Issue 4 – Notebook

Neal Rockwell is an artist, journalist and media activist based in Montreal. He is collaborating with the Herongate Tenant Coalition to create multimedia documentation of the lives and living conditions of Herongate residents. He is also working on a skillshare with tenants to help develop media and documentary skills.

Notebook is his ongoing feature, which includes a mixture of written observations and interviews, photographs and short video clips.

The last time I visited Herongate it was raining. It was a day of intermittent precipitation, relatively cool before the stifling heat wave of a week later. A tenants’ meeting was scheduled for the afternoon. Before the meeting we went to Mohamed Yussuf’s house to meet up with his daughter, Ikram Dahir. She was still out when we arrived so we waited with Yussuf’s wife. As I mentioned in a previous article, they had had a problem with their bathroom since September 2017. The roof leaks, and water had caused damage to the ceiling and allowed mould to proliferate. Despite numerous calls, Timbercreek management was unresponsive for nearly nine months. Yussuf’s wife explained that recently someone had come to patch the hole and roll on some paint. We went up to look and indeed, the ceiling was now smooth and white. Now only faint grey lines, like soft shadows, indicated where previously tendrils of mould had streaked the wall. This had happened shortly after a video of Dahir had gone somewhat viral, racking up 4000 views, where she excoriated Timbercreek management. However, despite patching the bathroom, they had not bothered to do anything about the leaking roof, which had caused the problem in the first place.

This is a fairly common approach used by many large companies, governments and other powerful operators who wish to neutralize contemporary movements who have been empowered by social media and other modern digital tools available to activists.

Ikram came by and we made our way to the community centre for the meeting. The proceedings were generally subdued. One young woman had some questions. She talked about the $1500 supplement Timbercreek has promised to pay residents if they agree to move out. She asked if maybe it was better to take the $1500 to put towards a down payment on purchasing a home. Someone suggested that $1500 would barely cover moving costs. I was curious where this idea would have come from. The average house price in Ottawa as of June 2018 is $454,401, and a standard down payment is 20% meaning around $90,000. The minimum down payment, stipulated by federal law is 5%, which requires and additional purchase of default insurance. For an average home, this would still come to more than $22,000, and all this is predicated on one being eligible for a mortgage in the first place, for which one needs a reasonably high paying job, collateral, etc… I asked around and it turned out this was something Paul Boutros, the property manager, had been telling people. Others explained to me that Boutros had been targeting people with language barriers, more recent arrivals and so forth – people less likely to be familiar with their rights – and telling them that if they didn’t agree to move out their locks would be changed, and their belongings tossed out by the sheriff in September. One person was even in tears over this treatment at a tenants’ meeting the week before.

This is part of a general strategy being carried out by Timbercreek, involving pressure tactics and misinformation. Actually this is a fairly common approach used by many large companies, governments and other powerful operators who wish to neutralize contemporary movements who have been empowered by social media and other modern digital tools available to activists. As media and technology critic Zeynep Tufekci writes in her recent book Twitter and Teargas:

“newer methods [for controlling movements] include demonizing online media and mobilizing armies of supporters or paid employees who muddy the … waters with misinformation, information overload, doubt, confusion, harassment, and distraction … Whereas a social movement has to persuade people to act, a government or a powerful group defending the status quo only has to create enough confusion to paralyze people.”

Apart from the actions that residents have reported about Boutros, Timbercreek has been sending out a number of vaguely written letters meant to cast doubt on the Herongate Tenant Coalition itself, including one, which ironically was sent to members of the coalition themselves, warning them “we know you don’t know who to believe,” and carrying on with “and really, we know the debate between Timbercreek Communities and the Herongate Tenant Coalition is not what is important. What matters is that you have a home.” In another Kafkaesque passage they suggest “The Herongate Tenant Coalition is circulating misinformation about your rights and lies about Timbercreek staff – rumours that are not true.” They never give specifics however, preferring to speak in insinuations.

This is part of their new tactic. They are trying to create stress in residents that if they do not act now, they may be left without a home. In another passage from the same letter, which was dated June 28th, they write: “There are more rental homes available in summer. So, the earlier you move, the more choice you will have. June 30th is the time when there are the most rental homes available on the market.” In another letter titled “Relocation Drop-In Sessions!” they similarly write: “Most 3 and 4 bedroom rental units come available in the summer. That’s because most of them house families with kids in school, so they want to move outside of the school year – from July 1 to September 1. Now is the time to find your new home! If you wait, even until next month, you might find nothing available to rent.”

I don’t pretend to understand what a building’s “lifecycle” is or should be, but 50 years, which is the approximate age of all the Herongate buildings, does not seem particularly old to me.

The difficulty of finding 3 and 4 bedroom apartments, which are necessary for the reasonably large families of many Herongate tenants, has been a primary concern for residents and this has clearly not been lost on Timbercreek. In another recent example, Dahir told me that one of the CBC journalists assigned to cover Herongate, Idil Mussa, called her because someone at Timbercreek told Mussa that Dahir was not a resident of the property, and that her parents had not been evicted previously in the 2016 demolition, both of which are very easily verifiable facts.

At another point in the meeting, Tracey Heal, who has lived in Herongate for four years, raised the question of how Timbercreek had determined that the homes slated for demolition were unliveable and needed to be demolished, since to her knowledge no one has ever inspected them. In an interview I conducted with her after the meeting, she stated: “in the 4 years that I’ve lived there, not once have they come by to have an inspection done… I’m not sure how they can claim that [the homes] are not liveable if they’ve never seen what they look like.”

I posed the same question to another resident, Abdullahi Ali, and he said the same thing, that to his knowledge no one had ever come by to inspect the homes. I returned to an informational notice that Timbercreek passed out to residents dated May 7, 2018, which outlines their plan for demolition, and a close reading revealed that in fact they never specifically state that the homes are structurally unsound, preferring the much vaguer term “unviable.” They state:

“The homes between the borders of Heron Road, Baycrest Drive and Sandalwood Drive are reaching the end of their building lifecycle. Currently 25% of these homes are no longer viable and because these homes are inter-connected to each other the long-term viability of the low-rise wood structure homes in this area is compromised. It has reached the point that the townhomes in this area will need to be demolished at the end of 2018.”

I don’t pretend to understand what a building’s “lifecycle” is or should be, but 50 years, which is the approximate age of all the Herongate buildings, does not seem particularly old to me. On top of this, the term viable seems very imprecise. It could mean not-profitable, or it could mean any number of other things. If the problem with the buildings is that they are not structurally sound, why not just say that directly, as it seems like it would present a much stronger case?

After the meeting we crossed the street from the community centre back into Herongate to meet up with two residents, Abdullahi Ali and Mohamed Iman. Both of them spoke about how devastated they are to see their community destroyed. Iman mentioned how valuable it is to live beside the Somali Centre for Family Services, especially their help with translation and help understanding forms and documents, which they will lose if forced to move.

Ali has lived in Herongate for more than 20 years and was among the tenants displaced before in the 2016 demolition. Both also spoke to me about tenant harassment by building manager Paul Boutros. Ali stated “Paul, I know the guy, he’s the property manager of this area. They are targeting certain groups, certain people, who don’t know the language, who don’t know their rights and don’t know the law. Just they are targeting those people, coming to their homes, knocking on their doors, saying, ‘if you don’t move September 30, we’re going to change the lock’ … Paul and other employees of Timbercreek, they’re coming to certain people, certain units and they’re telling them, ‘if on September 30th you don’t move from here, we’re going to change the lock and you’ll be out, you’ll have no place to go’… They feel intimidated and they don’t know what to do.” He hopes that tenants will continue to organize and stay united to preserve their homes and community from Timbercreek.

All photos, video and text by Neal Rockwell.