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.