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Review of Ottawa housing program flags shortfalls

The city of Ottawa’s self-assessment of its housing first program reveals it’s taking too long to place homeless people into permanent housing and the city’s subsidy is too low.

Self-assessment reveals long waits, low subsidies marring housing first program's success

It typically takes four months to find housing first clients a home in Ottawa, three months longer than the federal program model recommends. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

The City of Ottawa's latest self-assessment of a program aimed at finding permanent housing for homeless people has uncovered two inadequacies: it's taking too long to find them a place to live, and it's inadequately subsidized. 

The annual review of the housing first program covers April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017, and was carried out by staff within the city's housing services department. The report was approved by the department's community advisory board, and was submitted to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the federal department that oversees the housing first program, in mid-June.

The program is supposed to match landlords with chronically homeless people, and provide support services including regular visits from case workers. Cities subsidize the federal funding that keeps the program going.

Ottawa's program came under scrutiny last month when an Ottawa landlord complained a tenant had trashed his apartment.

The city investigated the complaint and concluded it was "a singular exception to the general successes of the program," according to Coun. Mark Taylor, the mayor's liaison on housing and homelessness issues.

In October CBC News reported that Ottawa landlord Nitin Mehra's rental unit had been trashed by a housing first client. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

4-month wait

However the self-assessment paints a somewhat different picture. 

According to the most recent review, while Ottawa's housing department rated itself highly in most areas, it flagged two  shortfalls with its program.

It's not enough. The math doesn't add up.- Cindi Rye, Tungasuvvingat Inuit

First, it found it's taking housing coordinators an average of four months to find a suitable place for clients to live. That's three months longer than the housing first model's benchmark. 

Similarly, the city is falling short of ESDC's target when it comes to finding a new home for clients who have been evicted.

The second issue flagged in the self-assessment has to do how the city subsidizes the program.

According to the review, housing first clients in Ottawa are spending as much as 60 per cent of their income on rent, double the 30 per cent recommended under the federal model.

The city of Ottawa offers each adult client participating in the program a $250 monthly housing allowance, but there has been criticism that's not enough.

'It's not financially feasible'

Many housing first clients rely on social assistance to get by, and need a significant portion of those payments to cover groceries, utilities and other bills.

"It's not financially feasible to be able to put somebody in any kind of housing if they're on Ontario Works, [even] if they get a subsidy," said Cindi Rye, director of programs with Tungasuvvingat Inuit, an Ottawa agency that assists clients to find housing. "It's not enough. The math doesn't add up."

Rye said she'd like to see the city subsidy doubled to $500.

"Then at least you're going to get maybe a much smaller group of people housed successfully and staying housed, [instead of] a whole bunch of people housed for a little bit, and precariously."

Rising rents, low vacancy

The City of Ottawa did not provide CBC with an interview, but in a statement housing director Shelley VanBuskirk noted the program has found a place to live for 516 housing first participants to date. 

VanBuskirk cited rising rents and low vacancy rates as obstacles to the program's further success.

VanBuskirk said recently announced provincial funding — the Home for Good program — will "make more housing subsidies available at an increased amount which will allow us to house people more quickly and improve our housing first ... scores."