Friday Jun 02

Spring 2023

The People Speak from the Grassroots

How the Sausage is Made:  ACORN Ottawa Members Discuss Their Fight Against Bill 23 and “Demo-victions”

This discussion features Ashley Reyns, Head Organizer of ACORN Ottawa, in conversation with two ACORN Ottawa leaders: Bader Abu-Zahra, member chair of the Vanier chapter of ACORN Ottawa, and Eddy Roué, chair of the Central Ottawa branch of ACORN Ottawa.

Ashley: How long have you been a member Bader?

Bader: I have been a member of ACORN for nine years. Someone came to my house and knocked on the door and asked if I wanted to be a volunteer. At that time, I didn't know anything about ACORN. However, my daughter was in the background sitting there, and when she heard the name ACORN she jumped and said join them, join them, join them! And soon enough I joined them, I never regretted it and I love it.

Ashley: That's amazing. Eddy?

Eddy: I've been with ACORN for two, or three years now. Similar to Bader, I kind of heard of ACORN before because I've been involved in various causes in Ottawa down through the years. Then 2 or 3 years ago, someone finally came and knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to sign up and I was like, you know what? Yeah! I’ll do that.

Ashley: Yeah, you were just waiting for us to come by your door.
Eddy: Something like that.

Ashley: Exactly. Awesome. So today we're actually… on the way from Brockville back to Ottawa. Bader and Eddy, do you want to explain what we were doing in Brockville?

Bader: We left Ottawa in the morning around nine or ten o'clock, and we went to the office of Steve Clark, who is the Minister of Housing. We went there to demonstrate and give him a report about the housing and the evictions happening in Ontario. Eviction is something where the developer comes by the low-income homes, destroys them and replaces them with luxury condominiums, with no replacement for the people who lived in those low-income homes. We had this happen in one of the areas in Ottawa, which is called the Herongate; where 110 families had to leave their homes which were replaced with condominiums. And for the same thing, there's a Bill 23 introduced by Doug Ford [Ontario’s premier] which promotes evictions, and we went to the Minister of Housing, Steve Clark, to demonstrate and tell him to dump that bill.

Unfortunately, nobody was in the office. And later on, somebody came from the office and she promised us that she will call the minister. And so they will call us or meet with us. And of course, we don't believe that because many, many times we send emails to them, we call them, and they never respond to us.

I guess I’ll let Eddy, who was with me also from Ottawa, tell you what also happened and what we did after that. Go ahead, Eddy!

Eddy: Yeah, while we were there, we also took the opportunity to put up some flyers about Bill 23 in downtown Brockville. And it was quite interesting because while we were there, we actually got a chance to speak to a couple of locals who just sort of ran into us as we were postering. And both of them were not terribly impressed with Bill 23 and what Minister Clark is doing. Which really just goes to show he may have been elected here, but when people actually hear about what he's doing as Minister, it's not good. They don't like to see what he's doing to tenants in Ontario.

Ashley: I think the best quote of the day was one Brockville tenant who said “we should send Steve Clark to the moon.” That was definitely the best.

Eddy: Oh yeah, for sure.

Ashley: Eddy, could you give us some more context about Bill 23, which, as Bader said, is the conservative government’s new bill, the More Homes Built Faster Act, which was introduced the day after the province of Ontario finished municipal elections. Eddy, why does ACORN oppose this bill? Why is it so bad?

Eddy: So, Bill 23 comes along in a context wheen no one can really deny that there's a housing crisis in Ontario. In classic Ontario PC [Conservative Party] fashion, they've used this opportunity and this atmosphere of crisis to say: “Okay, well we're gonna take care of that, so we're gonna ram through this legislation.”  What they say is that it's to allow them to, you know, build the 1.5 million homes before 2030 or something like that. But I mean, if you actually look at what is in the bill, it's basically just taking a sledgehammer to all kinds of really important parts of housing policy. Whether that's basically making it impossible to have inclusionary zoning: that means that when a developer wants to build new housing, inclusionary zoning would say, “okay, let's say 25% of the units have to be affordable.” It’s made so that, at maximum, municipalities can only require up to 5%.

And also, if I'm not mistaken, the definition of affordable housing that the bill uses for that regulation is based on market rent. So, with housing prices, what they are, even that 5% isn't really gonna be all that affordable. But most particularly, what we were here for today is the question of demo-evictions and reno-evictions which is one of those things that's very interesting because we’ve been pushing back on this bill for a while. When Clark and the ministry will sort of say “oh, well, you know, the bill doesn't take away any, you know, protections that tenants already enjoy in the law.” But the problem is, that as it stands the law allows sort of a loophole whereby, as Bader said, landlords can basically use demolition or renovations as a pretext to evict tenants and then jack up the rent since we don't have vacancy control in Ontario.

So anyway, basically they are taking the ability to pass bylaws to prevent and regulate demo-eviction and reno-eviction. They're taking that power away from the municipalities. In fact, under the bill it gives the minister the power to establish regulations around what are called rental replacement bylaws. Which would make it so that if you're going to reno-evict or demo-evict a tenant you have to ensure that they have access to a replacement unit at the same rent. Basically, this bill sort of gives Steven Clark unilateral power to decide whether tenants are gonna enjoy those protections in Ontario or not. So that's a big part of why we were at his constituency office to express our concerns.

Ashley: Definitely. And today wasn't even the first time that Ottawa ACORN made the trip to Brockville, which is about an hour and a half outside of the city, to his constituency office. We were actually here about a month ago now, where we rented a bus full of ACORN members. Bader, do you wanna talk about what happened the last time we came to Brockville?

Bader: Of course, they vacated the office and left. But one thing, they made a mistake by closing everything with the exception that they locked the door, but they forgot to lock the access through the handicapped button, the wheelchair button. So when we arrived there, we knocked on the door, we called them, but nobody answered. So sure enough, I just went and pushed the wheelchair button and sure enough, open sesame! The door opened.

So all of us went inside, and we demonstrated there. We took all the signs and put them everywhere and demanded they scrap Bill 23. Sure enough, about half an hour later, the police came. They thought that we broke into the office, but we told them no. We just went legally with a legal entry through these things. Of course, the police laughed and left. Then after that, the media came, took pictures, and made a report. It was a really successful event for us. Although we didn't meet anybody, we were in the press.

So, this time, we went in and did the same thing. Of course, they learned from their mistake from last time and they locked that wheelchair access. We couldn't get in. However, we left the posters and the media came and made a report about that. And then from there, Eddy told you what we did after that by going to the downtown of Brockville where we put posters and flyers. We taped them on all the posts, which was really cold. We're talking about seven degrees minus. So, we froze and we came home now.

Ashley: Yeah, for those who don't know Canada, it gets pretty cold in the winter. Ottawa in particular. So, hats off to Eddy and Bader, who are super troopers, putting up posters on poles with no gloves. That was amazing.

Ashley: We've also been out to MPP Lisa McCloud's office, who is a local conservative MPP. We did a big 150-person rally with some environmental allies in Ottawa as well too. But what made today different is that Ontario ACORN was successful in launching a new report on the effectiveness and the need for rental replacement bylaws to protect affordable housing and stop mass tenant displacement. So, Eddy, I know you've read the report. What would you say would be some key findings or highlights from it?

Eddy: Well, one thing to keep in mind is that these rental replacement bylaws are not a theoretical thing. They already exist in Toronto and Mississauga, and we actually know that, since there's been a rental replacement bylaw in place in Toronto, they've managed to save 4,000 to 5,000 purpose-built rental units. In dollar terms, that's 1 billion to 2 billion dollars in affordable housing that has been saved by these bylaws.

We also know that in just five cities; Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, London, and Mississauga; which are some of the biggest cities in the province - altogether there are over 200 thousand units that belonged to this stock of purpose-built rentals that were mostly constructed in the sixties, seventies and eighties, which are really the heart of our province’s stock of affordable housing, and which the Ontario PCs rhetoric has been that “it’s all aging housing and needs to be replaced” and everything. But I mean, these are some of the only places that people can afford to live in Ontario.

I actually live in a building that is from that era. And honestly, the fact is it has become what's called “naturally occurring affordable housing.” It's one of the only reasons why working in a relatively modest job that I do, I'm able to afford to live in downtown Ottawa which is otherwise very, very expensive.

We know in Ottawa the council has been moving towards establishing a rental replacement bylaw, but does not yet have that on the books. We know that just looking at the development applications that you can see, because they are publicly available on the website on the developer's portal. Basically, if you were to take all of the applications that are in right now, that would involve some kind of demolition or something, there are over 5,000 units in our city alone that could be demolished if they are approved and if we don't have rental replacement bylaws to protect their tenants.

Ashley: Yeah, it's happening all across the city of Ottawa. It's happening all across the province. And the only reason why Ottawa City Council this past June actually started investigating a rental replacement bylaw is because of the many, many years of organizing by ACORN members. You know, ACORN members have been fighting for a rental replacement bylaw in Ottawa since 2015 when the first round of mass evictions in Herongate that Bader was talking about first happened and the tenant organizing that ACORN did in Herongate, it became so big it was international news at one point. Here you have this multinational corporation mass evicting and it was 180 units.

They were a lot of Somali and Arabic families who are larger families, about eight to nine per unit. So, we're talking about a lot of people, right? But it's not just Herongate where this is happening. We've also seen other cases like Manor Village in Ottawa, as well as 142 Napean. I don't know, Bader or Eddy, if you wanna talk about what's been happening to ACORN members in those two neighborhoods?

Eddy: Well, 142 Nepean, I mean, that's my neighborhood. Again, as I said, it's right downtown. When Minister Clark and Doug Ford say “we gotta build more housing… that's how we're gonna solve the housing and affordability prices.” Well, there's been a lot of new condos built downtown, but ordinary people can't afford to live in them.

It is housing like the modest school building at 142 Nepean, that people can actually afford to live in. That has happened so often with these demo evictions. Basically, the owners, the developers that own the building, over time, deliberately let the conditions degrade. Like repairs were neglected and everything until finally, they're forcing out the tenants. This is also something that kind of gives the lie to a lot of the PC rhetoric about this, because it is this situation where demo-eviction is happening. This affordable housing is being demolished. Not directly to be replaced with new housing, even if it was a condo, they're literally just going to demolish it so that they can build a parking lot for the office building that it's situated right next to.

So yeah, it is just the sheer greed of some of these developers; just kicking people out so that they can have the convenience of having a parking lot right next to their office building or whatever.

Bader: Manor Village is a very quiet, nice, good, old community, and what is happening there is the LRT, which is the light rail system, was supposed to go through Ottawa somehow. And then they were suggesting a couple of routes for the new line and one of them was picked to be a good route.

However, because the city picked the route which goes through Manor Village. And the reason why they picked it up is that the people have no price, they're low-income and they cannot defend themselves. They cannot get expensive lawyers to defend them and so on.

So that's why they're putting the route through them, through their village or through this community. And of course, it is those low-income people who are going to lose their homes. Ottawa ACORN is defending them and had a lot of meetings with them, and had some of our members living in that community.

We are fighting very hard now to try to persuade the city to not build the railway, the LRT, through that community and destroy it.

Ashley: And in both of these cases it’s mind-blowing that the city could ever consider doing either of those things, right? Both of these demo-evictions had to go to the city council, right?

The city had to give a demolition permit, a rezoning permit for 142 Nepean for it to be a parking lot. And with Manor Village it was the city, not a greedy developer, trying to put stage three LRT through 120 families’ homes. But in both of these cases, ACORN members fought back. We did rallies, we did town halls, we did reports. We did a ton of door knocking and phone calls and deputations to council. While not total victories, we did win a lot of concessions for both groups of tenants, and ACORN members who live there.

Eddy: I know, for instance, that in the case of 142 Nepean, as Ashley sort of alluded to, unfortunately in the end the city council did ultimately side with the developers and grant by a pretty narrow vote.

Ashley: Oh, man. So Ottawa City Council is absolutely horrible! But, we lost 13 to 11. Yeah. Which is one of the closest votes that the Ottawa City Council would ever have.

Eddy: So, in spite of that, because ACORN had put so much pressure on the developer, we were able to secure some concessions so that even though they lost that housing.

Ashley: We were able to win them replacement units one to two blocks away. So they'd be another building owned by the same developer at the same rent for five years. And each of the tenants will also get $15,000 as well too. So it’s not what ACORN members, who had formed tenant unions in the building, wanted. But, it's certainly gonna buy them a lot of time before they have to find new housing.

Eddy: That just goes to show, as [Fredrick] Douglass said, “power yields nothing without a demand.” If it wasn't for us, I’m sure the developers would've been happy to just displace these folks without having to give a second thought to where they would've ended up, or how it would've affected them financially.

Ashley: Exactly. And then in Manor Village, it's very interesting there. We ran this really, really strong campaign. The tenants had reached out. We formed a tenant union in September 2020, but it was going for a vote at City Council in November 2020. So not a lot of time. But in that time, we did a lot. Amassed a lot of power and public pressure and citywide there was a lot of public support for this as well too.

Council did ultimately vote to put stage three LRT through the neighborhood, but do ACORN members give up?

Bader: No!

Eddy: Heck no!

Ashley: No, right! And so Manor Village ACORN members were persistent as hell for the next two years. And earlier this year in May, city staff came up with a new report saying that they're actually going to recommend a different route for stage three LRT that wouldn't go through the neighborhood.

That was massive! That was really big, and Ottawa ACORN members, you know, Eddy and Bader, I'm sure you would agree, we're gonna keep fighting. Site after site, housing building after building, these dumb evictions and eviction threats by developers. But it's a systemic issue across the city, which is why we need these rental replacement bylaws.

Bader: On the bright side, we learned a lot from these campaigns. And now we are talking to developers in an area, it's called Manor Park, where the developer is going to build about 2300 units, new units. And of course, with doing that, he has to demolish some of the low-income homes. So we are talking with the developer at the moment to create what they call a community-benefit agreement.

We have one of the council members on our side and he sits in on those meetings, negotiating this agreement and hopefully it will be the first agreement done between the community and the developer in Ontario. And so the developer is listening to us, he's agreeing to a lot of our demands, such as giving replacements for those low-income homes in the same development. Or, somewhere else because he owned other areas and also he agreed on the inclusion zoning and so on.

However, we are trying to put everything in writing and that's what we are doing now, we have been for the last, maybe, six months. And we are making very good progress in doing that. So we hope once we have this agreement, then we know that those low-income people and the members of ACORN finally have some rights to defend themselves when the developer is trying to replace them with expensive condominiums.

Ashley: That's a very good example Bader. And the developer only reached out to us, he said, specifically because of what had happened in Herongate and the work that ACORN had done there and how they didn't want Manor Park to be another Herongate. So it shows you the amount of power that ACORN members have built in the city.

So bringing us back to our final thoughts on Bill 23 - Eddy, any final thoughts on what you would like folks to know about the bill, ACORN’s fight moving forward, and how we're gonna save the replacement bylaws?

Eddy: Well, listen as far as the bill goes, the unfortunate thing is that as much time as we've had to talk about it, it is such a massive bill.

It's so typical of what's been called the sort of “neoliberal parliamentarianism” of the PCs. So just jam all this stuff into one bill. And if we had time, there's also the implications for conservation authorities for the fact that they're just asking all these fees that developers would normally have to pay to ensure that new developments, seeing services and infrastructure that they required are paid for by developers and not by taxpayers.

There's so much more that could be said about it. But, I think there is one very important key that unlocks and makes it easier to understand why the PCs are doing this.

And that is who some of their biggest donors are. This is a crucial part of the report that ACORN is releasing, because if you go and you look at the elections Ontario web portal, we looked at particularly the years between 2014 and 2016. Among the largest donors to the Ontario PC party were the Ontario Home Builders, who donated just over $54,000. And this is a group that is quite literally the developer's lobby who have been doing a full court press for this bill because it is obviously gonna benefit their members. You also got the Minto Group, which is a local Ottawa developer. They donated $41,000. You got the Asper family who donated $35,000, and they're actually the ones who basically have bought some of the land in the Toronto area Green Belt that is basically gonna be open to development by this bill.

So you just look at all of these people who have this donor relationship with the Ontario PC Party and it's not surprising that the only people who are unambiguously gonna benefit from this bill are the developers who are going to be able to make a killing at the expense of tenants, of the environment, and of really just in general the public good in Ontario.

Bader: Actually, through our campaign, ACORN has become so famous now that even other organizations are reaching out to us to join them. Also, in the fight for Bill 23, there is another organization called Horizon which is reaching out to us to join them when they go for a campaign. So our voice is becoming loud and people are listening to us. Even we have councils contacting us and they are listening to us also. So we like to see that our campaigns and our fight carry on. And hopefully, we succeed in the end.

Ashley: We should mention that we've spoken a lot about Ottawa because that's the city that we are from. We've spoken about Brockville, because that's the city that we just came from. But today we have Ontario ACORN offices in Toronto, Hamilton, Mississauga, London and Brampton that also went to conservative MPP offices for recently demovicted buildings and their local cities to launch this report. They are doing amazing work. Our national head organizer, Judy Duncan, texted me a photo of Doug Ford, who is our conservative premier, actually going to his constituency office where ACORN members were, being greeted by a big group of ACORN members. I can't wait to hear more about how that went and how Doug Ford is trying to defend himself against this bill.

So we're gonna keep up the pressure.

This is an edited transcript of an interview that ran on ACORN radio, where the full podcast can be heard as part of the regular Leaders Speak programming.