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Federal funds to create 109 affordable housing units in Ottawa; councillors push for more in budget

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney said they will not support the proposed increase to Ottawa's police budget and will put forward another motion to boost spending on affordable housing and other social supports. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

The federal government on Tuesday outlined the details of its plan to spend $31.9 million on affordable housing in Ottawa as some councillors geared up to push for more funds during Wednesday’s municipal budget deliberations.

The previously announced funding is part of the feds’ planned $1 billion in spending under the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI), the first $500 million of which aims to help cities and housing providers to quickly purchase existing properties such as motels and convert them into affordable housing units.

Ottawa has four projects lined up with three non-profit partners, Mayor Jim Watson said at a press conference Tuesday morning.

Read more: Ottawa mayor asks feds for cash to tackle rising pressure on emergency shelters

The proposals will see 77 units of supportive housing for single men and women who are homeless. These units will have a special focus on Inuit, First Nations and Métis people, with 29 units specifically allocated for women.

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Another 32 units will act as affordable housing for families in the emergency shelter system, with the goal of supporting newcomers and Black families.

Ottawa has another three proposals in the works for the other half of the RHI funding, which focuses on building new affordable housing projects and has yet to be allocated.

Earlier this year, Ottawa city council declared a housing and homelessness emergency.

Speaking at the funding announcement Tuesday morning, Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna said she had recently been handing out COVID-19 fliers in her Ottawa Centre riding when she met a man who was living out of his truck heading into the capital’s cold winter months.

“That’s what the housing crisis looks like here in Ottawa, a pretty rich city,” McKenna said, emphasizing the need for affordable housing funding during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Motion for more funding coming Wednesday

But the federal housing funding is just a start for some councillors, including Somerset Ward’s Catherine McKenney, who is planning to push for more support for the city’s most vulnerable residents in the 2021 budget.

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City council will meet Wednesday to approve or make final changes to the proposed $3.9-billion draft budget for 2021, which already includes $15 million in spending on additional affordable housing units.

Read more: Ottawa council approves Barrhaven LRT route, putting 120 homes in jeopardy

McKenney is putting forward a motion that would see an extra $13.2 million in funding go towards affordable housing, social supports and non-police-led emergency response teams for people in local neighbourhoods facing homelessness, addiction or mental health crises.

Such an increase to the budget would require a hike to the citywide tax levy of 1.33 per cent on top of the proposed three per cent property tax increase for 2021.

McKenney, council’s liaison for housing and homelessness issues, has the backing of Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King and a few other councillors who expressed their support for the motion on Twitter.

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McKenney has also said they won’t support the proposed $13.2-million increase to the Ottawa Police Services budget. Should that portion of the draft budget increase fail at council, the gap could fully fund McKenney’s motion.

The two funding priorities — the police budget and affordable housing with other social supports — are tightly connected issues to McKenney.

“We cannot continue to defund health, social services and housing while increasing funding to police,” they wrote in a blog post explaining their rationale.

McKenney has pushed for this shift in priorities at council numerous times in the past few months, with mixed results.

An attempt to take the planned increase to the OPS budget and give it instead to Ottawa Public Health failed in October, while a later motion asking the police to reform the local response to mental health crises passed unanimously following tweaks to align with existing priorities within the local police board.

McKenney envisions a new model of emergency response that would see a non-police-led intervention for those struggling with addiction or mental health crises.

“We can’t continue to respond to issues of inequity and health with police calls. It’s unfair to police and it’s unfair to the people that we’re calling on,” they told Global News in October.

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Police budget an area of controversy

Among the line items on the proposed $13.2-million increase to the OPS budget is $1.5 million for the development of a new mental health strategy, crafted in partnership between police, health experts and community stakeholders.

OPS Chief Peter Sloly has dismissed arguments that defunding the police would result in better outcomes for people struggling with mental health.

He has outlined a vision that would see police moved from the “head of the parade” to the middle of the pack when it comes to responding to mental health calls, but said it will take time to put such a system in place.

Read more: ‘Defunding’ police and funding mental health resources will save lives, experts say

“We all want to get out of this business (of responding to mental health calls) as much as we possibly can, but as safely and effectively as we can,” he said in October.

“Simply taking money and throwing it somewhere else does not create that capability. It will reduce the time for service, it will actually increase the silos and the lack of information sharing going on.”

Dozens of delegations who showed up to the Ottawa Police Services Board in late November called for a freeze to the local police budget in 2021.

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Members of Ottawa’s Black and Indigenous communities have expressed distrust in the police board’s priorities as of late, especially after a demonstration was removed from a downtown Ottawa intersection in the middle of the night in November, hours before protesters were slated to meet with councillors and members of the board to discuss their demands.

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