Viewpoint: For affordable housing, a principled approach works best

Building affordable housing is a long process and that process doesn’t just need builders – it needs advocates, too.

In Ontario, it’s mainly the non-profit sector that provides both the push for housing and the housing itself.

Private developers do get involved, but not as commonly as non-profits, says Saide Sayah, acting program manager with the affordable housing unit at the City of Ottawa.

Some organizations in Ottawa want private developers to become more involved in affordable housing. If private developers were to begin building affordable housing instead of condominiums, it would lessen the load on non-profit housing providers.

But that’s not practical.

There are over 10,000 households on the waiting list for affordable housing in the Ottawa area and about 142,000 households waiting in Ontario. People in need of a home include seniors, families and singles – some of whom are homeless and others who are living in very poor and insecure conditions.

In order to make any kind of a dent in those numbers, non-profit housing providers need to continue pushing for funding from all levels of government.

Affordable housing comes at great cost to non-profit organizations.

Once provincial funding reaches the municipality, the non-profit organization will get a certain amount of money but still needs to finance the housing units.

The Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corp. recently built Beaver Barracks. The affordable rental apartments will be at four locations in Centretown when the two phases of construction are complete.

When both phases are complete the project will encompass 248 units, Sayah says.

Beaver Barracks benefited from $70,000 per unit from the provincial and federal governments to help subsidize costs but more money is always needed, says Ray Sullivan, executive director of the CCOC.

It’s the largest affordable housing project of its kind in Ottawa in many years and it would not have come to fruition without the advocacy of the CCOC.

Private developers are not advocates. If private developers were to build more affordable homes, that would help families in need but that’s an uncommon situation in Ottawa, Sullivan says.

The model that exists now consists mainly of non-profit housing providers who first make an appeal to the city for capital funding from all levels of government before beginning construction on the affordable homes.

When private developers build social housing, there is often a set number of years where the rent is required to be affordable to low-income tenants and the developer decides whether or not to keep the housing affordable, says Sayah.

“The private sector will keep projects affordable for 20 to 50 years but non-profits keep them affordable forever,” Sayah says.

The only way housing will be built to be affordable and remain affordable is through non-profit organizations because non-profits are not solely focused on their financial bottom line.

Not only do non-profit organizations build affordable housing based on their principles and not to make money, but they strive to keep those homes affordable.

Affordable housing is a large investment for a private developer and it takes many years to recoup that investment which is why there is little interest from private developers in building affordable homes, Sullivan says.

Newer projects include partnerships between private developers and the non-profit sector but private developers are building the homes for the wrong reasons – more for their finances than for those in need of a home.

Private developers such as Teron International Building Technologies Ltd. have contributed to Somerset Gardens – an addition to the affordable housing stock in the city with the potential for additional units, Sayah says.

Although Teron has partnered with St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, the two still have different interests.

The province could provide monetary incentives to the private developers but developers would still be acting more in their own economic interests.

Affordable housing is a long-term investment. With limited funding coming from all levels of government, it’s up to the non-profits to determine how best to meet the community’s needs.

Private developers could build affordable homes on an even larger scale than Beaver Barracks but only the non-profit organizations are there for the families on the waiting list – a principle that outlasts the economic gain of a private developer.