The City of Ottawa's planning committee — presented with another tower project that would see low-rent apartments demolished — struck a deal to have the developer offer financial help to existing tenants when they are forced out of their homes.
Five aging lowrise brick apartment buildings have long sat at the curve of Rideau Street near the Rideau River in Lowertown, and now owner Théberge Homes wants to build a 25-storey tower in its place.
Planning committee voted to approve that request at its meeting on Thursday, but with a caveat.
That's because, in recent weeks, community advocates such as ACORN member Darin Loewy argued the development would be yet another "demoviction."
Loewy, who lived in a one-bedroom apartment at the site for 18 years with a rent of $800 per month, described water damage on his walls, pests, and a stove that didn't work. He worries his old neighbours who live on a low income won't find anything affordable.
Loewy said approving the highrise would be a "vote to increase homelessness and poverty" and would go against the city's new official plan — currently awaiting provincial approval — that aims to preserve existing rental stock.
Owner agrees to pay tenants' costs
Along with approving the highrise plan, the planning committee approved a motion led by area councillor Mathieu Fleury to have Théberge Homes owner Joey Théberge sign an agreement to pay for the existing tenants' moving costs, as well as bridge any increased rents for a year by paying the difference.
Théberge explained to CBC News he has owned the buildings for 15 to 20 years and knows some tenants personally from days when he would collect coins from laundry machines. So, although the city could not force him to enter such an agreement, he was willing to do so.
"You like to be able to offer them something," he said, adding such agreements should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. "If you've been there five, six years, it's your home, I think it's on a developer to try to work with them."
Although committee approved Fleury's motion, further negotiations could take place before the file hits city council on Feb. 9.
Coun. Shawn Menard argued the agreement could offset rents longer than a year for long-time tenants, and they should be able to move back into the building at the same rent. Théberge noted Menard might be looking for too much.
Heron Gate's example
Planning committee co-chair Coun. Scott Moffatt explained the new agreement on Rideau Street flows from the years of negotiations at the controversial Heron Gate project in the south end. In that case, the City of Ottawa attached a "social contract" to the major development's approval.
Moffatt said he hoped, as more developers see the model, the City of Ottawa can reach more such arrangements to alleviate some social implications around new developments.
His counterpart, Coun. Glen Gower, pointed out the planning committee has begun to discuss more concerns about affordable housing and protecting tenants — far beyond the typical technical points such as building heights.
"The challenge is ... we're flying blind here as a committee," said Gower. Councillors have no framework to follow, although a bylaw to require affordable housing near transit stations is coming soon, he said.
"We need to add more housing, apartments and homes, but there's also a human impact to that, and this is an area where all of us are trying to find the right balance and we're not there yet," said Gower.