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Ottawa city council declares housing, homelessness emergency

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney is among those pushing the city to purchase hotels as an alternative to overcrowding Ottawa's shelter system during the pandemic.
Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney is among those pushing the city to purchase hotels as an alternative to overcrowding Ottawa's shelter system during the pandemic. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

Ottawa city councillor Catherine McKenney’s motion to declare a housing and homeless emergency in the national capital passed unanimously at city council on Wednesday, after councillors agreed to strip the original motion of one word and call the situation both a crisis and an emergency.

The declaration doesn’t give council or the city any special or legal powers to tackle what many say is an escalating problem in the national capital.

But the city “just can’t keep doing the same thing,” argued McKenney, who represents Somerset Ward and serves as council’s liaison for housing and homelessness.

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“We’ve been calling this a crisis for 15 years and nothing has changed,” McKenney said.

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“The call today for an emergency is so that we will have said, as a city, to everyone in our shelters, to people sleeping outside, for the children in motels and their families, to women who flee abuse and get sent back with their kids into often very dangerous and sometimes deadly circumstances, that we’re going to try harder.”

Petition on homelessness presented to Toronto mayor’s office has 25K signatures
Petition on homelessness presented to Toronto mayor’s office has 25K signatures

According to city staff, no other Canadian city has declared a housing emergency in their jurisdiction.

I think it’s something that we can be proud of,” McKenney told reporters afterward.

“We are not often the first. We often — and I think the mayor said this — we’re close followers, rather than leaders.

“It’s the capital city … and we are the perfect municipality, I believe, to lead on this.”

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According to a webpage dedicated to McKenney’s motion, about 92 people in Ottawa sleep outside every night, 600 families are living in “cramped” motel rooms and the wait list for community housing has ballooned to 12,000 households.

About 19,000 households in the national capital spend more than 50 per cent of their income on putting a roof over their heads, according to McKenney, when spending until 30 per cent on housing is what’s considered “affordable” in Canada.

On Wednesday, no councillor disputed that the state of housing in Ottawa is in a dire situation. But some, including Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder, argued that “emergency” wasn’t the most appropriate word to use in this context, leading to a passionate debate between councillors over language.

READ MORE: One-quarter of Ottawa’s homeless are refugees and immigrants, survey suggests

The text of McKenney’s original motion called on the city to “officially declare an affordable housing and homelessness emergency.” Coun. Jan Harder proposed calling it “an ongoing critical and urgent crisis,” rather than an emergency.

While a few threw their support behind Harder’s amendment, many others argued it didn’t go far enough.

“Lives are at stake and when lives are at stake, we call that an emergency,” Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper implored.

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“It is not enough for us to call this a crisis.”

Working on city’s homelessness crisis with One City Peterborough
Working on city’s homelessness crisis with One City Peterborough

In the end, both the words “crisis” and “emergency” ended up in the final version of the motion. McKenney accepted a proposal from Mayor Jim Watson to have the city “declare” — not “officially declare” — an affordable housing and homelessness “crisis and emergency.”

Watson told reporters afterward he wanted the word “officially” taken out because of the connotation of declaring a state of emergency like the city did during the 2019 spring floods, which did give the municipality additional powers.

“I think it’s important that we not sort of mislead anyone into thinking that just because we passed this resolution, there’s gonna be some miracle happening the next day,” the mayor said.

“The reason why I consider it a crisis is because it is a long-term problem and it’s going to take long-term commitments by all three levels of government to get the issue resolved.

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“I was glad, at the end of the day, we were able to find some some middle ground.”

Twenty councillors voted in favour of McKenney’s amended motion. Councillors George Darouze and Allan Hubley were not in their seats during the vote. Councillors Diane Deans and Rick Chiarelli were absent.

McKenney said the final motion still has “the full intent” of what they wanted. The motion called for “more aggressive targets” to preserve and bolster Ottawa’s affordable housing supply and eliminate chronic homelessness completely by 2024, which the city set as its goal in its 10-year housing and homelessness plan.

The declaration also called on council to ask the provincial and federal governments for an “immediate increase in emergency funding” for housing, housing supports and allowances.

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City officials to press province, feds for more funding

McKenney said it was important to deal with the motion this month because the Ontario and federal governments are doing consultations ahead of their next budgets.

In his state of the city address on Wednesday, Watson said he recently spoke to the provincial finance and housing minister “to stress the urgent need for new funding to support and build more affordable housing.”

The mayor and McKenney said they’re meeting with the federal minister of families, children and social development on Friday to do the same.

Halifax organization finding innovative ways to provide people with a place to call home
Halifax organization finding innovative ways to provide people with a place to call home

Ahead of council’s meeting on Wednesday, councillors received an update on the city’s 10-year housing and homeless plan, which has supposedly been “refreshed” following a midpoint review.

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The memo — signed by Watson, McKenney and Coun. Jenna Sudds, who chairs the community and protective services committee –– outlined a number of pressures on Ottawa’s housing and rental market at the moment, including rising rents, low vacancy rates, low turnover in the community housing stock, sluggish movement on the centralized wait list for social housing, and immigration and migration to the national capital.

The memo argued “urgent investment from all three levels of government” is needed to increase the supply of affordable housing in Ottawa, create new housing subsidies, help chronically homeless people and those who require supportive housing because of a disability or serious injury.

The city will send its refreshed plan to the province for review by the end of this week.