Mayor promises $15M for new affordable housing in budget

Local advocates pushing for money to build new affordable housing were surprised when the mayor promised even more than they were asking for in this year's draft budget.

Advocates had asked for $12M, as well as a focus on affordable housing on new LRT

Meagan Ann Gordon, Sandy Wooley and Rana Awni of the Nepean, Rideau and Osgoode Community Resource Centre take part in a rally for affordable housing on Feb. 6, 2019, ahead of the tabling of the City of Ottawa's draft budget.

Mayor Jim Watson has announced the City of Ottawa will spend $15 million of dollars of its own funds to try to double the number of affordable housing units that get built this year.

He used the opening minutes of his speech introducing the city's 2019 draft budget to promise "the largest municipal contribution to housing capital in the city's history."

The announcement took local advocates pushing for that money by surprise, because it was $3 million more than they were trying to pressure the city to commit, and they were wary that the promised $15 million might be simply passed along from other levels of government.

Dozens of people from a number of organizations, including the Alliance to End Homelessness, community health and resource centres, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, had rallied outside just before the council meeting.

They heard about how single mothers were living in motels and people were struggling to find affordable apartments to rent after a mass eviction at the Heron Gate community last year.

"Somewhere or another he's found the dollars, and $15 million to invest in capital is really excellent news," said Suzanne Doerge of the City for All Women Initiative.

Most of the $15M from one-time sources

Watson said the $15 million could lead to 250 new housing units being built in 2019, up from 120 last year.

Any money that might soon flow to Canadian cities from the federal government to help temporarily house an influx of people seeking asylum from the United States would be extra.

The city's $15 million comes from a variety of sources, such as housing reserves, development charges and some money left over from a federal-provincial program, according to city treasurer Marian Simulik.

Two million dollars come from reserves that might have gone to Ottawa Police to deal with a shortfall, but that the mayor re-assigned to housing.

Very little of the $15 million is renewable beyond the current fiscal year. Still, Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who also chairs the board of Ottawa Community Housing, is thrilled.

He and Coun. Catherine McKenney, the city's housing liaison, had proposed adding a one per cent levy to the tax bill in order to pay for new affordable housing.

"We have a crisis on our hands. We're making sure people aren't on the street, families are in hotels, motels and in shelters. The solution to that is new housing, and today's budget really signifies that shift."

People rallying for more affordable housing in the city's 2019 draft budget received support from Ottawa city councillors Jeff Leiper, Theresa Kavanagh, Catherine McKenney, Mathieu Fleury and Shawn Menard outside city hall on Feb. 6. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Where it will go

Fleury said there would have to be talks with housing staff about who would receive the money to build housing or offer rent supplements, but he hoped it could be sorted out quickly so new housing could be available this year.

He didn't want to see a time-consuming process that requires every non-profit housing corporation to apply and identify land.

Fleury's priority this year would be to get families housed, so they don't have to occupy motels at great cost to the city, something that would free up other money to be better used.

After that, the city will need to find a solution for the next three years of this council's mandate, too, Fleury said.

Doerge said the housing money caught her by surprise, but perhaps it shouldn't have.

"All through the election campaign, the mayor and councillors have been hearing about how important this is and... they heard us."