Posted September 17, 2021
Standing on the largest parcel of undeveloped land in the core of the nation’s capital, Norma-Jean Quibell used a handheld voice amplifier to broadcast the demands her group of low-income tenants and working-class Ottawans want the powers-that-be to consider as they develop LeBreton Flats.
The federally-owned land could host deeply affordable housing, said Quibell, co-chair of the Ottawa West Nepean ACORN chapter. But National Capital Commission references to affordable housing in their planning for the site, which federal Crown corporation CMHC will help fund, haven’t inspired confidence.
ACORN Canada, a national organization of low- and moderate-income families, has released an election platform calling for, among other things, CMHC affordable housing programs to make funding conditional on being targeted to households making between $10,000 and $30,000 annually, and on that housing remaining affordable in perpetuity, unlike current time-limited affordable housing deals.
While Quibell would like to see non-profits and co-ops incentivized to participate and given the first right of refusal when opportunities to use federal dollars to build new rental housing come along, she also believes private-sector companies can help address the affordable housing crisis if the right requirements are put in place.
“The government is very much going to have to regulate it because right now the main thing is not fighting for people, it’s fighting for profits with those big companies,” Quibell said.
“We would like to see a change in that mindset, and that’s going to have to come from the top.”
The Ottawa ACORN members assembled on the Flats were joined by a guest for their Sept. 1 housing rally. They had invited Liberal, Conservative and NDP candidates running for election in Ottawa Centre to join them, and New Democrat Angella MacEwen was the only one of the three to commit to attending.
Invited to speak, MacEwen reviewed the bleak scenario that Ottawans trying to find or keep roofs over their heads are confronting. Some of those currently housed are spending more than two-thirds of their income on rent and relying on food banks for survival.
Rents are rising while wages stay flat, and people are at risk of falling into homelessness. The waitlist, meanwhile, for the fixed number of rent-geared-to-income housing units available in this city can be years long, and has thousands of names already in the queue.
The federal government has a responsibility to use LeBreton Flats land to build deeply affordable housing, MacEwen asserted. She pointed to a definition of affordable used in a major rental construction financing program under the Liberal government’s National Housing Strategy: rents below 30 per cent of median family income in the area, which exceeds $100,000 a year in Ottawa.
“Affordable housing should be affordable for seniors who are earning their basic pensions that are fixed, or workers working minimum wage. When we build affordable housing, that’s what we need. It needs to be truly affordable,” MacEwen said.
The NDP candidate, whose party platform includes a promise to create at least 500,000 affordable housing units in the next 10 years and half that in five, said that a New Democratic government, and she as Ottawa Centre’s member of Parliament, would push for new affordable housing at LeBreton and Tunney’s Pasture, and that, if there was unused federal office space in the Ottawa area, they would reclaim it for that purpose.
MacEwen, a labour union economist, said in a subsequent interview that she would fight for 10,000 units of affordable housing in Ottawa Centre in 10 years, regardless of whether she was a government or opposition MP.
“I think that housing has been such an issue in this election that … whatever the government looks like coming out, that that’s something that they’re going to have to address. So I don’t see why we would lower our ask from that pledge.”
As for how she’d work to ensure a non-NDP government’s investment would go into housing that was actually deeply affordable, MacEwen envisioned building public pressure and working across the aisle and with other levels of government to make this “the politically expedient thing to do.”
An unexpected guest showed up as Ottawa ACORN members were getting ready to march up and down Albert Street, chanting and holding signs about the affordable housing crisis. Despite his late arrival, Ottawa Centre Liberal candidate Yasir Naqvi, the area’s member of the Ontario legislature between 2007 and 2018, was given a chance to address the group, who he pledged to work with, as he said he’d done in the past.
“Housing is a right. You’re absolutely correct. It is a right, and we need to make sure that we have got good, clean, safe affordable social housing with appropriate supports available in our community,” Naqvi told those assembled. “And I very strongly believe and I very fundamentally believe that that housing has to be provided by not-for-profit housing providers.”
If elected, Naqvi has pledged to work to secure funding by 2025 for 1,700 new affordable homes in Ottawa Centre through the National Housing Strategy and federal Rapid Housing Initiative. As for how affordable these units would be, requirements differ depending on the funding stream.
Naqvi said he’d heard a lot of concern about one of the streams that provides money to developers and uses median income to define the affordability of units they need to include in their build (ostensibly, the Rental Construction Financing Initiative, the focus of a recent CBC investigation that found many of the “affordable” units created through the project will rent for more than what most local tenants pay).
“It merits looking at that particular policy,” Naqvi said. “And I’m committing to look at that and do the advocacy necessary to change the definition in a manner that it results in more truly affordable housing for people.”
Naqvi has also said he wants to ensure a “large proportion” of the 1,700 units he’s pledging to pursue funding for will be delivered through not-for-profit housing providers like Ottawa Community Housing, the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation and Cornerstone.
CCOC executive director Ray Sullivan said it had been encouraging over the past five years to see the federal government re-engaging on affordable housing, though it was still a far cry from their commitments before the federal withdrawal from this realm in the 1980s and ’90s.
Sullivan was also encouraged by the fact that all the major parties have housing platforms, but said he’d like to see much more emphasis on non-profit and co-op rental housing.
A big part of the housing affordability challenge, Sullivan said, is the cost of land. If the government can look at land it owns — such as that at LeBreton Flats — and contribute that towards new affordable and non-profit housing, “that’s a huge step.”
Part of his party’s plan to move the needle on affordable housing, Nepean Conservative candidate Matt Triemstra said, is to release at least 15 per cent of the federal government’s real-estate portfolio for housing. They’ve also pledged to ban foreign investment in homes for two years and to instead encourage such investment in “purpose-built rental housing that is affordable to Canadians.”
On the affordable housing file, Triemstra acknowledged he isn’t an expert on everything and is personally part of a middle-class family.
“I believe in being led by the evidence and by experts and by other people who are doing well in this field,” he said, citing such names as city councillor Catherine McKenney and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
“As an MP, whether it’s in government or opposition, how do I get the right advice, from the right people who are already doing great work in the city? I think that’s how I keep myself accountable.”
In the sprawling, largely rural riding of Leeds–Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, six-time Green party candidate Lorraine Rekmans said she knows people are facing challenges finding places to rent. “They just don’t seem to exist.”
She sees work happening at the community level to identify needs and make plans when it comes to housing, but believes they’re lacking resources to bring those to fruition.
“You’re going to laugh when I say this,” Rekmans said when asked what she’d do as a MP to try to address the lack of affordable housing in her corner of eastern Ontario.
“I’m going to go up to the House of Commons and get a big bag of money, and I’m going to bring it down to the riding.”
As a member of Parliament, Rekmans sees herself working directly with communities to make sure they have the support they need to carry out local solutions as well as options to rethink development “based on low-carbon models and not the models of yesterday.”
She also considers important the Green platform pledges to allocate one per cent of GST to housing and other municipal infrastructure on an ongoing basis and to immediately appoint the federal housing advocate promised under the National Housing Strategy.
“My experience has always been when you have people dedicated to the task the work gets done.”
When it comes to talk of affordable housing, Action-Logement executive director Marie-Josée Houle wants a clear distinction made between rental housing and home ownership. There are incredible affordability challenges in both realms, and the inability for people to enter the ownership market adds pressure on the rental market, she said.
“But, when they’re being discussed in terms of solutions, I’m seeing them all kind of lumped together or mixed or — it feels like a bait and switch. And I’d really like to see that stop,” Houle said. “I think it’s a tactic to kind of get the middle class on board. But … when (we’ve) got 1.7 million Canadians in core housing need, I think that can’t be ignored.”
Houle’s organization focuses on housing loss prevention. Whether it’s investors buying up and redeveloping low-cost housing or individuals households leaving or being evicted from their units, after which Ontario landlords can raise rent to whatever they think a new tenant will pay, “we need to stop the hemorrhaging” of affordable units being lost forever, Houle explained, in addition to building new.
She also had a suggestion for the individuals vying to represent Ottawa ridings in the House of Commons.
Think about what your riding looks like, Houle said, and whether the housing options available meet the needs of residents, at all stages of life — from teenagers aging into the rental market to seniors moving out of their detached homes.
If a loss or lack of housing means someone has to leave the community they’ve spent their lives invested in, is that right?
“If they frame the housing question in that way,” Houle said, “I think everyone … we’ll get to the same page.”
Article by Taylor Blewett for the Ottawa Citizen