Ottawa Citizen: Councillors bring forward motion to end city's use of off-site apartments to house homeless families

By Taylor Blewett

Council’s community and protective services committee is slated to vote Thursday on a move by two councillors to have the city terminate its longstanding and controversial arrangement with a Vanier hotelier to house homeless families in off-site apartments for about $100 per night.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury and Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney are

bringing forward a motion to have the city launch “a proper procurement process” to house the families living at the Tabor apartments, located on Vanier’s St Denis Street, and end its per-diem relationship and use of the apartments by July 1.

Since 2012, the city has had an agreement with the Ottawa Inn on Montreal Road to use rooms at the hotel proper for temporary emergency accommodations — it’s one of 23 hotels, motels and post-secondary institutions the city can call to house families, at a pre-negotiated rate, when the shelter system is at capacity.

Unique to the Ottawa Inn, however, is that owner Ahmed Syed also houses city shelter clients in off-site residential units — an option that city staff say is cost-effective (they can place large families in one unit instead of multiple hotel rooms), and gives families kitchens, bedrooms and more space than the typical hotel room.

A report submitted by Fleury and McKenney to the CPS committee flags three major concerns with the off-site accommodation arrangement, which included 41 non-hotel units across eight addresses when it began in 2015, but has since been reduced to units in a U-shaped apartment block on St Denis Street, where 17 families are currently housed.

Those concerns involve zoning, the lack of a competitive procurement process, and the fact that residents at these properties don’t have leases and rights that tenancies provide.

“One landlord is benefitting from city business and taxpayer money without a transparent procurement process ensuring the greatest use of taxpayer dollars. The per diem costs of the Tabor Apartments could be better utilized to provide permanent housing for families,” the report notes.

As area councillor, Fleury has long been critical of the decision by city staff to utilize the Ottawa Inn’s off-site units — an arrangement that has also been scrutinized by the auditor general and community members.

Last October, this newspaper reported that the placement of new emergency shelter clients at the apartments had been temporarily suspended while the city investigated concerns about poor living conditions.

“If the AG report and the media attention, and the community’s concerns over the site are not enough to get staff to react, and with my ongoing political pressure on it, (which) for years and years hasn’t been fruitful … OK, well, we’ll bring it to committee,” Fleury said Tuesday in an interview with this newspaper.

In a written response to the councillors’ motion, Housing Services staff note that last fall, “some families and service providers brought issues regarding the non-hotel units to the city’s attention.”

Units were inspected and issues identified by Bylaw and Regulatory Services, Housing Services and Ottawa Public Health have been addressed, staff wrote. In response to a question from this newspaper about what the issues were, residential service program manager Marion Connolly said that, inside, “general repairs, maintenance and required pest control measures were identified … while work required for the exterior of the building included the repair of a retaining wall.

“Everything was found to be in order following completion of the repairs, pest control measures, maintenance and cleaning undertaken by the landlord.”

In their response to the councillors’ motion, staff mount an extensive defence of their use of the Tabor apartments: they’ve confirmed it’s in compliance with zoning; all households receive case management services and access to 24/7 support through the city family shelter; furnishings, linen and cleaning services are provided; the auditor general found the rates for the apartment units were competitive, compared to the city’s rates with similar hotels; and so on.

They also point out that the city has recently negotiated a lower nightly rate (from $110 to $89) for these units, and advised the owner that the city no longer intends to use units at one of the three addresses that shelter clients were still being housed in (so these units can return to the long-term housing market, according to Connolly).

Staff warn that if the councillors’ recommendations are adopted by committee and council, families will be relocated into a hotel, which has multiple drawbacks.

They also say that if the city ends its arrangement to use the Tabor apartments, “the loss of these units will reduce the number of rooms available for temporary emergency accommodation for new placement requests, potentially resulting in increased wait times for families in the future.”

McKenney, who is also council’s housing and homelessness liaison, said they understand staff’s concerns — it’s not easy to house families. However, the city’s vacancy rate has increased, and it’s not dealing with the same influx of families arriving in Ottawa, in need of shelter, that it was previously.

“I don’t believe that these families have to go into hotels, I think that we can work with them between now and July to find them proper housing,” said McKenney.

McKenney also noted that if city shelter clients were to leave the Tabor units, they would return to the long-term rental market where they might rent for half of what the city pays now.

The councillor wants to see all families in the shelter system, including those at Tabor, offered the opportunity to access a portable housing allowance, while remaining on the waitlist for social housing. They currently have to give up the latter to access the former, McKenney explained, and it’s keeping people in the shelter system.

“We need … to look for better ways of housing people, and it’s not going happen overnight but things have got to change.”

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