In January 2020, Ottawa became the first Canadian city to declare a housing and homelessness emergency. This fall, affordable housing is front and centre in our municipal election, as the housing crisis persists for lower-income renters.
My eye-opener was last summer when my family was looking to move my senior in-laws closer to our home in Sandy Hill. Each one is single, retired, and a life-long renter. They don’t have private pensions, so each lives off CPP, Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement payments. In Sandy Hill, their income could only afford a bedroom in shared housing (aka a student bunkhouse).
A recent search on rentals.ca shows that renting a single room in a shared house in Sandy Hill will cost you between $700 and $1,000/month. For a one-bedroom apartment you need at least $1,500.
Fiona Rowan, an addictions counsellor currently house-sitting in Sandy Hill, is trying to move to the neighbourhood permanently. Her elderly parents live here and she’d like to rent a place closer to them. But with a monthly rental budget of $1,200, Rowan is not optimistic she’ll be able to find something affordable in Sandy Hill — at least not something she would consider “decent and safe.”
According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and all levels of government, affordable housing means one’s dwelling costs less than 30% of gross monthly income.
The City of Ottawa’s 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan (2020-2030) claims that to afford renting a bachelor apartment, a person needs to make at least $32,000 annually (roughly $2,600/month). Anything less and you would be considered a low-income earner. That means everyone working full time and earning minimum wage ($15.50) qualifies as low-income.
As is anyone relying on the Ontario Disability Support Program ($1,200/month), and seniors like my in-laws (whose combined government payments range between $1,400 and $2,200/month). Those full-time workers earning minimum wage who want to stay within range of affordable rentals cap out at a rental price tag of less than $800/month.
In addition to rising real estate prices, provincial changes to rent control measures (or rather, the elimination of) have resulted in a huge loss of affordable rental housing.
Sadly, stories abound of people being forced from their rental homes, some dubbed “renovictions,” including several properties in Sandy Hill.
If you can’t afford to pay rent, you must rely on social supports. These range from emergency and short-term rentals to supportive or social housing. Ottawa has 10 community shelters/transitional housing programs, all bursting at the seams. Currently, the City of Ottawa’s website says there are approximately 10,000 households on the waiting list for social housing. For those in the most dire situations, there are financial aids, albeit minimal and not without administrative challenges.
Rowan, who as a counsellor works with clients in need of safe and stable housing, sums up the situation: “It’s impossible,” she says.
Every level of government says affordable housing is a priority — there are a multitude of task forces, commissions, strategies, initiatives, programs, and plans. But ask anyone with boots on the ground and they will tell you the system is broken. Even Rideau-Vanier’s outgoing councillor, Mathieu Fleury, did not hide his frustration during the August Action Sandy Hill (ASH) board meeting: “I’ve been losing my hair around council [regarding] investing in affordable housing,” he said.
Sandy Hill has always been a mixed-income neighbourhood, although clearly divided into socio-economic pockets. The last decade has seen the explosion of rooming houses targeted at low-income renters, mainly students. Rosaline Hill, an award-winning and forward-thinking Ottawa architect, knows that community opposition is “not because they don’t want students or affordable housing next to them, but because [people can see] what has been wrong with development.”
Hill spends a lot of time and energy envisioning and promoting good, sustainable development. She thinks Sandy Hill needs more thoughtful intensification: “We’ve got to figure out not whether to infill, but how to do it well,” she says.
Hill explains that Ottawa’s current development rules are part of the problem: “R4 zoning [which permits the construction of low-rise apartment buildings] added some permissions but the site plan application process is long, complicated and really expensive. It makes potentially good development models cost prohibitive [for the developer],” she says.
While Hill sees zoning as a critical piece in solving the affordable rental housing crisis, she says change will also require a mindset shift. She is critical of the North American desire for increasingly larger homes: “We can’t continue to have as much. It’s not sustainable,” she says.
This opinion is shared by the new Chair of Action Sandy Hill, Louise Lapointe, who says: “We need to look at different ways of living.”*
When asked why the community association had not followed other local groups in endorsing the non-partisan Starts with Home campaign launched by the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa (whose goal is to mobilize support and promote specific actions for the next city council), Lapointe explained that the new board of ASH is waiting until after the municipal elections to identify priorities and make any statements. But she also shared some of her personal thoughts on the housing situation in Sandy Hill.
Lapointe explains that the University of Ottawa has not properly dealt with the housing needs of a rising student population: “Students who could be housed in residences must find lodging in the community. This adds pressure to an already highly saturated rental market.”
And unfortunately, desperate students are easily exploited. While researching for this article, I received numerous messages from students living in unsafe, derelict conditions in Sandy Hill. None wanted to be identified for fear of reprisal from their landlord.
Lapointe is very concerned about another group: seniors who want to remain in their homes or neighbourhoods. “We aren’t talking [enough] about housing protection,” she says. She wants to see more options, such as multi-generational housing and housing geared to the “missing middle” (multi-plexes for various family configurations).
Lapointe points out that Sandy Hill has four non-profit housing co-operatives where rent is geared to income and dignified living is a key principle. “It’s a model that works well. Why aren’t we looking at it more closely?” she asks.
The City’s recently approved Official Plan seems to respond to some of the concerns expressed by Rosaline Hill and Lapointe: its goals include building healthier and more inclusive walkable neighbourhoods, with a mix of housing options.
It is expected that comprehensive zoning changes will be introduced to protect existing rental housing stock, promote a range of housing options (including co-ops), and increase low-rise multi-unit residential development in all neighbourhoods across the city, including in Sandy Hill.
Whether these goals can be achieved will depend in part on our new mayor and council, who will need to collaborate with the other key players: our provincial and federal governments, social service organizations, and developers. As Hill concludes: “Ultimately, housing affordability is a big system problem.”