City keeps apartment deal for overflow family shelter in Vanier

·3 min read
The City of Ottawa pays to house families in these apartments in Vanier when family shelters are overflowing. Many stay months, if not years. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)
The City of Ottawa pays to house families in these apartments in Vanier when family shelters are overflowing. Many stay months, if not years. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)

The City of Ottawa will keep using the privately-owned Tabor Apartments in Vanier as emergency shelter space, but will put out a call to see if other landlords or hotels might offer units to help with a big spike in families needing housing.

Since 2015, the city has paid Ottawa Inn owner Ahmed Syed to use his building.

It pays $89 a night per unit for 15 families at Tabor, a sliver of the 370 homeless families now staying in motels and dorms, often for months or years, under 22 other such agreements.

Some councillors had called on colleagues to end the deal at Tabor later this year and find the families permanent housing amid concerns about pests and a lack of a proper procurement.

During a marathon 11-hour joint meeting Tuesday, the finance and community services committees voted 14 to 5 against ending the arrangement.

With shelter space especially tight during the pandemic, they agreed instead to Coun. Laura Dudas's move to put out a new request for offers to see if others might also offer temporary accommodation for families.

Families choose Tabor over motel

City staff explained if the families of seven, eight, or nine people were to leave Tabor, they could only be relocated to multiple motel rooms with no kitchen. Laws would prevent these families from jumping the long queue for permanent, subsidized homes.

One woman who visits the families every day said they told her to tell councillors they would prefer to stay at Tabor rather than wait in a motel for a large enough unit.

"These families are given an option between bad and bad," said Gwen Madiba, who befriended many of them when delivering food hampers.

Almost all the families at Tabor apartments are Black and many are single moms. They didn't feel comfortable addressing councillors themselves for fear of losing housing because of power imbalances or that their religions expect them to accept what's given, explained Madiba.

Gwen Madiba is president of Equal Chance, a group that empowers Black women and also provides food hampers to the families at Tabor apartments.
Gwen Madiba is president of Equal Chance, a group that empowers Black women and also provides food hampers to the families at Tabor apartments.(Kate Porter/CBC)

One statement by an 11-year-old girl described her struggle to focus on school in a small apartment with her brothers and mother, hearing rodents in walls, and crying with her mom when they feel forgotten.

"We don't want to move unless you can give us a place where we can stay forever," wrote the girl.

Inspections satisfy staff

Some families at Tabor told CBC News last week about issues with bed bugs, cockroaches and rats. Owner Syed insisted he deals with issues quickly when he receives complaints and is only trying to help.

Public health, bylaw and city housing staff had made several inspections and all issues were dealt with, agreed general manager Donna Gray.

"We are a social services department. We do not want anyone living in horrible conditions and our staff go above and beyond to make the lives of these families as best as they can," she said.

The pandemic also made it hard to have contractors go into apartments, Gray added.

"This is not a trial of Mr. Syed," agreed Madiba.

"It's the system that … constantly seems to be working against these people. Let us all sit down and try to find a solution."

City plans new housing

Earlier in the meeting, the joint committee approved a 10-year roadmap for how to build and pay for 500 new affordable housing units annually in partnership with Ottawa Community Housing and other non-profits.

They also intend to fund two new facilities, one for families and one for women, with 40 to 50 beds that could reduce the need for motels.

More immediately, the Dudas motion calls for the city to run another "housing blitz" as it did late in 2020 to see if landlords have permanent units.

The city will also request temporary accommodations.

"People might be willing," said John Dickie of the Eastern Ontario Landlords Organization.

"Anywhere that students rented there are vacant units, so it's possible people might step up. This is new territory for all of us."