Community advocates plea for more affordable housing ahead of budget

As the City of Ottawa prepares to finalize its 2017 budget, community advocates are pleading for a greater commitment of funds from the city to deal with what they are describing as an affordable housing crisis.

At a recent city planning committee meeting, Ray Sullivan, executive director of the social housing organization Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, pressed the city to step up its funding to address the critical need for more affordable housing in the city.

“There are currently 40,000 households in Ottawa who can’t afford their market level rent, so there’s a huge under-supply of affordable housing,” he said.

A recent report by researchers at Carleton University echoed this statement, calling social housing “one of the city’s most neglected areas.”

In spite of that, Sullivan called it an exciting time, pointing to the increased funding being made available at both the federal and provincial levels. But he is urging the city to do its part by investing more and increasing the stability of its funding for affordable housing.

“One of the challenges is that the federal and provincial program is not a standing, guaranteed program. It is renewed on about a three- to five-year basis,” he said.

He added that the federal and provincial funding varies year-to-year and is very “front-loaded” — meaning there will be about $16 million available from these jurisdictions in 2017 but only $10 million in 2018 and 2019 and then about $5 million in 2020.

The issue, according to Sullivan, is that the city is diverting some of its affordable housing funding now that federal and provincial spending has been increased. He points to the Housing and Homelessness Investment Plan, a city-directed initiative launched in 2011 that devoted $4 million per year to affordable housing from the city’s discretionary funds. But that source of funds was cut off in 2015.

Janice Burelle, the City of Ottawa’s general manager for community and social services, said with the additional money coming from the other levels of government, the city is working to be “strategic and creative,” with its own funds.

“The city has really been bearing the brunt of it, but with the other levels of government at the (affordable housing) table we can step back and take a look,” she said.

This is troubling to Sullivan and others in the sector because while they believe the funding from the other levels is a promising opportunity, it should be looked at as a supplement to municipal funding — not a replacement.

“If the city re-allocates their funds, you’re not getting as ahead as you otherwise would. Therefore, the federal and provincial money is not advancing as far as it would if the city kept their money in there,” Sullivan said.

The other issue, according to Sullivan, is that if the city decreases its contribution to building affordable housing when the funding they receive from other levels of government is high, it could be worrisome in the years when federal and provincial spending is not as high.

“Once you drop that amount and you then need to go back and take it from somewhere else, that causes a disruption somewhere else down the chain,” he said.

Burelle said recent announcements “signal increased commitment from the other levels of government” and that the city will continue to align its policies with the province and federal governments.

The city is providing $6.9 million in funding to support the capital component of the multi-governmental plan. This money is collected from the City’s Housing First Policy that directs 25 per cent of surplus residential land sales to support the development of affordable housing.

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, a member of the city’s planning committee, stressed the city’s important role in responding to the unmet demand for affordable housing.

“The city is in desperate need of affordable housing and it is something the committee is working hard to address,” he said.

Sullivan emphasized that the city has done lots of good work, but needs to keep the momentum going to improve the supply of affordable housing.