Mayor Jim Watson signalled Friday that he is serious about providing funding to battle homelessness, and increase rent subsidies and affordable housing units in the city.
Speaking to members of the Alliance to End Homelessness, Watson elaborated on the commitments laid out in the city’s draft budget presented to council on Wednesday. The budget would provide $10 million dollars annually to fight homelessness, while $4 million would be provided over each of the next four years to develop and maintain affordable housing.
There are currently over 10,000 people in Ottawa waiting for social housing units to become available.
The plan mirrors the campaign pledge Watson issued during the municipal election in October. Watson believes that city council will pass the budget with the full funding being proposed. He said that by providing the funding for poverty issues, it gets the attention of the provincial and federal governments in providing more funding as well.
“It’s often hard to be taken seriously by the other levels of government if we don’t pony up some money ourselves,” said Watson.
The $4 million dollar yearly funding is being drawn from the city’s capital budget, and has to be spent on capital projects and maintenance of existing housing units. With the remaining $10 million, Watson would like to see $5 million go into providing rent subsidies, which is the quickest way to provide housing. He did acknowledge that with vacancy rate so low, that is easier said than done.
With the remaining money, Watson would like to consult with community partners to figure out how best to spend it.
“I want to work cooperatively with the [housing] providers, and get that money out the door as soon as possible and spent wisely,” he said.
Marion Wright, Chair for the Alliance to End Homelessness, welcomed the funding and said that the current situation is untenable. Wright said the funds being provided in the draft budget is much greater than in the past years.
“This is a very upfront, strategic, longer-term process with targeted outcomes,” Wright said.
Ottawa Community housing is the city’s largest provider of affordable housing, owning 15,000 units which house over 35,000 people. Jo-Anne Poirier, CEO of the organization, says that the funding announcement is an encouraging start. But she said they will continue to look to the provincial and federal governments for grant funding.
“We are looking at a myriad of solutions to help finance our capital needs,” said Poirier.
With a housing stock that is on average 35 years old, millions of dollars are needed for deferred maintenance alone.
Poirier believes a housing strategy that incorporates affordable housing as well as rent subsidies will greatly reduce the stress currently on the system, and move people out of emergency shelters.
The stress placed on the shelters is not only because of the number of people staying the night, but the length of their stay. The average shelter stay for a family is 64 days. The city’s shelters have no more room for beds, and are full to capacity every night. The Ottawa Mission has started putting beds anywhere where space is available, even retrofitting old closet space for beds.
City council will debate and vote on approving the budget from March 8 to 10.