Ending Homelessness Starts With Non-Profit Housing

By: Sophia Kelly-Langer

Take a moment to picture a person experiencing a housing crisis. What does it look like? For some, it looks like sitting out in the cold, hoping that the shelter is not full, so they can actually get in that night. For others, it looks like a family struggling to make the rent after a lay-off. It may look like a senior on a fixed income unable to downsize in their neighbourhood because there are no affordable options.


In the most extreme cases, a housing crisis looks like people living in encampments, some directly in front of Parliament Hill. These have become the only shelter options for some, including children and youth under bridges. The jarring contrast of the most vulnerable going without the basic need of housing just feet away from our country’s decision-makers is not lost on the people living in an encampment.

Some people living in encampments have a dog by their side, offering therapeutic companionship and protection. Many know that they will lose their companion if they enter an emergency shelter. Others have a much loved partner they wouldn’t dream of leaving behind. Others, after a lifetime of abandonment, can’t imagine moving on, leaving their community very literally out in the cold. 


A housing crisis can look like many different things for a household. During my time in one central Ottawa apartment building, I was struck by the way this crisis looked for several families. Three units were side by side, each housing a family raising children with three people to a bedroom. There was no grocery store within walking distance. Rents were more than double the maximum Ontario Works housing allowance, and a simple load of laundry cost tenants $5 per load. Upward mobility was a distant dream. Children grew up while their family’s debt rose. 


Many more families with children experience homelessness living in run-down motels, struggling to put down roots with a kitchenette serving breakfast and no on-site staff supporting a transition to permanent, affordable housing. Still, people try to find housing. But 5-7 year waitlists and narrow acceptance criteria leave them homeless, waiting for housing, year after year. 


Today, Canada’s non-profit housing stock sits at a shocking 3.5%, among the lowest in wealthy nations across the globe. In contrast, 20% of the Netherlands housing stock is non-profit. Similarly, 25% of Scotland’s total stock is non-profit housing. This simply means housing that operates at cost. There is no shareholder or landlord requiring profit on the other end of a lease. 


Given Canada’s abysmal amount of non-profit housing, it’s no wonder Canadians are left waiting. At the current rate of Ottawa’s development for non-profit housing stock, it will take us 100 years to address our current deficit. This assumes that there is no loss of existing affordable housing or population growth.  We don’t have a century to wait before the rights of our neighbours are upheld. 


This is a humanitarian crisis, but there are solutions. Ottawa has many gifts. Empty publicly owned land sits waiting. A robust network of non-profit housing organizations are ready to develop. The LRT has opened doors to a new world of transit oriented communities. Scaling up non-profit housing in Ottawa means that we need to use every tool available to create the kind of affordable housing that exists permanently. This requires changes to zoning decisions, fee waivers for non-profits, stacking subsidies to deliver deeply affordable housing as well as middle-market housing and ultimately committing to using public land for public good. 


There is no contest when comparing one’s quality of life between a co-op and a tent; supportive housing, and a couch, or a mixed-income development and a run-down motel. City Hall and the housing and homelessness sector have a chance to stand together and show our capacity to use every resource at our disposal to end the crisis. 


Three years into a state of emergency, with existing targets moving further and further away, there is no time left to wait. Scaling up non-profit housing is our pathway to a more ethical, more sustainable, and safer city. Ottawa has an opportunity to be a role model for excellence in non-profit housing. We have to take it.


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