Cities expecting welcome cash for housing in federal budget

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Cities expecting welcome cash for housing in federal budget

Municipalities that have been pushing for months, if not years, for increased funding for affordable housing, are expecting more good news in Wednesday's federal budget, according to the City of Ottawa's special liaison on the issue.

Coun. Mark Taylor and Mayor Jim Watson met Monday with the federal minister responsible for housing, Jean-Yves Duclos.

Duclos didn't divulge details of what will be in the document, Taylor said.

"He did, however, very warmly allude to the fact that this would be a budget that was good for housing; it would be a budget that actually showed that the federal government wanted to be engaged on this with municipalities directly," Taylor said. 

Any new allocations would build on the $2.3 billion over two years for housing and homelessness announced in the 2016 federal budget. The City of Ottawa ended up receiving $16 million in 2016-17 from the federal and provincial governments for social housing repairs.

But the change in tone comes after 15 years during which cities like Ottawa struggled mainly on their own to keep up buildings downloaded to them by the province.

The federal minister has met with the city before and knows well the challenges Ottawa continues to face, Taylor said. It needs to repair buildings far past their prime, and create more than a few dozen new units each year if it wants to tackle the waiting list of 10,000 impoverished households in any significant way.

Ottawa's $250 million housing ask

Not only does the City of Ottawa own two-thirds of the area's social housing units through the arm's length Ottawa Community Housing Corporation, but it also acts as the funnel through which operating subsidies flow to some 50 other housing providers, and it runs competitions when capital money is made available for new building projects.

In the lead up to the federal budget, the City of Ottawa made three big requests: renew multi-year agreements that are set to expire; provide $20 million annually to deal with the perpetual shortfall for repairing existing buildings; and — the priciest request — triple the money for building new units to total $200 million over the next several years.

"He didn't throw us out of the office when we said that," said Taylor about whether it's realistic to ask for such a large amount of money, which the city estimates could pay for 1,300 new units locally.

"It's no secret to him that that's kind of in the ball park of what's needed."

Taylor's not sure this budget will provide quite that amount, but he does expect the federal government to come up with other tools for creating housing choices for people, such as portable subsidies that help them afford rent in the private sector.

Ottawa Community Housing ready for money to flow

In a challenging climate when upper levels of government have put little money into new construction — even the City of Ottawa itself has gone a few years without investing in extra units — Ottawa's largest social housing provider has tried to get its own house in order and get creative.

About five years ago, Ottawa Community Housing Corporation set out a new strategy. It took an inventory of the state of its 15,000 units, and figured out how to raise money to replace or repair them. It refinances loans, rents out rooftops for cell phone towers, and sells some small, old properties that require too many repairs.

That's helped it to build new units, such as a row of environmentally conscious townhouses in its west-end Michele Heights neighbourhood.

They are also the type of units that are in short supply: accessible units and four- or five-bedroom homes for large families.

"We've built a number of these smaller builds, and when you see the impact it has on the people moving in, you really appreciate how much it can change someone's life," said Cliff Youdale, Ottawa Community Housing's vice-president of asset management.

"And the nice thing about this investment is it's for the next 60 to 80 years. It's not just this family, it's all the subsequent families."

Having done all the planning, and with recent successes under its belt, Youdale says Ottawa Community Housing has projects waiting for any good news out of the federal budget.

"We've put ourselves in a position that when any funding becomes available, we'll be ready to react," Youdale said.