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Housing is more than a roof over our heads

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Rental signs. Image: Ashley Brown/Flickr

As rents skyrocket and vacancy rates plummet, low- and moderate-income tenants in Ottawa are facing an affordability crisis that is pricing them out of their communities. As the city stands by, corporate developers are displacing families through gentrification and mass evictions. Some of Ottawa's most affordable market rental units are lost, as whole communities are demolished to make way for luxury rentals.

It is impossible to deny that the state of affordable housing in Ottawa is in crisis: 42 per cent of Ottawa households are spending over 30 per cent of their income on rent and utilities, and 20 per cent are spending over 50 per cent of their income on rent and utilities. This crisis is particularly harsh for our most economically vulnerable. For example, a report by ACORN using City of Ottawa data released in August 2018 finds that "83 per cent of households earning less than $10,000 live in severely unaffordable housing, spending more than half their income on rent, compared to 0.2 per cent of renter households earning over $60,000."

Without access to adequate housing that is affordable, people and families are forced to make hard choices between paying for groceries, medication, a bus pass, hydro bills, and their rent.

In addition to housing that is affordable, families also deserve housing that is livable. It is a sad reality, but often the housing that is most affordable for low-income tenants is also in the worst condition. The problems include: pest infestations, elevators not working for long periods of time, problems with proper heating, safety issues related to doors not locking properly, and basic repairs in apartments that tenants are entitled to, but which landlords refuse to perform.

In 2017, ACORN surveyed 165 tenants in Ottawa about the state of their housing. Here were some of the findings: 

  • 40 per cent of survey respondents reported cockroaches in their building.
  • 22 per cent reported having bedbugs in the past two years.
  • 21 per cent reported mould in their units.
  • 33 per cent reported have problems with heat in the winter.
  • 53 per cent reported having problems getting repairs done.
  • 23 per cent reported feeling threatened to make a complaint to their landlords.

Why is this happening?

Because right now our approach to addressing the condition of housing is complaint-based. This means that if a tenant has a problem getting repairs done from their landlords, they can call for a property standards inspection using 311.

However, this is a reactive system that places all the onus on tenants when there are many reasons why tenants don't make complaints about their housing conditions. Often, there are language barriers in communicating with 311, many tenants are fearful of retaliation from their landlords if they complain to the city, tenants often may not know their rights, and a significant population of tenants don't know that 311 even exists. Nearly 22 per cent of those surveyed in the 2017 report did not know what 311 was, and nearly one-third said they didn't see any point in calling.

Last month, ACORN did a repairs canvas in Herongate to collect tenants' issues to submit to the city's property standards officers and help tenants get repairs. Over just three days of canvassing, we collected 92 work orders from households wanting inspections from the city, because their corporate landlord, Timbercreek, had been unresponsive. We asked every single tenant we spoke to at their door if they had ever heard of 311 and only 20 per cent responded affirmatively.

Moreover, there is no incentive in our system for landlords to do repairs for long-standing tenants. Long-term tenants often explain how difficult it can be to get repairs done. Even if they call 311 for an inspection, they might get fed up with the delays or being kept in the dark. They may eventually move out, and that complaint gets dropped without the issue ever being resolved, unless the next tenant decides to pick it up from scratch. Without real rent control, as soon as a tenant leaves, the landlord can raise the rent without restriction. Landlords can therefore make more money by neglecting their units or by renovating after a tenant leaves, so they can charge the next tenant a luxury price.

Tenants cannot keep up with these rising rents. In Ottawa, from 2005 to 2015, market rents rose by 26 per cent, while area median income (AMI) increased by four per cent. In other words, rent is rising over six times as much as our incomes. Meanwhile, since 1999, a total of 1,760 affordable rental units have been built in our city. This is compared with 8,000 market rental units in the same time period, and 87,456 ownership units. In the past 10 years, less than three per cent of all developments were affordable rental units.

It is clear that low- and moderate-income renters are at a disadvantage and urgent action is needed to address the crisis of livability and affordability of our rental stock.  

What are the solutions?

Ottawa is not unique in its housing crisis. Today, every major city is reeling from a dearth of social and affordable housing. Our communities need multi-pronged solutions to the housing crisis that recognize the responsibility lies with every level of government to protect tenants' rights to affordable and healthy housing.

Below, we outline the municipal, provincial, and national solutions identified by ACORN's low-income members.

Municipal housing demands:

Bring RentSafe to Ottawa

Ottawa ACORN members want the City of Ottawa to implement a landlord registry similar to Toronto's RentSafe bylaw. A registry would allow the city to shift from a complaint-based approach to proactive measures. Landlords would need to register with the city, submit indoor/outdoor maintenance plans, plans to receive and follow up with tenants' service requests, and pest-control management plans.

In Toronto, the city initiates mass inspections of registered properties and assigns grades similar to restaurants. If a property scores well, the property will be inspected every three years. If a property scores badly, the city conducts a full audit and continues inspections every year until the building is brought up to standard. Property standard violations are posted online and in common areas so that new tenants can review a property before signing a lease. There are also be strict timelines for repairs -- if a landlord refuses to carry out these repairs, the city can come in to complete the repair and bill the landlord.

Toronto's RentSafe program allowed the city to double the number of property inspectors on staff because landlords pay a small, per unit annual registration fee to recover the cost of the program.

Replacing rental units after redevelopment

ACORN members want a rental replacement bylaw which, in the case of the demolition and redevelopment of affordable housing, ensures rental replacements in the new development for the same price and number of bedrooms. Current tenants should have the first right of refusal to move back into the units created in the new development.

Inclusionary zoning

ACORN members would like to see Ottawa adopt an inclusionary zoning bylaw that would ensure 25 per cent of every new development (35 per cent if within one kilometre of rapid transit) include affordable housing.

Provincial housing demands:

Vacancy control

Rent control should be tied to units, not leases, so that there is a cap to the rental amount a landlord can increase when a tenant leaves.

An end to above-the-guideline rent increases (AGIs) for basic repairs

As the housing stock ages, repairs are something that landlords need to take seriously. Repairs are investments that will be profitable in the long term and increase the property value in the short term. By allowing landlords to pass on these costs to the tenants in permanent rent increases, the provincial government is giving a blank cheque to the landlords.

Bring back rent control for all new buildings

Stop Bill 108

Ontario Premier Doug Ford's Bill 108 limits inclusionary zoning to only around major transit zones, severely limiting municipalities' tools to tackle the housing crisis. The bill also contains other pro-developer, anti-tenant measures that ACORN members oppose.

National housing demands

Ensure federal funds are not used to gentrify affordable housing and "renovict" or "demovict" sitting tenants.

Incentivize jurisdictions receiving federal funds to protect affordability and tenants, and employ federal funds and regulations to protect the existing affordable rental stock.

Regulate financial actors (landlords, REITs, and investors), fund tenant education, advocacy, and organizing.

Ensure that all people pay less than 30 per cent of household income on housing. The federal government can accomplish this by building enough social housing, ensuring any housing benefit is not a replacement for a robust housing program and that housing benefits are used as a temporary solution to address the need for affordable housing while the adequate amount of public housing is built.

Demonstrate leadership at the federal level and a new set of arrangements between federal, provincial, territorial, municipal, and First Nations governments.

How can you support tenant organizing?

Join ACORN today to get involved in supporting local, provincial and national housing campaigns run by our members.

Right now, our most urgent campaign is RentSafe Ottawa. The city is currently wrapping up a citywide review on regulating rental accommodations that will be going for a committee and council vote next month. Our citywide board of elected ACORN members voted that housing conditions in our city were the number 1 priority for this year, and we have a real opportunity to bring RentSafe to Ottawa!

You can help us fight for tenants' rights by adding your name here to generate an email to city staff and councillors in support of a landlord registry in Ottawa.

Call your city councillor to let them know why you support RentSafe Ottawa.

Contact the Ottawa ACORN office today to find out other ways you can get involved to ensure every tenant has an affordable and healthy home: ottawa@acorncanada.org or 613-746-5999, ext 3.

Ashley Reyns is lead organizer with Ottawa ACORN.

ACORN Canada or Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now is a national independent organization of low- and moderate-income families. Ottawa ACORN, the local chapter, has 28,000-plus members across the city. ACORN believes that social and economic justice can best be achieved with a wide membership base who are invested in their organization and focused on building community power for change.

Image: Ashley Brown/Flickr

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