City not a 'heartless ogre' says mayor

New homes found for most of those displaced by convention centre expansion

Dave Bartlett
Published on April 14, 2012
These old buildings on New Gower Street in St. John's are on the site of the future expansion of the convention centre. - Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Mayor Dennis O'Keefe says almost all of the people who will be displaced by the expansion of the St. John's Convention Centre now have new places to live.

The only exception are those who live at 145 New Gower St.

And he takes umbrage at some of the media coverage of the issue, calling it unfair and inaccurate.

"(The city) ended up getting painted as the ogre in this - that we were going to expand the convention centre, we were going to kick these people out and nobody was going to help them. And that was totally false," he said.

"The city is not the heartless ogre it was painted out to be."

O'Keefe said the word "eviction" has negative connotations and, to the city's knowledge, no one at this point has been given an eviction notice and he hopes it never comes to that.

"The reality is, we've been on top of this for months," the mayor said, adding the city has been trying to figure out the best course of action for helping tenants since at least last May.

From the start, he said, the city knew it would be displacing people - whether deals can be reached with the owners of the buildings at the corner of New Gower and Waldegrave streets or the city ends up expropriating them if deals cannot be reached.

O'Keefe said all those who lived at 26 and 30 Waldegrave and 147 New Gower have found housing with the help of their landlord.

"He has taken his responsibility seriously and he's arranged for their relocation," O'Keefe said.

But the owner of 145 New Gower has not replied to letters from the city, so the handful of people who live at that address are still there, as far as the city knows.

"We're not sure the numbers there because the owner of the property hasn't gotten back to us, but there may be two or three in that building," said O'Keefe.

"It could be a few more," added David Blackmore, the city's director of buildings and property management, who joined the mayor for the interview.

"We really can't approach these people without the owner's approval."

"We still don't own the property," O'Keefe added.

The only legal obligation a landlord has to cancel a lease or ask people to move out is that tenants be given three months' notice to find a new place to live.

But O'Keefe said the city decided early on it had a moral responsibility to try and help the tenants, even before it takes over the properties.

But that isn't without its challenges considering that there's an affordable housing shortage in the city.

O'Keefe said the waiting list for its 426 housing units is in the hundreds, and while St. John's is building 30 more affordable housing units, those will only go so far.

That's why, O'Keefe said, the city has partnered with groups like the Salvation Army, Stella Burry Community Services, Choices for Youth and the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing and Homelessness Network on housing issues. Some members of those groups sit on the mayor's advisory committee on affordable housing.

He said while people have to take some responsibility for their own living arrangements, the city knows some people need more help than others to find accommodations.

Blackmore acknowledged questions have been raised about the condition of the buildings that will eventually be dismantled, but he said city inspections determined there are no safety issues, though there is some cosmetic work outstanding.

He said it could be the fall or even next spring before the city begins to take down the buildings, so the city still has time to help the remaining tenants find new homes.

The Salvation Army's New Hope Community Centre has been acting as a liaison between the city and residents, but the person in that role was on vacation this week and not available for an interview.