city and Timbercreek accountable.
"There has always been an issue of trust, and I think that's the main reason why community groups want to have their name on the community benefit agreement," she said.
Cloutier said while the community should give input at future meetings, the City of Ottawa and Timbercreek should be the two parties to the contract because it will be an official city planning document.
It should also be one designed for the long term, Cloutier added.
"It has to follow, it has to be with the property, no matter who the owners are in 20 to 25 years," said Cloutier.