Missed Connections: City Of Ottawa Transit And Social Infrastructure Policies

Author's Note: 

LRT image.jpg

New rapid transit is an important City-building opportunity and Ottawa's City Council has failed to use this transit investment to advance its affordable housing and other social infrastructure mandates. 

My article, first published in the Peace and Environment News and now available on Unpublished Ottawa, is in support of the Transportation Equity Summit,  held on September 22nd in Ottawa. 

 

Missed Connection – City of Ottawa Transit and Housing Policies

After a ten year delay, the City of Ottawa is completing the first phase of its east - west Light Rail Transit (LRT) system and is seeking funding for subsequent phases. Unfortunately, the City has failed to leverage this transit investment to advance its housing and other social infrastructure mandates.

The first leg of the LRT runs from Tunney's Pasture to Blair Road and includes 13 stations. Rightly anticipating land development pressure close to these stations, Council approved transit-oriented development (TOD) plans which set the stage for intensified land development around the stations. 

When rapid transit is created, property values around stations significantly increase in anticipation of increased density opportunities.   And while Ottawa’s TOD Plan makes reference to this increased density, it is silent about prioritizing affordable housing or other public benefits as a condition of granting this additional density. It is also silent about making use of the air space it owns along the LRT and above the stations.  

New rapid transit is an important City-building opportunity and our Council has missed the opportunity to use the investment to advance its strategic mandates.

Affordable Housing and Transit Policy in Metro Vancouver

Let’s look to a region that has connected the dots between its social infrastructure, housing and transit policies.  Metro Vancouver, the Vancouver area regional government is approximately the same geographic size as Ottawa.  Recognizing a diverse housing supply is critical for economic and social prosperity, the transit and affordable housing policies calls for the region’s municipalities through its plans, policies and programs to:

  • Grant additional residential density in exchange for affordable housing within transit corridors,
  • Set market and affordable rental targets including preserving existing affordable housing in transit corridors,
  • Create transit station area planning policies that accommodate a mix of land uses and housing types and tenures. This includes purchasing and holding sites and air space parcels for new non-profit rental housing.

Cambie Corridor Plan

Vancouver's Cambie Corridor Plan is a good example of how the City of Vancouver is connecting the dots between its policies and practices, linking transportation infrastructure to urban and social infrastructure planning.    The line runs through downtown Vancouver along Cambie Street to the City of Richmond and the airport. The premise of the Cambie Corridor Plan is that increased density is appropriate and that this density should be accompanied by increased social amenities.

Whereas Ottawa has taken a station-by-station planning approach, the Cambie Corridor Plan attempts to coordinate land use, infrastructure, services and public amenities along the entire corridor. The light rail was seen as an opportunity to address Vancouver Council’s high-level priorities relating to affordable housing, social resilience, environmental sustainability and a strong economy.  

The Cambie Corridor planning principles include:

  • Land uses that optimize the investment in transit,
  • Walkable and cycleable corridor of neighbourhoods linked to public transit,
  • Job space and diversity,
  • Density and community activity focused at transit stations,
  • A range of housing choices, tenures and affordability.

With respect to affordable housing, the Plan targets:

  • 20% affordable housing on all new large sites,
  • Preserving  rental housing,
  • Family housing,
  •  Density bonus zoning and inclusionary zoning for affordable rental units,

Vancouver’s approach demonstrates how a municipality committed to using its resources to maximize the benefits of development can achieve multiple social, economic and sustainability objectives.  There is no reason why the City of Ottawa can’t take a similar approach to its transit and urban planning practices.  It has many of the same planning tools available to Vancouver; it just fails to see social infrastructure objectives as an integral part of the city’s growth.  Unfortunately, this failure has resulted in underfunding social infrastructure and failure to leverage city resources to create public amenities such as affordable housing. 

Here are some examples:

  • A recent analysis of City budget trends indicates that since 2010, and despite an overall increase in City spending, spending on social programs has lagged behind other budget items.
  • The sale of City multi-unit residential and mixed-use properties includes a family housing site on Randall Avenue despite the fact that over half of all shelter clients were members of a homeless family in 2016.  The sale contradicts Council‘s own Housing First policy for surplus city lands.
  • The Western Parkway was chosen as the route of the proposed western arm of the new LRT because it is the cheapest and fastest way to get commuters to and from the city. Rather than locating the LRT along a corridor which can support high density (such as Carling Avenue), it will run along the on the periphery of a low density neighbourhood at the edge of the urban area.  The City is so committed to this strategy that when the NCC refused to allow the LRT to run along the Parkway, the City agreed to pay to tunnel the line below parkland - where no one lives!
  • Concurrent with investment in LRT, the City is undermining its rapid transit strategies by funding the ‘strategic widening’ of Ottawa’s east- west 417 expressway.

In Ontario, municipalities have jurisdictional responsibility for affordable housing. As such, they should use all the tools they have to address their housing needs.  When Ottawa creates new transit stations, parking garages, libraries and fire halls etc. it should co-locate affordable housing and other social facilities. It needs to use inclusionary zoning, density bonusing and other planning tools to encourage developers to create these badly needed public benefits in large new neighbourhood projects.  In anticipation of increased land prices around transit stations, the City should have proactively purchased land in anticipation of a demand for new social amenities. 

There is one exception to this dreary scenario. Spurred on by the Ward Councillor, Ottawa Community Housing has purchased three hectares of  federal land on Gladstone Ave between Preston and the O-Train corridor. The new community is expected to include a transit station, affordable and market housing, a school, commercial and retail spaces, as well as greenspace.  This is the kind of city-building that Council has been unable or unwilling to make happen elsewhere along the new LRT.

Conclusion - Making the Connections

Ottawa will soon be unveiling sleek new rail coaches but the commuting time between its transit and  social infrastructure policies and practices is slower than the old #2 at rush hour.

About 57,000 households  in Ottawa-Gatineau are in need of affordable housing and for many, transit is a necessity.  Just as rapid transit is critical physical infrastructure, adequate, affordable housing is essential social infrastructure and the lack of it has a profound impact on the economic viability of the city. 

Ottawa’s city-building strategies need radical change.  Council’s failure to make the connection between its policies and practices results in lost opportunities to build the critical social infrastructure needed to shape the future of our city.

Dennis Car, an independent consultant with 27 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver, is the recipient of the 2016 Canadian Housing and Renewal Association Lifetime Achievement Award. He tries to bike or bus everywhere he goes but doesn’t always succeed.

City of Ottawa Housing Policy and Practice: Connect the dots between the two.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of News West

“The wait time for housing is up to five years and in 2015, only 34 new affordable housing units were created, the lowest since 2005.”

On March the 4th Cornerstone Housing for Women launched its project to convert the former Sisters of Jean D’Arc Institute at 373 Princeton Avenue in Westboro into a home for 42 low income women. It was a day of celebration for Ottawa’s affordable housing community.

Joining Cornerstone for the announcement, and to express their support, were Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna, MPP Yasir Naqvi, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, local Councillor Jeff Leiper and local community association representatives.

The project is being made possible by a unique partnership between the Sisters of Jeanne d’Arc, who wanted to leave a legacy in the community and a private sector developer who will create infill housing on the remainder of the property. In addition to its own equity, Cornerstone will receive $5.3 million in federal and provincial funds.

The importance of community association and municipal political support for an affordable housing project cannot be overstated. However, what also needs to be stated is that despite its political support for the project, the City of Ottawa has actually reduced the resources it puts towards affordable housing in the City.

Last month, City officials announced plans to write to the federal housing minister asking the federal government to triple their funding so the city can build 1,300 new units. And rightly so because in 2015, 6,800 individuals used Ottawa’s emergency shelters and 10,100 applicants were on the waiting list for affordable housing.

The wait time for housing is up to five years and in 2015, only 34 new affordable housing units were created, the lowest since 2005. What the City doesn’t mention is that despite having jurisdictional responsibility for affordable housing, it has significantly reduced the resources dedicated to new supply.

Data compiled from recent budget documents indicate that while the city contributed between $4.0-Millions and $5.0-Millions of its own funds towards the creation of new units between 2012 and 2014, it doesn’t plan to contribute any of its own funds between 2015 and 2019. Additionally where the City once acquired land and provided its surplus land for affordable housing, it no longer land banks and is actually selling off its social housing properties.

The City’s land development corporation which has a mandate to achieve strategic plan objectives through real estate development, recently listed several properties for sale, including multi-unit residential and mixed-use sites that could be used to further the City’s long term social infrastructure needs. Particularly egregious is the sale of a Randall Avenue family housing property once on the City’s list of affordable housing sites, notwithstanding that in 2015, 39% of all shelter clients were members of a homeless family! This sale contradicts Council‘s own Housing First policy for surplus City lands.

“Where will the 1,300 new affordable units be created if the City of Ottawa can’t provide land and financial resources?”

Cornerstone Housing for Women is a great example of the resiliency of Ottawa’s affordable housing sector but if the City is going to meet its own objectives, it needs to provide better support. Council’s failure to connect the dots between its policies and practices will result in lost opportunities to build the critical social infrastructure needed to shape the future of our city.

Dennis Carr has been a resident of West Wellington for over 30 years. He has 27 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver. He is a past Development Manager for Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, a local non-profit housing agency. From 2009 to 2014 he was Assistant Director, Social Infrastructure, for the City of Vancouver. Dennis Carr is also the recipient of the 2016 Canadian Housing and Renewal Association Lifetime Achievement Award.

Affordable housing policy, platitudes and practice: broken promises and lost opportunities

This article originally appeared in the Centretown Buzz on on March 19, 2017.

Late last fall, the City’s submission to the new national housing strategy consultation described a long-standing housing affordability crisis requiring people on low incomes to choose between paying bills, buying groceries or paying rent.

Last month, City of Ottawa officials announced plans to write to the federal housing minister asking the federal government to triple their funding so the City can build 1,300 new units.

And rightly so, because in 2015, 6,800 individuals used Ottawa’s emergency shelters and 10,100 applicants were on the waiting list for affordable housing. The wait time for housing is up to five years and, in 2015, only 34 new affordable housing units were created, the lowest since 2005.

What the City didn’t mention is that the City is selling off its inventory of land for social housing and reducing its own investment in new affordable housing. The City’s land development corporation (OCLDC), which has a mandate to achieve City strategic objectives through real estate development, recently listed several properties for sale, including multi-unit residential and mixed-use sites that could be used to further the City’s long-term social infrastructure needs.

Particularly egregious was the sale of a Randall Avenue family housing property which was on the City’s list of affordable housing sites, notwithstanding the fact that, in 2015, 39 percent of all shelter clients were members of a homeless family!

This sale contradicts council‘s own Housing First policy for surplus City lands. Where will the 1,300 new affordable units be created if the City of Ottawa doesn’t provide the land?

Ottawa’s 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan of 2013 states a community goal to end long-term homelessness. It provides aspirational statements about partnerships, building on collective strengths, etc., but no firm targets for creating units and few concrete suggestions for using the City’s own resources. Despite this plan, Ottawa is reducing the resources it commits to the issue.

Data compiled from City budget documents indicate that, while Ottawa contributed between $4.0M and $5.0M of its own funds towards the creation of new units between 2012 and 2014, it doesn’t plan to contribute any of its own funds between 2015 and 2019. Instead, the City plans to replace its funds with federal and provincial funding instead of supplementing these funds.

Ottawa’s housing sector is resilient and has been able to supplement the limited funding available under government housing programs. But the City needs to better support these groups. The City should reinstate its funding for new affordable housing, purchase and provide land to groups creating rental housing, co-locate social facilities with other City facilities such as parking garages, libraries, fire halls and transit stations, and enact planning policies that encourage developers to create affordable housing in large new neighbourhood projects.

This was ignored when the City redeveloped Lansdowne Park, but opportunities exist at the former Rockcliffe Air Base and Lebreton Flats.

Municipalities in Ontario have jurisdictional responsibility for affordable housing. Council’s failure to connect the dots between its policy and practice results in lost opportunities to build the critical social infrastructure needed to shape the future of our city.

Dennis Carr has 27 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver. For many years he was the development manager for CCOC and from 2009 to 2014 he was Assistant Director, Social Infrastructure, for the City of Vancouver. He is the recipient of the 2016 Canadian Housing and Renewal Association Lifetime Achievement Award.

Quito, Ecuador, host of UN Habitat III, is a microcosm of challenges facing cities in an urbanizing world

UN Habitat III in Quito featured thousands of sessions on every imaginable topic relating to planning, financing, housing, accessibility, culture and women’s right to the city and public spaces.

The UN Habitat III conference in Quito will be the first time in 20 years (and the third since 1976) that the international community reinvigorates its commitment to the sustainable development of towns, cities and other human settlements, both rural and urban.

The product of that renewal is the New Urban Agenda. That agenda will set a new global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades.

Nestled at an altitude of 2,850 metres in a valley surrounded on all sides by Andes foothills and volcanos, Quito and its surroundings are full of historic, cultural and environmental treasures. 

iew from above Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

iew from above Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage City and has been recognized for being a leader in planning for climate change adaptation and the current government’s development approach has emphasized housing and quality of life.  

Quito is also a microcosm of the challenges facing cities in a rapidly urbanizing world.

With a population of 2.6 million, it faces the same hurdles that other developing cities face as they try to accommodate growth without falling back on urban planning decisions that displace low-income communities and favour cars over people. 

BicaQuito Bike Share in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

BicaQuito Bike Share in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Participants at Habitat III in Quito were treated to a dazzling array of workshops, networking events, dialogues, training events, plenaries, high level round tables, etc.

There were thousands of sessions on every imaginable topic relating to planning, financing, housing, accessibility culture, women’s right to the city, public spaces etc.

There was even a workshop on using Minecraft as a planning tool. 

Also included in the compound was a formal country and non-governmental-organization exhibition area while outside the compound, spread around the central area of Quito, was a selection of satellite pop-up exhibits and parallel events including the Habitat III Resistance Forum held at the local university. 

With so many dignitaries assembled, there were long queues for airport-style baggage checks with lines of attendees snaking back through the rest of the park as they wait for hours in the equatorial sun to get on site. 

UN Habitat III attendees lining up to enter the exhibition area. Photo by Dennis Carr.

UN Habitat III attendees lining up to enter the exhibition area. Photo by Dennis Carr.

These long line-ups to enter the formal Habitat III meeting hall in Quito was symbolic of the two solitudes referenced in the principles of New Urban Agenda.

There was security and fencing around the venue and great frustration over the long waits to enter the facility for the regular delegates versus relatively easy access for the state-sponsored delegates. 

While this underlined the importance of inclusivity in planning it also reminded those in the line-up, as it wound through the large El Arbolito Park, about the power of public spaces.

Those in line became participants in the agora, experiencing vendors hawking goods (including over-priced Panama hats to ward off the equatorial sun), children playing, adults strolling, public art, inexpensive street food and even peaceful demonstrations. 

Street vendors in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Street vendors in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

But this host city is faced with a particular dilemma. While the New Urban Agenda document calls for smarter, more sustainable cities that prioritize public transit over private motorized transportation, early in the conference, delegates were greeted by a march of activists trying to stop a road expansion project that say would displace nearly 70 percent of a nearby village’s population. 

Peaceful demonstration in Quito protesting a road expansion project. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Peaceful demonstration in Quito protesting a road expansion project. Photo by Dennis Carr.

The City of Quito is partnering with a Chinese corporation to create a $131 million tunnel expansion and bridge project aimed at alleviating the massive gridlock that blocks the city’s busiest road.

Quito’s Mayor believes the project is necessary not only to ease gridlock but also to give the city a new emergency exit if it comes face-to-face with the types of natural disasters that have shattered Ecuadorian cities in the past.

Of course Quito is not alone in its dilemma regarding creating infrastructure for the automobile versus investments in public transportation and non-motorized means of travel. 

In British Columbia, the province (without a referendum) is pursuing replacement of the Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River with a new $3.5-billion, 10-lane bridge.

This is despite the objections of, among others, the Metro Vancouver Mayors who argue the proposed project “represents an expansion of car-oriented infrastructure and diverts crucial funds from transportation projects that support the regional growth strategy." 

In the City of Ottawa, which is currently constructing the first leg of its east - west rapid transit system, the provincial infrastructural minister announced yet another ‘strategic widening’ of the east- west Queensway expressway to, as he put it “spend more time at home with your family”. 

As if.

One week later, Ontario’s Premier announced the details of the provincial long-term energy plan including her government’s aspiration to “become a North American leader in low-carbon and zero-emission”.  

In other words, Quito is a perfect example of the types of contradictions leaders face in the post-Habitat III world, as the legacy of past urban planning decisions conflicts with the New Urban Agenda’s push for more inclusive, sustainable cities without falling back on outmoded urban planning practices, displacing low-income communities and favouring cars over people. 

When the assembled advocates and experts go back to their home countries, will the lessons from Habitat III and the recommendations of the New Urban Agenda be reflected? In Ecuador, Canada and elsewhere, will anything have changed for the better?

In October, Dennis Carr attended the UN Habitat III conference in Quito. He has 26 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver. 

50K delegates gather in Quito to talk poverty, climate change and cities at UN Habitat III

Delegates adopted The New Urban Agenda with goals for how cities can evolve over the next 20 years .

Evan Siddall, President & CEO of Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC) making a presentation at the UN Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October, 2016. Photo courtesy CMHC.

Evan Siddall, President & CEO of Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC) making a presentation at the UN Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October, 2016. Photo courtesy CMHC.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, they live on two per cent of the globe’s land area, generate 70 per cent of the world’s GDP and consume over 60 per cent of the world’s energy. By 2050, the UN expects that over 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities. 

This was the backdrop October 16th to 21st when about 50,000 delegates from around the world gathered in Quito, Ecuador for the UN Habitat III conference. 

The delegates came from governments, indigenous organizations, the private and not-for-profit sectors and civil society from all over the world and addressed issues such as poverty, climate change, public safety, infrastructure and housing, health and quality of life, and the economic, social and creative advantages provided by cities.

The aim of the conference, which is held every 20 years, was to chart a sustainable development vision for the world’s cities; the end result being adoption of a document called the New Urban Agenda.  

 The New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda, which was adopted on October 20th by delegates from 167 nations, lays out goals for how the world’s cities can evolve and take shape over the next 20 years.

It contains a long list of commitments for a sustainable, fair and safe world for everyone. It is also attempt to reverse the 20th century planning legacy of uncontrolled urbanisation and urban poverty. 

The New Urban Agenda calls for national strategies to combat urban inequality by enhancing livability, education, food security, health and well-being and ensuring that cities are well planned, financed, developed, built andgoverned with a view to their impact on sustainability and resilience beyond the urban boundaries.

A central theme is the idea of a “right to the city”, which prioritizes the needs of residents over profit.

Canada was well represented at Habitat III.

The delegation, headed by Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, included two members of parliament and was supported by staff from Employment and Social Development Canada, Global Affairs Canada, Public Safety and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, including its President and CEO, Evan Siddall.   

In addition to federal participation, Canada’s delegation included provincial political representation from Ontario and Québec, a number of municipal Mayors and Councillors, and numerous civil society representatives includingwomen groups, Indigenous groups, academics, public safety, housing, culture, climate change and youth.

Not including the federal government presence, there were over 100 Canadian delegates.

The first UN Habitat conference was held in Vancouver in 1976 and, as might be expected given the immediacy of urban issues and affordable housing in the province, British Columbia had a particularly strong contingent.

The BC delegation included Greg Moore, the Mayor of Coquitlam and Chair of the Metro Vancouver Board of Directors, Raymond Louie, City of Vancouver Councillor, the CEO and senior staff from BC Housing, representatives from the non-profit housing sector, 15 students from the University of British Columbia and numerous other advocates. 

Canada’s National Report to UN Habitat III contains chapters with the aspirational language that the country’s urbanists have long awaited: Leaving No One Behind, Sustainable Growth, Leadership in Climate Policy, Building a Safe City for All, Job Creation for Future Prosperity, Housing and Basic Services, etc

The report has a strong emphasis on the use and access of land, protection against flooding in coastal areas, compact cities to improving health by promoting walking and cycling.

What is the federal government commitment to this issue? Perhaps some clues can be found in two workshop sessions. 

One workshop, sponsored by the federal government, was titled Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Leveraging Partnerships for a New Approach to Housing.

The workshop referenced the benefits of adequate housing including improved quality of life and broader social and economic success and recognized that the creation of suitable, affordable, and sustainable homes is an opportunity to enhance equality for citizens today and tomorrow. 

Another, sponsored by CMHC, was called Bridging the Affordability Gap: Inclusive Housing Finance. It provided a presentation on options to increase access to housing finance as a means to address the housing affordability needs of low and moderate income households and vulnerable populations. 

It included panel discussions with housing finance experts from a range of countries on the development curve. The discussion centred on existing financing mechanisms as well as alternative and innovative ways to expand the reach of housing finance to lower income households. 

The New Urban Agenda is not a binding agreement. But while its implementation may not be a legal obligation of the participating states, it forms a moral compact among governments and stakeholders to realize a new urban future.

Will the lessons from Quito and the nostrums of the New Urban Agenda be reflected in Canada’s pending national social infrastructure program, new housing strategy and other federal policy directions? 

It remains to be seen but the signs are encouraging. CMHC recently released its Affordable Rental Innovation Fund and before the end of the November, the federal government is expected to release its findings from CMHC-led consultations held in support of a national housing strategy. 

So let’s hope the federal government is serious about connecting the dots between policy and practice.  But it’s not just a federal responsibility. The role of municipal governments, urban designers, planners and civil society is crucial to moving forward with implementation of the New Urban Agenda and while it calls for national strategies to combat urban inequality,

in Canada municipalities fall under provincial jurisdiction and overall, the provinces were not well represented at Habitat III.  

Perhaps a key opportunity of the Habitat III process could be a strengthening of the role of local governments possibly, dare we hope, facilitated by a new federal Ministry of Urban Affairs. 

In October, Dennis Carr attended the UN Habitat III conference in Quito. He has 26 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver.

Creating affordable housing: Learning from Vancouver

This article originally appeared in the Vancouver Observer, October 28, 2016

What responsibilities do cities, with their relatively limited tax base, have to ensure its citizens have decent accommodation?

Downtown Vancouver. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

Downtown Vancouver. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

What responsibilities do cities, with their relatively limited tax base, have to ensure its citizens have decent accommodation?

Some, including some in the lower mainland do nothing, claiming it is the responsibility of another layer of government. Some take token measures, hope the problem goes away and then hope no one notices when it doesn’t. And some, like the City of Vancouver, take it very seriously indeed. 

When it comes to housing, affordable and otherwise, Vancouver is a roiling cauldron of debate, disputes and demonstrations. In the pages of this and other media, the rhetoric over who is to blame and what should be done has raged for years.                       

This week, Vancouver welcomes hundreds of local, national and international housing experts to its Re:address Summit on ways to address housing unaffordability. 

The summit, according to City messaging, is an opportunity to learn, share best practices and explore creative solutions from other cities struggling with similar affordability challenges. I’m guessing most of the learning will be on the part of the visitors. 

Learning from Vancouver is not a new phenomenon. Since it hosted the first UN Habitat conference in 1976, a mini cottage industry has emerged to host visitors from Canada and around the world to visit projects and learn how policy tools such as public benefits, inclusionary zoning and density bonusing can be applied.

Let’s consider a few recent numbers. In its 2011-2014 Capital Plan, Vancouver set an affordable housing target of 1,950 units or 650 units per year.

This target was met (at the end of 2014 2,050 units were either completed or in the development/construction pipeline) and renewed in the 2015-2018 Capital Plan. Included in these Capital Plans is about $22.0M per year of City funds allocated for the creation of new affordable rental housing.

About one-third of the Capital Plan targets will be created through Vancouver’s public benefits process. The remaining will be achieved by partnering with local not-for-profit agencies, Foundations, other levels of government (primarily BC Housing) and by using the City’s own land, zoning tools, and other financial resources.

Some will argue it’s not good enough and perhaps they’re correct but let’s compare it to another municipality. 

The City of Ottawa’s population is 30% larger than Vancouver’s. It has one of the country’s highest median incomes and has (unlike Vancouver) jurisdictional responsibility for housing. It has high rents, a serious shortage of affordable housing, and high rates of homelessness. So let’s look at what Ottawa is doing to provide decent accommodation for its vulnerable residents.  

According to the 2015 statistics, 7,000 individuals used Ottawa’s emergency shelters and 10,100 applicants were on the waiting list for affordable housing which has a wait time of up to five years. Only 34 new affordable housing units were created: the lowest since 2005. Between 2011 and 2015 Ottawa created about 120 units per year.

Ottawa’s ten-year Housing and Homelessness Plan outlines a community goal to end long-term homelessness. It provides aspirational statements about partnerships, building on collective strengths etc., but no firm targets for creating units and few concrete suggestions for using the City’s own resources. And despite the Plan, Ottawa is reducing the resources it commits to this critical issue.  

Data compiled from City Ottawa budget documents indicate that while Ottawa contributed between $4.0M and $5.0M of its own funds towards the creation of new units between 2012 and 2014, it doesn’t plan to contribute any of its own funds between 2015 and 2019. Instead, the City plans to replace its funds with Federal/Provincial funding instead of supplementing these funds. 

This disinvestment is reflected in the City’s funding priorities. A recent Carleton University analysis of the City budget trends (helpfully sub-titled Balancing its Budget on the Backs of the Poor) indicates spending on social programs has lagged behind other budget items since 2010. Despite an overall increase in City spending and a demonstrated need from vulnerable populations, community services investments have fallen behind other service areas. 

Recently, Ottawa’s land development corporation, which like Vancouver’s Property Endowment Fund has a mandate to add value to social value to land transactions listed several properties for sale. Some of them are excellent multi-unit residential and mixed-use sites that could have been used to further the City’s long term strategic goals. 

Particularly egregious is the sale of a family housing property on the City’s list of affordable housing sites notwithstanding the fact that in 2015, 39% of all shelter clients were members of a homeless family!  The sale contradicts Council‘s own Housing First policy for surplus City lands. 

Still not convinced? While Vancouver fast tracks non-profit housing applications, Ottawa has an expedited ‘concierge service’ for large private sector development applications making other projects, including affordable housing projects wait in line. 

While Ottawa’s ability to negotiate public benefits is significantly weaker than Vancouver’s, its Council further weakened this tool by agreeing to accept only 75% of the potential contribution.

Vancouver is a long way away from solving its affordable housing and homelessness problem but at least it is putting every reasonable resource at its disposal towards finding a wide range of solutions. 

The creation of new municipal facilities such as the new East Hastings Library or the Firehall #5 was used as an opportunity to provide affordable housing for single moms and their kids.

Taylor Manor, a vacant City-owned heritage building has been converted into supportive housing for people with mental health challenges.

The City’s New Neighbourhoods policy has been used to create hundreds of affordable housing units. Its grant program has helped non-profit agencies and even BC Housing create new units. 

Vancouver‘s strategic land banking has resulted in a partnership of three not-for-profit agencies currently constructing 360 rental units, 75% of which will be subsidized.

Another City-owned site has been used to create the Immigrant Service Society’s brilliant new Welcome House. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency which has a goal to create 2500 units on City land by 2021 recently announced plans to build 250 units in the East Fraserlands district entirely without assistance from the federal or provincial levels of government. 

There are many more examples but behind Vancouver’s success is a strong commitment to create policies that enable a livable, sustainable city and the political will and staff resources to put the policies into practice. 

Politicians can always be more accountable, bureaucracies can always be more effective and better ways can always be found to engage partners. But let’s take a step back from the hyperbole and give Vancouver some acknowledgement for its achievements.  

Dennis Carr has 26 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver. From 2009 to 2014 he was Assistant Director, Social Infrastructure, for the City of Vancouver. He is the recipient of the 2016 Canadian Housing and Renewal Association Lifetime Achievement Award.