My Op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen: In Ottawa, the key to a decent life is housing for all

The city’s rental market has seen the highest rental growth in the country. But it’s not enough, and it’s not affordable.

In my role as a city councillor and chair of Ottawa Community Housing, I meet and speak with many individuals, some with heartbreaking stories to share.

For instance, a young mother, with three kids under the age of 10, was placed in a motel as a short-term solution to her housing problem, shortly after her arrival in Ottawa. She told me how relieved she was with the quick response from the city in offering emergency accommodations.

Only, a year later, she’s still at that motel.

This space – a small room with no kitchen – is not a place to call home.

“How long are my kids going to be here?” she asked me. Honestly, I couldn’t give her a concrete answer.

On average, 2,000 residents live at shelters and temporary motels every night. The City of Ottawa pays motels, starting at $110 per night, to house vulnerable families like hers. That’s $3,300 per month spent by the city for one family.

The average length of stay for families is 123 days, but many live in these conditions for years before they have a key to their own home.

When it comes to solving homelessness, it starts with a vision based on the power of this key.

On Jan. 15, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation released its vacancy rates for Canada’s major cities – and Ottawa’s rental market saw the highest rental growth in the country, with the average price for a two-bedroom apartment increasing to $1,410 a month.

I believe we can do better. Our current model feels a little bit like giving you a cast for an aching foot when a good pair of shoes is all that is needed.

Rental vacancy rates, even at a 0.2 per cent increase, show no sign of being part of a rental housing shift. In the city’s core, CMHC thinks the rise in the vacancy rate is driven primarily by two-bedroom units. But the price of renting these available units is 17-per-cent higher than the Canadian average. Kanata, the report found, had the highest average rent for a vacant two-bedroom unit, 62-per-cent higher than the Canadian average.

But what does this all mean? And how does this help a mother of three? Or a single woman stuck sleeping in a shelter?

Ottawa is a great city. It has a low unemployment rate, higher than average household income, and is known for its quality of life. But still homelessness and poverty challenges continue to exist.

I believe we can do better. Our current model feels a little bit like giving you a cast for an aching foot when a good pair of shoes is all that is needed.

CMHC offers a snapshot of what is happening in this city. But with no rental capacity, many are left behind. Affordable housing units are needed, and we need to change our current model so that housing is a right, not a privilege.

Continuing to invest new money into an old model has not fixed the outcome. Unless we build thousands of rental units, to create capacity, we are doomed to continue to pay for shelters and motels. A house key is out of reach.

There are 12,000 people on the city’s waitlist for affordable housing, and if all levels of government worked together to help provide a key – the most affordable option – it would unlock a home for everyone, not just a quick solution for the night with no real end in sight.

I challenge builders to help increase capacity by building more rental units in our city. More available units create an affordable city.

A key offers hope, and my hope is to put a key in every hand, ensuring we all have a place to call home. A key for that mother of three gives her a kitchen, bedrooms and certainty for their future. I invite all levels of government to participate in this conversation to unlock the potential of rental housing, a modern solution to solve homelessness issues facing our city, and cities across Canada.

Mathieu Fleury is the councillor for Rideau-Vanier, representing Sandy Hill, Lowertown and Vanier. He is also the Chair of Ottawa Community Housing – the largest landlord in Ottawa, with 15,000 homes and more than 32,000 tenants. Check out his TED Talk on this subject, at:

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