City to lobby province for housing money

By Matt Graveline

City Hall Bureau and Scott Cressman

City-owned corporation, plans to lobby the province for funding for subsidized housing after Ontario’s new budget failed to deliver the much-needed money.

The provincial budget released last week commits $342 million for affordable housing. The money, which the province received from the federal government two years ago, will be split into three programs.

The first will be devoted to municipal funding and will provide Ontario cities with $127 million for new housing and repair for older homes. Ottawa expects to receive about $7 million.

“It’s a weak start,” says Somerset Ward Coun. Diane Holmes, chair of Ottawa Community Housing. “It is federal money that the province has sat on for two years and finally has released.”

OCH’s chief executive officer, Ron Larkin says it isn’t enough for local housing providers to bring the current subsidized homes up to modern standards. Although he says he’s grateful for the provincial money for repairing affordable housing, his organization and other local providers still need more financial support.

Money has been tight since the province downloaded its public housing to cities in 2001, says Larkin. “Over the last two or three years, we’ve been able to scrape by,” he adds. “In 2007, we hit a wall.”

OCH inherited 8,616 housing units from the province and Larkin says $350 million is needed to bring these up to legal standards. Overall, the corporation needs $600 million to bring both provincial and city housing, totaling more than 14,000 units, up to standard.

Larkin and Holmes say they lobbied the Finance Minister Greg Sorbara for more funding before the budget was released. Larkin says another meeting is now needed.

“I think there is an obligation by the province because we are a unique situation,” he says referring to the large number of units downloaded by the province.

“The budget numbers are to deal with the province in general.”

Larkin says OCH is the second-largest housing provider in the province, and Queen’s Park has to understand that the money allocated in the budget is only a drop in the bucket in terms of financial support.

Earlier this month, the city’s poverty issues advisory committee unanimously passed member Lynn Hamilton’s motion of notice to try to get the city to lobby the province about homelessness and subsidized housing in Ottawa.

“At this point in time, the province needs to put more money into subsidized housing,” Hamilton says. “They have downloaded it to the municipality and the city can’t afford it.”

The motion is the result of Hamilton’s disenchantment after many years of insufficient funding to help people stay in their homes.

“The lack of affordable housing has directly impacted friends of mine, so this issue has touched me directly,” she says.

The motion states city-based revenues are insufficient to adequately fund subsidized housing and effectively address homelessness. It also calls on the community and protective services committee to recommend city council to immediately call upon the provincial government to rectify these problems with sufficient funding.

The 2007 city budget only provides about $6 million to upgrade community housing, Larkin says that money is already being put to use. One quarter of the amount will pay for large projects, such as roof and window replacements, while another quarter will be used to repair locks and tiles, and do other minor maintenance work.

Holmes, along with Larkin, is starting to organize another meeting with Sorbara and Ottawa MPPs. Holmes says they plan to get the other 52 local housing providers together and create a coalition to bring their issues to the province collectively.

“We are going to go after the $300 million for the downloaded stock,” says Holmes.

“They can’t continue to ignore a problem created by the province.”

Larkin and Holmes both agree city’s revenues cannot afford all the housing they have been given charge of.

Larkin and Holmes say they want to meet Sorbara sometime later this year. That would give them time to organize the other local housing providers into a partnership.

Larkin says they will still need a solid pitch to convince Sorbara to loosen the provincial purse strings.

“It’s not sexy to be repairing current buildings,” he says. “The politicians prefer snipping ribbons at new buildings.”