The Alliance Testifies to House of Commons HUMA Committee

Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA) 
Presented by Meg McCallum | Interim Executive Director | Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa | Monday June 17, 2024

I’d like to acknowledge that Ottawa is located on unceded Algonquin, Anishnabek territory, and is also the home of many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. Put simply, these lands were stolen from the traditional keepers for the purposes of settlers. Dispossession of land is just one form of ongoing colonization that has led to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people disproportionately experiencing homelessness.

The Alliance is a member-driven organization representing over 75 non-profit service providers in the housing and homelessness sector in Ottawa. Our members work within systems that have unintentionally caused homelessness to flourish. They have witnessed the changes over the last 40 years as our country has gone from a small number of (mostly) men experiencing chronic homelessness in the 1980’s; to a mass problem in the mid-2000’s with more than 235,000 Canadians experiencing homelessness in a year, including women, families, seniors, and youth; to an explosion in recent years where homeless encampments are a fixture in Canadian communities and an estimated 10% of people in Ottawa’s shelters are employed but can’t afford housing. 2023 marked the highest numbers on record in Ottawa’s shelter system.

Our shelters are full of people unable to find an affordable home, who in many cases, just need affordable housing. Without being able to access this, people get stuck, increasing the number of people in shelter past the breaking point. This overwhelmed system also means that those with greater needs, often dealing with serious mental health challenges, are not getting the support they need either.

We can’t talk about the lack of investment in housing without also talking about the investments made in homelessness programs and connected systems like emergency services, health and social services, hospitals and the criminal justice system. Homelessness traumatizes people already in crisis and has negative impacts on individuals, families and communities. It is much more expensive than affordable housing and the supports to keep people housed.

The National Homelessness Initiative was created in 1999 to respond to the dramatic growth in homelessness, less than a decade after the funding programs for affordable housing were transferred to Provinces and Territories who lacked the fiscal capacity to support them. Unfortunately, while homelessness programs are well intentioned, we can’t house people without a housing supply. It’s like trying to put out a fire while the gas is turned on and the water is turned off.

The housing programs initiated in the 2000’s have also been well intentioned, but they have not been strategic.

First, under the IAH program, 470,000 new homes were created from 2000 to 2019. Despite this, in Ottawa 31 affordable homes in the private market are now lost for each new unit of purpose-built affordable housing. A recent report in Ottawa on renovictions showed that between 2017 and 2022 there was a 545% increase in the number of eviction notices issued for significant renovations or demolition. We need to protect the affordable stock we have.

Next, "Below market rents", (BMR) which make up the majority of rents produced with IAH and subsequent programs, don't begin to meet the affordability needs of people with low income. BMR sets the affordability in relation to what the market can charge, instead of setting it in relation to the income of those who need housing. In January 2024 the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa was $2,000/mo. Basing BMR rents on the market would indicate that $1,800 for a one-bedroom apartment is an affordable rent. You’d need an income of $72,000 to comfortably afford it, which is out of reach for anyone on a pension, receiving social assistance, or earning a low to moderate wage.

Finally, there is a disconnect between the capital funding from the federal government and provincial funding to operate supportive housing – which is affordable housing with onsite health and social services for people who need ongoing assistance to live independently. Without the provincial commitment, funders like CMHC tell supportive housing non-profits their operating plans aren’t viable – and they’re right. However, the cost of people cycling through homelessness and hospital emergency wards are much higher than the cost of integrating health services into affordable housing.

Without supportive housing options, we are seeing a growing number of tenants in community-based non-profit housing with complex health and social needs, such as mental health challenges and substance use challenges, disabilities, neuro-cognitive issues, and histories of chronic homelessness. These tenants need complex care. Housing tenants with unknown complex needs and little or no support is a failing model. It fails the tenants in need and fails the communities where they live.

So whether we’re talking about learning from the past or planning for the future, there are some clear takeaways:

  • We need sustained investment in building deeply affordable, permanently affordable, non-market housing. Canada needs to double its nonprofit housing stock by 2030 to begin to get a handle on the crisis, and some reports suggest a quadrupling is needed. The recently announced acquisition strategy will also prevent the loss of existing stock. Increasing the percentage of deeply and permanently affordable housing in the housing market will create healthy vacancy rates in the lower end of the market, meet the needs of people who are not served by the private housing market and have a downward drag on market rents overall.
  • Canada needs a universal, income-based definition of affordable housing so we focus housing programs on creating truly affordable housing, regardless of the inadequacy of social assistance rates. 
  • We need to manage affordability by creating national rent control and vacancy de-control legislation, in line with Canada's commitment to Housing as a Human Right.
  • We need to keep people housed through permanent supportive housing

Je vous remercie pour votre temps, et votre attention.

Watch the full committee meeting here

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