AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN OTTAWA – WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Safe, sustainable, adequate housing is a fundamental human need. It is also a social determinant of individual and community health and wellbeing. Housing is deemed to be “affordable” if a household’s shelter costs are less than 30% of before-tax household income (CMHC). Many households in Ottawa, due to economic limitations, physical health and addictions issues, mental health issues, and social circumstances, do not have the ability to afford housing on the open market. Key vulnerable populations in Ottawa facing these realities include individuals who are chronically homeless, families with low to very low incomes, youth-at-risk, Aboriginal peoples, and seniors. For those in housing need, various programs are available through governments, community organizations, non-profit and cooperative groups to provide low-income rental housing or subsidized and supportive housing to meet the households’ ability to pay. However, in Ottawa the demand greatly outweighs the supply. In 2014, there were 10,200 households on the waitlist for subsidized housing and only 141 new units built. Consequently, many individuals in our community were precariously housed or relied on unstable and inadequate emergency housing.
WHY AREN’T CURRENT APPROACHES MEETING THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING NEED IN OTTAWA?
The affordable housing problem in Ottawa is multi-faceted and complex. Some of the underlying causes include: a rental market that does not adequately provide for low and fixed income households needs; a residential housing market that disincentives mixed-income rental development; an inadequate funding and asset allocation structure for affordable housing; and a community that lacks understanding/advocacy for affordable housing development.
Vacancy rates in Ottawa have remained consistency low (2.8% in April of 2015), the construction of rental housing has “flat lined”, and existing rental stock has diminished through erosion and conversion to condominium housing (CMHC, 2015; FCM, 2012), resulting in upward pressure on market rents that are well above the ability of those on limited, fixed or disability incomes to pay. As an example, in 2014 an individual receiving an Ontario Disability Support Payment received, on average, $656.00 per month. The average market rent for a bachelor apartment in Ottawa during that same period was $780.00 (ATEH, 2015). While there has been some softening of the rental market in the Fall of 2015; it has not been to the degree that would allow for significant inclusion of Ottawa’s economically vulnerable citizens.
Rising development costs, a constrained land supply, and more onerous municipal approvals/standards have increased economic pressures on the home building sector (CHBA, 2015), making affordable housing development less attractive (Black, 2012). As profit margins decrease, risk tolerance weakens which results in developers focusing on building for the single family housing and condominium real estate markets with little integration of mixed-income housing projects. The City of Ottawa, in conjunction with other levels of government, has offered incentives to developers in exchange for affordable rental housing. Developers generally perceive rental housing development to be far less profitable, not economically feasible without significant government subsidies, and more difficult to manage (Black, 2015).
Federal, and then provincial, downloading of responsibility and funding for social and supportive housing in the 1990s put the onus of responsibility for affordable housing development, funding management, and asset maintenance and management onto the municipality. This includes identifying and approving all new affordable housing projects, managing provincial and federal funding programs, maintenance and management of all social housing, management and funding of the social housing registry, management and disbursement of rental supplements and housing allowances, and financing of emergency housing and supports for those experiencing homelessness. For many of these functions, the City has partnered with community organizations and non-profit housing and social service providers to deliver the programs and services. The City of Ottawa developed a 5 year action plan in 2002 and then a 10 year action plan in 2013 to envision a framework for a housing system that “aligns assets, funding, services, supports, policies and programs” to address the city’s housing and support needs (City of Ottawa, 2014). Adopting a “Housing First” approach, the City has committed to housing and supports for those in need to reduce homelessness in Ottawa. The City has dedicated considerable resources to the initiative, topped up by federal and provincial funding for new affordable housing development. Funding and programming is managed and under the direction of the Homelessness and Housing Branch. Despite the investment commitment made to the action plan, there remains a significant “asset gap” for achieving the affordable housing objectives outlined in the plan. (For an explanation of the allocations in the 2015 budget, see http://bit.ly/1AG1QeD).
Finally, in Ottawa there is a lack of collective community action surrounding affordable housing resolutions. While the issue itself has received tremendous attention from media, social welfare groups and government, there has been a lack of community engagement surrounding the issue. This has resulted in community apathy for the issue, or worse, instances of intolerance or resistance to public housing development. A broader community understanding of the issue and the economic and social value of diverse housing solutions in Ottawa is required.
THE VISION OF BROADENING THE BASE
Broadening the Base evolved from a conversation among business, non-profit, and community leaders who recognized that more and diverse resources, partnerships, and assets need to be dedicated to affordable housing in Ottawa in order to achieve our community goals. Broadening the Base is a collaborative and inclusive initiative that, though engaging a more diverse group of stakeholders to address the issue, seeks to identify new and under-utilized mechanisms and models to leverage resources and partnerships to accelerate affordable housing development in Ottawa. Broadening the Base has set a target of identifying the means to open 1,500 new affordable housing units in five years, increasing the City’s goal for the same period by 1,000 units.