Ottawa Citizen: Advocates rally for affordable housing, draft budget reveals record commitment

Posted February 7, 2019

Minutes after community members and advocates finished a rally at Marion Dewar Plaza on Wednesday morning calling for more money for affordable housing, the city revealed a 2019 draft budget that contained a record-breaking investment in the area.
“Is this right? Are they talking about affordable housing?”
These are the questions that immediately came to mind for Ottawa Acorn board member Gisèle Bouvier when she heard the news that the city had proposed a $15-million capital commitment on this front.
Bouvier was one of more than 100 people who rallied in front of city hall in advance of the draft budget reveal. Organizers stressed that facing current demand, the city’s limited and aging affordable housing stock has reached a breaking point, and called for a $12-million municipal investment in new affordable units.
It appeared Wednesday that the city intends to deliver — and then some.
This is new money, Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney confirmed, put forward at the municipal level specifically for new affordable housing construction.
According to Mayor Jim Watson, this would be “the largest municipal contribution to housing capital in the City’s history.”
Further, the mayor also made a budget day prediction that the federal government is poised to reimburse the city for the costs it has incurred supporting refugee claimants from the United States since 2017.
He promised in his budget address to recommend that every reimbursed dollar go into the Housing Reserve Fund and towards the immediate construction of new affordable units in Ottawa.  According to McKenney, the city is hoping this will work out to another $10 million.
It doesn’t stop there. Watson also proposed “a significant contribution of City of Ottawa lands to further boost the value of the City’s affordable housing investment.”
And looking to other levels of government, on which the city has typically depended for much of its housing money, Watson said he anticipates a $15-million municipal investment “will leverage at least the equivalent amount of new federal and provincial dollars.”
The hope, Watson said, is to approve construction on more than 250 new affordable housing units in 2019, more than doubling the 2018 total.
Last year, the city allocated $1.3 million to its capital program for affordable and supportive housing, with federal and provincial funds bringing the total investment to $15.7 million. Typically, Housing Services has a budget of $2 million to $3 million for affordable housing before allocations from other levels of government, according to director Shelley VanBuskirk.
While the budget reveal marked a victory for Ottawa Acorn and partner organizations who have been lobbying the municipal government on the affordable housing file, Bouvier remained a tad apprehensive Wednesday afternoon.
“We know this is just a draft budget — it’s going to have to go to council, and councillors will have to vote on it.”
But McKenney expressed confidence in council support for the investment. “Many of my colleagues who I spoke to, today, are very happy with what they saw in the draft budget.”
While there remain outstanding questions — Will the province cut support for affordable housing in its upcoming budget? Will the federal government deliver on money for Ottawa through its National Housing Strategy? — the future looks very bright if these work out as hoped, McKenney said.
“We could see the end to families’ living in motels. We could definitely see an end to chronic homelessness in the city. We could see a time when our shelters are truly emergency shelters and are not housing people for a year,” she added.
“If all of that comes together, we will see real, significant change in our housing stock in this city. It’s amazing, I’m so happy.”
The last year has seen a number of incidents draw attention to the challenges associated with finding and maintaining low-cost housing in Ottawa.
A developer-led eviction in the Heron Gate community left hundreds of people struggling to find a new place to live last summer while their homes were prepared for demolition and redevelopment.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Ottawa rose by nearly six per cent in 2018, the highest rate of increase in 17 years, while industry observers flagged scarce vacancies and cutthroat competition as major challenges for renters.
Across the city, 250 homeless families were living in hotel and motel rooms in November. In 2014, there were, on average, fewer than 100 families in the same situation on any given night.
Ray Sullivan, executive director of non-profit housing organization CCOC, said the budget day developments were “incredibly encouraging.”
While he’s waiting to go through the fine print before expressing unreserved enthusiasm, the draft budget’s affordable housing commitment was certainly the largest the city has ever seen.
“I think that’s an important recognition that if we just keep doing things at the same level we’ve been doing them, we’re not actually going to advance and tackle this problem,” Sullivan said, adding that it could not have come at a better time.
“We’ve got a window of opportunity as we’re extending the light rail network, as we’re encouraging dense communities to be built up around those transit stations, to make sure that affordable housing is a part of that.”
With the draft budget investment, the promise of city land being made available, and an election commitment from the mayor to move forward on inclusionary zoning, the puzzle pieces are coming together, Sullivan said.
As for why it has taken until now to see this level of affordable housing commitment, Sullivan pointed out that long-standing council advocates found new allies in the fall municipal election.
“What we’re seeing now is a sizable number of new councillors with a very strong interest in affordable housing … and an urgency in their interest.”
Returning city councillors McKenney, Mathieu Fleury, and Jeff Leiper were joined at the pre-budget housing rally by new council faces Theresa Kavanagh, Shawn Menard and Matthew Luloff. McKenney also mentioned that Coun. Diane Deans would have joined them were it not for an early police services board meeting where she’s chair.
“We have got an opportunity today to make sure that we face this challenge we have in front of us,” McKenney told the assembled crowd Wednesday morning.
“Don’t listen when they tell you that the private industry can solve this, and don’t listen when they tell you that this was not created because of political inaction. This crisis was created because of political inaction, and today, we’re taking action.”
Article by Taylor Blewett for the Ottawa Citizen


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