Posted February 8, 2019
Ottawa city council’s unexpected promise of $15 million in the 2019 budget has opened an array of options for affordable housing that should help the city avoid a Vancouver-style crisis, advocates said Thursday. Stakeholders said they hoped the city would be innovative with the funds, described by Mayor Jim Watson as the biggest capital investment in housing in the city’s history.
The mayor’s plan is use the $15 million to leverage funding from other levels of government to amass enough to approve about 250 affordable units this year.
But how to spend it, exactly? Advocates pointed to several options. The city could: just go it alone, under the umbrella of Ottawa Community Housing; partner with non-profit housing corporations that have shovel-ready projects near LRT stations; buy an existing building and convert it to a supported housing hub; or use some of the funds as rent supplements for low-income residents who can’t afford market rents.
Ray Sullivan, executive director of the non-profit, 1,600-unit Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corp., expects the $15 million will be spread around, not directed to a single mega-project that could be years in the making. “That’s how it will work. They will use the existing programs and well-established channels for doing it,” he said. “It should absolutely go to multiple projects, on multiple sites, with multiple levels of affordability.” He pointed to public lands around the light-rail stations and corridors that are suitable for low-cost housing, as transit is essential for low-income earners.
Mavis Finnamore, a housing advocate with the anti-poverty group Acorn, said the funds should be matched by another level of government but directed to whichever projects are ready to get off the ground — not stuck in a two-year planning and design phase. “We’re really hoping they get moving now because we’re at the crisis level,” she said Thursday. “We’re trying to avert little tent cities from forming. The shelters are full, people are living in motels for months. I want to see shovels in the ground. I’m tired of the talk.”
Coun. Mathieu Fleury, chair of the Ottawa Community Housing board, said the city has to decide which agency or agencies will use the money to build the affordable units. The city should be focusing on housing families first and not tendering construction of new units in piecemeal fashion, Fleury said. But the big challenge, he said, is leveraging that one-time $15-million investment to redirect payments currently going to emergency housing. “This provides a runway to shift the pressures that we’re seeing in terms of short-term emergency accommodations in motels and shelters,” Fleury said. “As we find efficiencies, less motel stays specifically for families, we should be able to take those operational pressures and transfer them to rent supplements and housing first (initiatives).”
Deirdre Freiheit, chief executive at Shepherds of Good Hope, said she thinks the city should look at how to exploit existing housing stock that may be under-used or be ripe for conversion to low-cost housing. “I think the dialogue right now is that we need to do something as quickly as we can. Let’s innovate,” she said. “We need to have a consultation with the community and find out what is doable in a short period of time.”
Not only is the city’s rental vacancy rate at a tight 1.6 per cent, but rents have spiked, about 250 families are being housed nightly in motels, and the waiting list for city-managed affordable housing is in the thousands.
Article by Kelly Egan for the Ottawa Citizen