'You're losing the right to choose': Changes to housing wait list panned

Ottawa residents on the city's social housing wait list will now get only one housing option when their names come up, down from three, under new regulations put into force at the start of the year.

Those who refuse housing offer risk waiting all over again

As of Jan. 1, 2020, Ottawans waiting for subsidized housing will now only receive one housing offer — and if they refuse to accept it, they risk waiting years for another one. (Laura Glowacki/CBC)

Ottawa residents on the city's social housing wait list will now get only one housing option when their names come up, down from three, under new regulations put into force at the start of the year.

People on the social housing registry — who often wait years to live in one of Ottawa's rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units — must also accept that single offer, or risk starting the wait all over again.

The City of Ottawa sent a letter to people on the wait list in mid-December preparing them for the change, which came into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

"You're losing the right to choose, and that's not fair," said Geri Stevens, 60, who's been waiting since last year for a subsidized unit in a seniors-only building.

"I don't want ultimatums with how I spend the rest of my life."

Average wait 5 years

Ottawa's new rules follow changes to the province's Housing Services Act.

Until Dec. 31, 2019, Ottawans on the wait list for RGI housing could choose from among three housing offers.

Housing offers are based on regions of the city or individual properties people select when they apply for social housing. The application process does not include photos of potential suites, nor details about the buildings applicants can choose from. 

Premier Doug Ford's government changed the rules across the province to ensure prospective social housing tenants accept the first choice they're offered, saying there was a need to keep wait lists moving.

In Ottawa, the average wait time for RGI housing is about five years. For larger families, the city says the average wait is about seven years.

For more desirable properties, it can take as long as 19 years.

Stevens, who has a fear of break-ins, is worried that when her name comes up, she'll be offered a ground-floor or basement apartment — housing she wouldn't feel safe in. 

Geri Stevens, 60, is on Ottawa's centralized wait list for affordable housing. She expects to wait up to eight years for a unit in a seniors-only building in Lowertown. (Laura Glowacki/CBC)

She said moving into an RGI unit is a growing necessity: she pays more than $900 for a small one-bedroom, or 70 per cent of her income, and social housing would reduce that to just 30 per cent.

"It's just going to be compounded powerlessness, when you're forced and you have no appeals process to say this is not where I want to live," she said.

No point to change, says landlord

Ray Sullivan, executive director of non-profit landlord Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, has doubts whether the move from three choices to one will actually reduce wait times. 

"There's no point in giving people homes in places where they don't choose to live," he said. 

Tenants who accept an offer they wish they'd refused can also re-enter their names onto the wait list. 

"I think if there are housing providers across the province who have an apartment that people keep turning down, maybe it's not a good place to live," Sullivan said. "And maybe we need to think about that."

Ray Sullivan, executive director of the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, has doubts whether reducing choice for people on the wait list for affordable housing will cut wait times. (CBC)

The city has left the door open for tenants to reject their first offer and receive a second one if they can show the first unit won't work due to "extenuating circumstances," said Shelley Van Buskirk, Ottawa's director of housing, in a statement.

Still, it's a little unclear what counts as extenuating circumstances. 

Van Buskirk defined them as "unforeseen circumstances which were out of the control of the household, are unlikely to occur again and resulted in the household not being able to meet the requirement in order to remain eligible for rent-geared-to-income assistance."

The city declined an interview with CBC News.

In an email Monday, the city said tenants do have access to an internal review to appeal any decision made. CBC has asked for more information about this process.

In the city's December letter to tenants it mentions no such appeal process, and states: "If you refuse the 1 offer, your application on the wait list will be cancelled and your file will be closed." 

'You don't have a choice'

Whether a person's fear of living in a ground floor or basement apartment counts as a valid extenuating circumstance is still to be seen, said Sullivan.

He said the three-choice system worked well in part because it showed prospective tenants "what's out there."

As for Stevens, she asked her Para Transpo drivers for opinions on what social housing buildings they liked and browsed through Google before selecting apartments in Lowertown — the area where she lives and volunteers — as her preferred housing choices last summer.

Now, she wonders if there was any point to her detective work. 

"It's up to the individual to do some homework, but now with the reduced choices, it doesn't matter. You don't have a choice in the long run."

The city recommends people on the wait list ensure their community and housing provider preferences are up-to-date. 

At the end of last year, there were 12,577 households on the list. The vast majority struggle to afford the current homes they live in, live with friends and family, or are homeless, according to the city.

Every year there are about three times as many people who sign up for affordable housing as there are housing offers made.


Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at