We must fund affordable housing: Alliance Deputation to City of Ottawa Community Protective Services Committee

Good Morning Members of the Community Protective Services Committee,

My name is Kaite Burkholder Harris, and I’m the Executive Director of the Alliance to End Homelessness in Ottawa. We are dedicated to the city-wide prevention and end of homelessness through public education, advocacy, and system planning. 

At the beginning of this year, City Council became the first in Canada to acknowledge that we have a housing and homelessness emergency. This was a bold decision and we commend Councillors for it. 

Emergencies require action and commitment. We must use every possible tool to strengthen a housing-focused response to homelessness. The vast majority of homelessness is an affordability issue — increasing affordable housing means both increasing supply and using regulatory mechanisms to ensure housing costs remain affordable. In five years, we lost almost 8,000 affordable units while only 1,000 new affordable units were added in Ottawa. We are losing more affordable housing than we are building. Despite best efforts, we are at a net loss. 

Maintaining an emergency response to homelessness is not cost-effective. The cost of housing just one family in a hotel or motel costs the City $3,000 a month or $36,000 a year (double that if a family needs 2 rooms). To house a family in a rental apartment - that provides stability, dignity and choice - cuts at least a third of that cost. Every year, the City pays $12 million minimum for the 300 + families in motels. These costs do not include the remaining shelters, emergency services, and crisis management support services required when a person or family does not have a stable, affordable place to live.

In the next few months, there are over 3,200 households at risk of eviction because of not having paid rent, due to COVID- related loss of income. If even a fraction of these households reach the shelter system, costs will significantly escalate. 

These costs will keep growing unless we invest heavily in preventing homelessness. We can’t make the shift from an emergency focused response to a prevention and stability focused response until we invest in it. 

Budgets demonstrate priorities. When we look at this year’s City budget, the housing and homelessness emergency does not appear to be a top priority. We recognize that COVID-19 has put significant financial stress on the City. And yet, affordable housing is a key pillar of ending the spread of COVID. Getting control of this virus requires us all to “stay home”. Our shelter numbers alone indicate that at least 8000 people a year do not have that option. That number is only growing as the pandemic puts more households under financial stress.

We are glad to see the City’s maintaining the previous capital commitment of $15M, and we urge you to do more. Advocates have been pushing for $20M to demonstrate the ongoing commitment to address the housing and homelessness emergency. With a crisis this size, every dollar counts.

I urge this committee to not only push for continued capital investments, but to also be creative with how people are getting housed. 

Paying rental arrears before families become homeless regardless of whether they qualify under existing programs makes fiscal sense. 

Funding head leases or providing signing bonuses for landlords to hold units makes fiscal sense. 

Converting hotels or motels who have little other revenue right now to affordable housing makes fiscal sense. 

The humanitarian case for ending homelessness is clear, and I know Councillors support it. The fiscal case however is not always so clear. So today, I’m presenting that case. Preventing and ending homelessness is more cost-effective than maintaining it. We have the tools, expertise, and skills to end homelessness in this City, and in the context of this budget discussion, we are already spending significant money on homelessness with few results. It is time to change the direction of our investment and focus on prevention. Thank you for your time today. 

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