Once complete in May 2021, 811 Gladstone will be the largest passive house in Canada. Credit: Hobin Architecture

by Adam Ashby Gibbard

Amidst Ottawa’s affordable housing crisis, there’s a beacon of hope sprouting up at 811 Gladstone. As rents throughout Ottawa continue to outpace income levels for many renters, there’s good news on the horizon for affordable housing projects. Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) has a number of projects planned for the Chinatown/Little Italy area and, with the LeBreton Flats redevelopment still in process, further affordable units may come — even if the NCC has made no promises on that front). 

The City of Ottawa’s has 269,536 renters (as of 2016) and 42% of those spend over 30% of their income on housing. In 1986 only 29% of renters had to do this. 

Along with these developments, it’s still important to understand affordable housing issues in Ottawa and work towards actually fixing them.

The State of Housing in Ottawa

The City of Ottawa’s has 269,536 renters (as of 2016) and 42% of those spend over 30% of their income on housing. In 1986 only 29% of renters had to do this. 

Of these renters, an average of 10,500 households are on the Centralized Wait List for social housing. The rental market in Ottawa is strained, with a vacancy rate at 1.8% and the average rent for a 2-bedroom unit at $1,440.

Ottawa is not unique, either: rental markets across Canada are in a similar state, with Toronto and Vancouver being especially hard-hit. 

Compounding this issue, Ottawa has no replacement laws (which would require redevelopments to replace any demolished affordable units), no inclusionary zoning, no foreign ownership tax, and no vacancy tax. Ottawa is a Wild West of housing development, even compared to cut-throat housing markets like Toronto.

Ottawa also recently witnessed the largest mass eviction in Candian history at Herongate. Those affordable homes are soon to be replaced by luxury apartments where a bachelor will go for $1,300 and a 2-bedroom for $2,325.

Ottawa’s shelters and newcomer housing are full, leaving many without housing options. The City spent $16 million on motels in 2019 so 330 families could share a room for months with just a microwave to feed themselves. Ottawa has pushed people onto the street, then when they band together to meet their needs, bulldozed their tent city

The crisis has gotten so bad that Ottawa Councillor Catherine McKenney has tabled a motion to declare affordable housing and homelessness an emergency in Ottawa.

This is the city we live in, and much more needs to be done. Even more staggering is that in the past 13 years nothing seems to have changed.

In 2007 Ottawa’s Official Plan stated, “The shortage of affordable rental housing is one of the most compelling problems today in Ottawa. People now on long waiting lists for subsidized housing are being squeezed by low vacancy rates and rental costs that are steadily rising further beyond their means.”

That could have been written yesterday.

Like many issues, the solution rests on every level of government working together, but much can be said about the City of Ottawa’s shortcomings when it comes to ensuring people have a roof over their head — one that they can afford.

Rochester Heights

In May 2021 a new project at 881 Gladstone should be finished. Phase one of OCH’s Rochester Heights redevelopment will bring 140 affordable homes to Ottawa, of which 32 are in townhouses and the remaining 108 will be in the largest residential passive building in Canada. 

Passive buildings meet a standard for energy efficiency – in principle they do not need active heating and cooling systems, relying instead on solar gain, super-insulation, and heat recovery and ventilation systems that rely on natural airflow – which reduces the building’s ecological footprint. The architects of this building specifically stated that it was designed with climate change in mind.

The units are part of OCH’s push to bring more affordable housing to Ottawa, with some rent geared to income (RGI) continuing where it already exists. The RGI ensures rents don’t go above the threshold of 30% of tenants’ income. The remaining rents will be closer to 80% of the average market rent in Ottawa. 

Utility costs will be substantially lower than average, with annual heating costs per tenant under $100 thanks to a heating and insulation system that can recycle 85% of the heat from exiting air. 

The site will also include green space, mixed-use amenity space, and a number of townhouses for sale as part of an aim to make an active and mixed community. The project is one of three in the neighbourhood aimed at replacing ageing units and building new ones, including a much larger project called Gladstone Village.

But is it possible to build affordable housing that meets the 30% of income target? OCH’s Chief Development Officer, Cliff Youdale, said that “without additional subsidy, no. If we receive additional funding support then obviously we could do a lot more, but based on the programs right now we couldn’t get to that depth of affordability.”

Historical Context

Issues of housing affordability, availability, and quality stem from a historic lack of new builds over the past 40 years. Up until the mid-1990s, 20,000 non-profit and co-op housing units were built each year in Canada. The federal and provincial governments used to happily fund large community housing projects through CMHC. Since then new rental units dropped, partly due to the growth of condo development, partly due to the government’s abandonment of investment in social housing. In Ottawa, only around 20,000 units have been built in the past 20 years.

What this has left us with is low vacancy, old rental stock and, subsequently, poor quality units often owned and run by large companies who do everything they can to increase their profits [See Squeezing Profits]. 

Income stagnation is another major issue affecting affordability that often is excluded. We live in a very wealthy country, yet the average hourly wage in Canada has remained roughly unchanged since the 1970s. All this while living costs, especially housing, have almost always increased. In Ottawa alone, inflation-adjusted rents have increased by 16% since 1990

The redevelopment of Rochester Heights offers a replicable model, by which the average person could find an affordable — and even eco-friendly — home in Ottawa’s harsh housing market.

One Reply to “Rochester Heights Redevelopment and Affordable Housing in Ottawa”

  1. I am a senior citizen looking for rental in the redevelopment of Rochester Heights to be completed as stated by you in may 20121. Can I Apply now for a 2or 3 bedroom townhouse. I believe it’s a mixed community. Will there be rig, bmr,and market value unit’s for I would need parking availability. I have been trying to live in that mixed setting as of 2019.

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