Ottawa city council approved a major makeover and rebuilding of the low-income Heron Gate neighbourhood in a 18-to-6 vote Wednesday after a somewhat heated debate over the thousand affordable housing units promised by its private developer.
City staff and Mayor Jim Watson praised a "landmark" memorandum of understanding to be signed with Hazelview Investments, owner of the 21-hectare property. Coun. Glen Gower credited "outrage" after two mass evictions at Heron Gate for bringing about the first-ever social contract between the city and a developer.
The deal has been tweaked twice since it was made public in mid-August.
At planning committee, Hazelview promised to make 510 new units affordable for 15 years instead of 10. Then at council, after much concern over what might happen to residents at the 15-year mark, it was agreed Hazelview wouldn't suddenly hike their rents.
The agreement states another 510 units in existing buildings will remain affordable for 20 years, which would mean 16 per cent of Heron Gate's future total of 6,427 units would be deemed affordable.
Some council members questioned why the capped rents needed an expiry date but Lee Ann Snedden, the city's director of planning services, said it was "unrealistic" to expect a private developer to provide affordable housing "in perpetuity."
Hazelview also said it could not afford to do so.
Snedden also said the voluntary social contract would give the city the most affordable units it has ever negotiated in exchange for allowing Hazelview to build 1,439 more units than currently allowed on the site.
"This is a landmark, this is a home run with respect to affordable housing and the number of units that we're providing," she told councillors Wednesday.
3 motions pass, 3 fail
Some council members bristled at affordability concerns for a property investor with offices in Hong Kong, New York, Hamburg, Germany, and Toronto.
Councillors Shawn Menard and Catherine McKenney were concerned about the definition of affordable for low-income families at Heron Gate, and whether large families might have to move from townhouses into apartments.
They tabled three motions aimed at addressing the remaining worries of the community and advocacy group ACORN, which had rallied outside city hall before the meeting.
They all failed after the mayor encouraged they be voted down.
The city's head of planning, Steve Willis, told councillors about staff's fears that prolonging talks with Hazelview could lead to an appeal at a provincial tribunal, and the city would "risk losing it all."
Most of council agreed they wanted Heron Gate residents to see the benefits provided by the contract.
Council did approve three other motions, which will ensure the city will:
Document this social contract so that it might be repeated.
Make sure Heron Gate tenants previously evicted know they can apply to move back.
Draw up another agreement about social enterprise.
Watson said it was time to get "shovels in the ground" and build affordable units and he admonished those who "purport to be advocates for housing" and told them to "put down the iPhones and stop tweeting attacks" because it wasn't the way to get housing built among levels of government.
Municipalities lack tools to get private developers to provide affordable housing, the mayor added.
As it is, the city will soon no longer be allowed to leverage extra affordable units under Ontario's Planning Act, said Willis, making such social contracts more important for future projects.
The city will soon produce a policy on inclusionary zoning to require affordable housing in developments, but the province is limiting that tool to areas around transit stations, he added.