Affordable housing: What it means and how you can help

5 MIN READ

"We all have a role to play in affecting change and creating the city we want. Let's go back to what we can agree on: that we all want our communities to have security. And then let's build solutions together."

Here at GenNext, we believe housing is a human right, not a commodity. That’s why we partnered with the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa to host Starts with Home, a virtual discussion about the local housing affordability crisis. 

In the lead up to the 2022 municipal election, the Alliance launched the Starts with Home advocacy campaign to stop the loss of affordable housing, create more, and preserve the quality of pre-existing affordable housing. United Way East Ontario was one of the many organizations that endorsed the campaign. And GenNext wanted to do more to spread the word about this work in the community.

When Bill 23, More Homes Built Faster Act, passed, affordable housing advocates made headlines speaking out about how it would affect the most vulnerable. We knew it was important to include pivotal policy decisions like this one in this conversation. We wanted to know, what can GenNext supporters do to take action? And how does Bill 23 affect organizations working on the front lines, like the Alliance? But before we could get there, we had to start with … 

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What does affordable housing mean?

Well, that depends who you ask. The federal government says it’s rent at 30 % or less of your gross income. The Ontario government, since Bill 23, says 80 % or less of the average market rent.  But it’s easy to see flaws with those definitions when you break it down. For example, it’s harder for a single parent with three children to spend 30 per cent of their income on housing costs, compared to a single person. For someone working on minimum wage, it’s a challenge to find something in their budget, compared to someone making the median income in their city. 

A better way to define affordable housing is housing that is safe, accessible, in a suitable state and leaves the household with money for other necessities. This also includes affordable utilities, as our speaker, the Alliance’s Meg McCallum pointed out. If someone cannot afford the cost of energy on top of housing, it’s no longer affordable. With the rising costs of gas and other utilities, energy poverty is adding to the barrier to find affordable housing. 

Who is affected?

“It's the people who are systemically excluded from society in general.”

Looking at the statistics, it’s no surprise who suffers the most from lack of affordable housing. Indigenous peoples, Black communities, refugees, immigrants, seniors, vulnerable women, and single parents experience the greatest need for housing.  

Ottawa is such a big city geographically that often affordable housing feels like an urban issue. Within the downtown core and the Greenbelt, many renters experience the pressures of rent increases and they see people in distress on the streets. 

“The common denominator is poverty.”

In rural communities, homelessness is often invisible. Many people living in suburban and rural areas are unknowingly just one hardship away from needing affordable housing. Whether it’s because they’re fleeing violence, facing job loss, or struggling to keep up with bills, often there are no affordable options nearby and they are forced to leave their communities. 

Homelessness is a policy decision

“Up until the late 1980s you did not see people experiencing homelessness on the streets. Homelessness was temporary and situational. I think it’s important to recognize that just because something is the way that it is today, doesn’t mean it’s going to be that way forever.”

For those of us born in the last few decades, homelessness has always existed; but the concept of homelessness as a social issue is relatively new.

So how did this happen? Governments decreased funding for affordable housing, claiming that the market would accommodate the need. Policy makers found ways to adjust the official definition by looking at average market rents and not considering the relationship to income. The definition of affordable housing in government policy is so important because it decides who can afford to live in these areas. 

“The market will take care of it if it makes money for someone, and affordable housing doesn't make money for anyone. It needs government support; it needs nonprofit management, and it needs intentionality.”

Bill 23

In 2020, Ottawa declared a housing and homelessness emergency. The city council was in the process of responding to concerns expressed about a lack of tenant protections and problems with renovation and demolition evictions when Bill 23, More Homes Built Faster Act, was announced. Housing and homelessness advocates voiced concern with the lack of clarity in this bill. For the Alliance, one of the main concerns is the removal of tenant protections. Previously, these tenant protections required municipalities or developers to replace lost units at affordable rates. Over the past 4 years in Ontario, approximately 7,000 affordable homes have been protected that way. 

“I think that housing policy and homelessness policy really matters because the changes that can happen at that level are the ones that are going to have a huge impact on our cities, our communities and our own lives and the lives of our friends and families."

Across the country, people and organizations are working to make changes that will reduce chronic homelessness. United Ways all across Ontario came together to make recommendations on changes to this bill focused on preserving and renewing existing affordable homes. The work is happening now, and you can get involved and help make a difference. 

What can I do to help?

" This isn't rocket science. It isn't unsolvable. [...] We're seeing across the country, in different provinces, in different communities in Ontario, people are making changes, and they are reducing chronic homelessness, reducing veterans' homelessness. The work is happening now.”

When asked what we can do to get involved in this issue, Meg firmly said to never let governments off the hook. Our host, Cameron Ketchum, United Way East Ontario’s Director of Community Initiatives added that when a lot of people are vocal about an issue there is generally a response.  

The easiest way to get involved in this issue is to make your voice heard and promote the fact that you want to see investment in affordable housing. If we get creative and work together, with stakeholders, with donors, with city council, and make it clear that we want to see solutions for our communities, we will see results. 

Ways to get involved

Stay Informed

Read the news and follow organizations like GenNext, the Alliance, and other advocacy groups. Our bi-monthly newsletter is a great resource for this. Subscribe here.

Attend Events

Get involved in events like this one. Keep an eye on the Alliance’s calendar too.

Make your voice heard

Write to politicians, post on social media, talk to anyone who will listen about the affordable housing crisis

Volunteer

Give your time to helping organizations that focus on supporting unhoused people or ending homelessness like GenNext and the Alliance.

We believe that everyone deserves to find a place to call home. 

The affordable housing crisis starts with home, and it can end with you. Consider becoming a monthly donor in support of our work to end youth homelessness by joining GenNext+. Together, we can provide opportunities for youth in our communities to build a brighter future. 

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