By Jacob Hoytema
Consensus is growing that there is a housing and homelessness crisis in Ottawa and the federal government’s National Housing Strategy is doing little to help, experts say.
The city’s 2018 report on housing and homelessness found the waiting list for affordable housing had grown by nearly 15 per cent in one year. Catherine McKenney, city council’s liaison on the file, says local homeless sheltershave been over capacity in recent weeks “and we’re not even in the winter months yet.”
As Ottawa’s housing problem grows, some local voices say the federal housing plan won’t do much to help.
In 2017, the federal government launched the National Housing Strategy, a multi-faceted 10-year, $55-billion plan to “ensure Canadians across the country have access to housing that meets their needs and is affordable.”
Within its 10-year scope, it includes a number of goals: building up to 125,000 new homes, chopping chronic homelessness figures in half and “strengthening the middle class.” Increased funding to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation will go to a number of programs to do things like build new housing, subsidize community housing and renovate existing homes.
It also sets requirements for the provinces to match about $11.7 billion in federal funding.
McKenney, who believes “we can end homelessness in this city,” says the NHS has nonetheless not been a big help in Ottawa.
“Outside of a few housing developments that were able to get loans through CMHC, there’s not been any increase in funding to the city for building new capital. There’s actually been a decrease,” she says. “We’re still waiting for the increase in housing allowance, which won’t materialize in 2020. In four years, we’ve not moved the needle much at the city level.”
The plan has scored points with some housing advocates like Carleton University sociology professor Jacqueline Kennelly, who says it’s high time the federal government contributed something to housing.
Kennelly studies urban youth homelessness and has worked with Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa.
“One thing I’ll say about the National Housing Strategy is, the money is so, so, so essential for supporting affordable housing,” she explains. Kennelly and other advocates say the federal government hasn’t had a real hand in affordable housing since the Chrétien government froze funding to the provinces on the file in the early ’90s.
“This is the first time in a generation that federal money is going back into affordable housing,” Kennelly says, “and it is going to take a long time, I think. I don’t mean to be a pessimist, but I feel like we need to give it at least 30 years of this level of investment before we’re going to get back to a place where there is not a homelessness crisis.”
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has also praised the NHS as an answer to their request for the federal government to make a greater commitment: “After decades of municipal advocacy, the federal re-engagement on affordable housing has been a breakthrough for low-income Canadians,” Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said in a FCM press release.
But he also said the NHS was just a first step: “We need that leadership to continue, and we need it to grow to address some important gaps.”
The NHS’s detractors are focusing on these gaps, and arguing that they stop the plan from being as effective as the government promises it will be.
Last June, the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report concluding the National Housing Strategy won’t accomplish all it’s set out to do.
“It is not clear that the National Housing Strategy will reduce the prevalence of housing need relative to 2017 levels,” the PBO said. The report details that much of the new funding just replaces previous commitments that were set to expire. It also found there were already cases where provinces spent more than they were required to under the new plan, meaning some provinces could actually reduce their funding in order to meet their commitment.
“Overall, Canada’s National Housing Strategy largely maintains current funding levels for current activities and slightly reduces targeted funding for households in core housing need,” the PBO wrote.
University of Ottawa psychology professor Tim Aubry, the school’s research chair for community mental health and homelessness, says the plan doesn’t commit enough or move fast enough.
“I don’t think it’s done really very much to date. There’s recognition that most of the money will flow after the election. It’s kind of back-ended, a lot of the money,” he says.
He also says the plan doesn’t match up with the principles of the ‘housing first’ community housing doctrine. In other words, it focuses too much on new construction projects which will take years to complete, rather than putting vulnerable people into available housing as soon as possible through programs like rental subsidies.
He also points to research by University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski, which shows that, as a percentage of the federal budget, spending on housing has actually gone down over the last decade.
McKenney says that she hopes that “along with climate action, (housing) is the biggest issue of the election.”
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, the Liberal MP for Ottawa-Centre, said in an email statement that the government “has been working to help middle-class Canadians and those Canadians working hard to join the middle class, and we’re demonstrating that we understand that a key part of that is making sure every Canadian has access to safe, affordable, accessible housing.”
She says the NHS has invested in several affordable housing projects in Ottawa’s downtown including: $115 million for a Claridge development 383 Albert Street that will have 300 units of affordable housing; $3.9 million for a 16-unit Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation building on Arlington Street; and $70 million for another Claridge project on Gloucester with 227 apartments, more than 200 of which will have rents lower than 30 per cent median household income in the area.
But some local candidates say they’re dissatisfied with the NHS’ impact in Ottawa.
“The government has done a great job at naming and framing the challenge, and identifying that we have an affordable housing crisis, but the measures they’ve proposed I don’t think in any way reflect the urgency of the situation,” says Emilie Taman, the NDP candidate for Ottawa-Centre. “The notion that you have a crisis, but you’re going to start rolling money out the door three, four years down the road after the next election, I think it’s totally unacceptable.”
She says she’d rather see more investments made in rental subsidies, and a stronger focus on non-profit housing.