Advocates push Ottawa to buy hotels as housing for city’s homeless during coronavirus 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

As many hotels across the nation’s capital sit empty, some are seeing an opportunity to both protect the city’s vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic and address long-term homelessness concerns in Ottawa.

Advocates working to promote affordable housing in Ottawa are teaming up with the city’s emergency shelters for the #Hotels2Homes campaign, a push for the city to purchase hotels or motels as multi-unit housing options to protect Ottawa’s homeless and vulnerable populations during the pandemic.

Organizers are holding a social media blitz on Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to pressure Ottawa city councillors, Mayor Jim Watson and local members of Parliament for federal funding to support the initiative.

The City of Ottawa has already announced $11.4 million in spending — sourced from both federal and provincial funding pools — to address issues such as overcrowding in the city’s emergency shelter system by renting hotel rooms and providing housing support agencies with much-needed cash to finance their work during the pandemic.

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READ MORE: City of Ottawa to spend $11.4M to support homeless population during coronavirus pandemic

But Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney, who spearheaded a successful campaign to have the city declare a housing emergency in January, says renting hotel rooms during the pandemic is thinking too short-term.

When the pandemic ends and the majority of residents return to some semblance of normalcy, Ottawa’s vulnerable populations will still be sent back to an overcrowded shelter system.

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“It is absolutely unconscionable that we will come out of this pandemic, all of us will come out of our homes eventually, and (we will) send people back into crowded shelters,” McKenney tells Global News.

Though McKenney believes many members of Ottawa’s hotel sector will also bounce back from the pandemic, which has kneecapped the city’s tourism industry amid a virtual standstill on travel, there may be some hotels that are not viable in the long term.

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McKenney acknowledges that hotels are not perfect solutions to the pandemic or a long-term housing crisis, as many units would require retrofits to add kitchens and other amenities before they could operate as self-contained homes.

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The councillor argues, however, that long-term costs should not prevent the city from acting on today’s opportunity to repurpose empty beds to supplement Ottawa’s stock of affordable housing.

Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, said in an email Wednesday that there may be opportunities to repurpose local hotels as affordable housing options amid the pandemic, provided there are interested parties willing to sell.

There are currently no estimates on how much federal funding would be needed for the city to buy a hotel, as the costs could vary based on what properties are available and whether purchases are done outright or through a lease-to-buy approach.

The campaign urging the city to purchase a hotel has been co-signed by four of Ottawa’s emergency shelter providers, the Alliance to End Homelessness and Ottawa Inner City Health.

McKenney says more than 1,000 letters have so far been sent to local MPs asking for their support.

Though Ottawa advocates can’t gather for a rally like they did in January to push the city to declare a housing emergency, McKenney hopes the social media campaign Wednesday afternoon will show officials a critical mass of support for the #Hotels2Homes initiative.

“We had hundreds of people come out on one of the coldest mornings of the year but we can’t do that now,” McKenney says.

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“We’re hoping that many, many people are putting this out in social media, calling their member of Parliament, calling the mayor and demanding that real action is taken.”

Watson said in a statement via his office that he’s “supportive of looking at all options to ensure that the city’s investments are helping the most vulnerable in Ottawa” but noted the provincial and federal governments would have to come to the table before the city could commit to any such initiative.

Elsewhere Wednesday, Watson was touring a new temporary shelter at the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre.

The city-run facility will act as overflow for the men’s shelter system and make additional space for physical distancing during the pandemic.

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