ACORN gives a voice to low-income Ottawa residents facing renoviction
by Reuel S. Amdur
What is municipal politics all about? It is about who makes how much off of what piece of property, according to one acerbic observer. In Ottawa, one organization works hard to keep that from being the case, ACORN—Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
ACORN is an organization of low- and moderate-income people who mobilize around specific issues affecting their lives. It started in the United States in 1970 and folded in that country in 2010. It still carries on in Canada and several other countries. It came to Canada in 2004 and to Ottawa two years later. Much of ACORN’s activity at this time involves efforts to prevent renovictions. These are evictions to allow landlords to renovate properties. The new rents are ordinarily more than many of the tenants could afford.
Currently, ACORN is fighting the efforts of Smart Living Properties and their partner Forum Equity Partners to clear all tenants from Manor Village. There are two factors at work in this battle, the owners’ desire to turn the property into more expensive renovated units and smaller student units on the one hand and the city’s tentative plan to clear the area for the LRT extension to Barrhaven on the other. City staff are looking at an alternative route for the LRT, possibly an elevated portion along part of Woodroffe. City Council is yet to decide on that matter.
The owners’ plan to evict the residents remains and ACORN is holding demonstrations by tenants and lobbying the city to save their homes, as it is extremely difficult for people on a limited income to find other housing in Ottawa that they can afford.
It has also engaged in struggles to save rental property at Herongate from various measures being attempted by the owner Timbercreek, now renamed Hazelview, which has drawn ACORN’s wrath because of rent increases, lack of property upkeep, demolitions, and evictions, with plans for redevelopment.
Hazelview signed a memorandum of understanding with Ottawa in 2021 to provide close to 1,300 homes at affordable rents out of a total of 6,427 units to be built, with the rents remaining affordable for 10 to 20 years. But what is “affordable?” The rent of $1200 a month for a one-bedroom unit is not affordable for low-income families, said ACORN.
ACORN attacked the city’s definition of affordability in planning for affordable housing that would include people earning as much as $109,000 a year. It convinced the city to change the criteria. First, the new criteria do not include owned properties in the calculation. It then defines affordability as what renters in the 30th to 60th percentiles of income can afford in spending 30% of their income on housing. Yet, it is not satisfied, as these criteria are only targets.
The battle with Timbercreek has resulted in less than a victory, but there have been more successful undertakings. ACORN and allies successfully lobbied to get Ottawa to cough up $15 million for new affordable housing in the 2019 budget. This amount has been repeated in subsequent budgets.
In another success, Ottawa adopted a new Rental Housing Property Management Bylaw, requiring landlords to have a capital maintenance plan to prevent building deterioration. They are also required to have an integrated pest management plan. Tenants may make service requests with urgent matters such as interruption of vital services, security, problems with accessibility features and equipment, and anything that might make a unit uninhabitable. The landlord must respond to such matters within 24 hours. For less pressing matters, he must respond within seven days.
The bylaw contains other requirements. In a major gain, the bylaw also applies to the city’s Ottawa Community Housing. Previously the city’s own housing was not subject to the housing standards. With this new provision, ACORN may want to undertake a concerted campaign to force Ottawa Community Housing to correct their many deficiencies, peppering them with service requests.
ACORN has also undertaken to link those in poverty with up-to-date communications. It has been able to get a ten-dollar-a-month internet program for families with children in Ottawa Community Housing, through a Rogers Communications undertaking. This endeavour showed its worth during the lockdown of schools during the COVID-19 outbreak, when teaching took place remotely, through the internet.
The organization has also undertaken to limit the activities of pay day loan companies, successfully lobbying City Council to license them and prohibit them from clustering in low-income neighbourhoods. As an alternative to pay day loan operations, and to banks which have been less than readily accessible to low-income persons, ACORN supports the demand to establish a postal banking system, as favoured by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Such systems operate in a number of countries.
One of the lessons learned in the American War on Poverty was that poverty action organizations became overwhelmed in dealing with individual cases, detracting from the ability to address systemic issues. At this point, ACORN has been able to unlearn the lesson. They have gotten millions of dollars’ worth of repairs in units and buildings and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rent abatements, working with the University of Ottawa Legal Clinic. Perhaps at some time in the future it will prove desirable to address the two kinds of issues in separate divisions.
The issues that ACORN tackles are often fairly complex. How does ACORN present its case? Unlike many organizations that put paid staff or professionals sitting on their boards to speak for them, ACORN puts its regular members up front to speak for it—people who are tenants in public housing, recipients of social assistance, little people who are victims of exploitation. These are the people who speak for ACORN before City Council and other governmental bodies. Members who are low income and working class are trained by staff organizers in how to run meetings and rallies and how to speak to media and politicians on the issues affecting them in the community.
So how do politicians see ACORN? According to mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney, “ACORN and its members are tremendous advocates for residents across the city. ACORN plays a pivotal role in continuously pushing the City of Ottawa to adopt policies and bylaws with the goal of protecting tenants and marginalized residents. I have collaborated with ACORN on several campaigns focused on housing affordability, and to prevent renovictions and stop displacement of neighbourhoods like Herongate and Manor Village. They ensure that residents’ voices are heard, and they are tireless in their efforts to improve the lives of countless people.”
According to MPP Joel Harden, “ACORN is an ally for working class folks who don’t have access to high-priced lawyers or consultants. They organize members to knock on doors, pick up phones, and build a list that can be unleashed on our political establishment.” He added that he is a member.
ACORN board member Bader Abu-Zahra was asked who on Ottawa City Council is most at odds with ACORN’s positions. He responded that they are “those who are pro-developer, accept large donations from developers for their election campaigns, or listen to the landlord lobby over tenants. Often these are councilors with fewer tenants in their wards.”