Three years ago, Ottawa’s council unanimously declared a housing and homelessness emergency. Since that time, the price of housing has risen to alarming levels. Rental prices have increased by 20 per cent from 2021 to 2022 alone. Fewer and fewer people can afford to live in this city, and far too many are on the edge of homelessness due to lack of affordability. It’s clear that we have yet to meaningfully respond to the root causes of this emergency.
The house is on fire, but we haven’t called 911.
There are many factors that contribute to homelessness and housing insecurity in Ottawa. Responses must include providing adequate support to people experiencing mental illness, substance use and intimate partner violence, as well as addressing the impacts of trauma and colonization. However, the one common thread for all people experiencing homelessness is: they simply do not have a home.
Prior to the 1980s, homelessness did not exist on the scale we see today. The most significant difference between then and now is that Canada was building almost 20,000 social housing or non-profit units every single year. During the 1980s, we built less and less non-profit housing and by the 1990s, the federal government had stopped investing in non-profit housing for almost a decade. We are now decades into a terrible policy choice, and we are seeing the results.
This history is forgotten when leaders name a lack of supply as the reason for the housing and homelessness crisis. The data tells a different story. Between 2006 and 2016, Canada’s private market housing stock outpaced household population growth by almost 30,000 homes. The majority of people buying homes in Canada already own homes. One in four homeowners owns multiple properties. They’ve benefited from the rising prices of homes upping the value of their “housing assets.”
In combination with historically low interest rates until this past year, this relatively small group of Canadians has huge purchasing power, driving excessive price increases.
Supply alone will not decrease prices as long as housing remains an investment asset. When profit intersects with human rights, we all lose.
In order to truly tackle the housing crisis, we desperately need more affordable, purpose-built supply. While there are important tools such as rent subsidies to make private market units more affordable, the most impactful change we can make to end the housing and homelessness crisis is to do what we’ve done before: build non-profit housing — housing outside of the private market, that is purpose-built to provide lower-cost rental options. This includes a range of housing such as co-ops, community housing and supportive housing.
Non-profit housing is a smart investment. Rents stay affordable in the long term as market rates increase. It can also reduce the cost of housing in the private market through competition from legitimately affordable options.
Infrastructure takes time. One key tool that the city can use is acquiring existing rental properties at risk of being sold for the purpose of higher priced rental. The city can purchase these rentals and turn them over to non-profit housing providers. The City of Montreal is doing this already and Gatineau’s city council has committed to exploring this idea further.
As Ottawa’s new council sets its priorities, we hope that it will reignite the urgency of this crisis. Non-profit housing is the foundation of ending the housing and homelessness crisis. We’ve made choices to de-invest in this for almost half a century and seen the results. It’s time we made a smarter choice.