City urged to use government-owned land for affordable housing
Ottawa has an "impressive stock" of government-owned land that could be turned over to non-profit housing providers to build a thousand new affordable units a year, a community-led report recommends.
A who's-who of local housing organizations and experts spoke at the City of Ottawa's planning and housing committee Wednesday, showing support for the new report and "rallying cry" from the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa.
Many described the growing and deep need for housing. Rents are soaring — including for the 40,000 students estimated to be renting — while dozens of homeless families are living in shelters, they said.
Getting land to build on is a key challenge, and the best solution to homelessness is making government-owned parcels available for free for non-profit projects, said university housing researcher Carolyn Whitzman, who wrote the report.
"I can throw reports at you for the rest of the day. That's what the international consensus is," Whitzman told councillors.
Whitzman said one survey suggested some 200 government-owned sites could be candidates for housing in Ottawa.
The alliance's executive director Kaite Burkholder Harris, meanwhile, challenged the City of Ottawa to quickly offer up parcels it had already identified a few years ago for housing along LRT lines.
"There's a reason that Alberta is leading the way when it comes to reducing homelessness in significant ways. It's because they're cowboys. They're willing to actually say, you know, we're going to break some things and make it happen," said Burkholder Harris.
"We are sometimes in a position where our default setting is 'no.' Our default setting needs to become 'yes.'"
Non-profit groups are organized and able to push projects ahead, Burkholder Harris pointed out, and the timing is right since a new federal "housing accelerator fund" will start accepting applications in June.
City councillors were receptive Wednesday, as during last fall's election many cited housing as one of the biggest — if not the biggest — issue for this term of council.
They also asked city staff what it would take to unlock those city properties.
Some would need to be decontaminated, while others are being used as staging sites for construction of Stage 2 of LRT, explained David Wise, the city's acting director of economic development and long-term planning.
The new council also decided last December to refocus the mandate of the Ottawa Community Lands Development Corporation so that it not only sells off surplus lands but does so with an eye to developing more affordable housing.
The city's housing department would get first rights to those lands, even before they are sold off, councillors were told.
'We're going to take it to heart'
On the whole, Wise said the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa report contained many recommendations that mesh with the city's ongoing work.
The city is in the midst of updating its long-term plan for housing and homelessness and has committed to provincial targets to significantly boost the number of homes built.
"This is one of those all-hands-on-deck situations," said Wise.
"This [report] has some valuable feedback, some valuable input, and we're going to take it to heart."