Ottawa Citizen: 'We are falling further and further behind': Portable housing benefit isn't enough, councillors say

By Taylor Blewett. Photo by Tony Caldwell/Postmedia

While city decision-makers are moving forward with a plan to direct housing money from upper levels of government to Ottawans in dire living situations, some councillors are voicing frustration with the limited scale of those resources in the face of mounting need.

The community and protective services committee voted Thursday to delegate

authority to staff to identify potential recipients of the Canada-Ontario housing benefit. Announced last December, and jointly funded by the federal and provincial governments, the portable monthly benefit is designed to help vulnerable, low-income households afford market rentals as social housing waitlists, including Ottawa’s, remain years-long.

Ottawa has been allocated $4.38 million for the first two years of the eight-year benefit program, beginning in April 2020. After consulting with community experts in the housing sector, city staff recommended that domestic violence and human trafficking survivors as well as people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness be considered priority groups from which households would be selected to apply for the housing benefit.

At Thursday’s committee meeting, Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury questioned how the benefit could be used to help families currently relying on Ottawa’s emergency shelter system. His ward houses many of the hotel rooms used to accommodate families when traditional shelter spaces are full. While some families could qualify for the housing benefit — such as those comprised of single women and children — housing director Shelley VanBuskirk pointed to the program’s limits.

“Rents are increasing. A benefit of $560 (per month), that’s the average benefit we’re anticipating — is that really enough to help families get market and be in a position to come up with other necessities for their families? To do more, we need more funding.” Councillors Catherine McKenney and Keith Egli both suggested sending this message to the federal government. Despite a staff suggestion that next month would be a better time to do so, with discussion scheduled on the city’s housing and homelessness plan, McKenney urged immediate action, directing staff to work with the mayor, committee chair, and council’s housing and homelessness liaison (McKenney) on a submission for the feds’ 2020 budget considerations.

“Two federal ministers go out yesterday and make an announcement with CMHC about private funding to a private developer that’s going to give us 65 pseudo-affordable units, and they think that is success,” said McKenney. “As a city, we are falling further and further behind every single day. We have to at least put the pressure on the federal government.”

On Wednesday, infrastructure minister Catherine McKenna and families, children and social development minister Ahmed Hussen announced a $115-million federal investment in a new downtown residential build by Claridge Homes. Of the building’s 321 units, 65 will have rents at or below 21 per cent of Ottawa’s median household income “which will provide affordable housing options close to public transit and services for modest and middle-income individuals and families,” according to a press release by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

The project is receiving funding from CMHC’s rental construction financing initiative, a program under the federal government’s National Housing Strategy. Announced in 2017, the $55-billion bundle of housing initiatives involves everything from low-cost construction loans to affordable housing repairs to the Canada Housing Benefit discussed at Thursday’s committee meeting.

In a statement to this newspaper, Hussen’s office noted that the federal government has announced six new projects in Ottawa under the National Housing Strategy since 2018, creating 442 units through federal investment.

Address: 110 Laurier Ave W, Ottawa, ON K1P 1J1