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For renters at the margins, the market is 'a boot on the back of your neck'

Picture of home less couple

KIERAN DELAMONT Updated: August 14, 2018 Ottawa Citizen

When Mavis Finnamore was forced back into the rental market in early 2016 — she had been evicted in the first wave of Heron Gate demolitions — it was not a pleasant experience.

“We were not well off, just getting by with one income,” she wrote, in an essay shared with the Citizen. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the past year, and was awaiting chemotherapy. “I knew we had to get out before I was heavily involved in chemotherapy, as I didn’t know how I could physically handle a big move.”

She was eventually able to find a place, but only after making sacrifices. It was smaller, more expensive, and had one less room than she needed.

“My husband threw out so much stuff. Probably an entire library of astronomy,” she said, in a subsequent interview. “All of these things made it difficult. I would definitely not want to have to face it again.”

For Finnamore, it turned her into an activist of sorts: though she’s moved out of Heron Gate, she still works closely through ACORN Ottawa to advocate for tenants who are slated to lose their homes.

It won’t be a fun experience for Abdullahi Ali, either — he’s being forced to move for a second time, this time out of Heron Gate completely.

“It’s difficult to find (a place) for me in particular, with a very big family,” says the father of six. For his family, to find a place in Ottawa South — close to schools and work and his social life — he is looking at paying at least $900 more each month. He currently pays $1,600, but says he can’t find a new unit for less than $2,500.

For renters at the margins, this experience is becoming the new normal, as the price of housing skyrockets, and competition becomes more fierce. For the city’s most vulnerable renters — many of whom are living on low incomes, can’t find work, have poor credit, or rely on disability assistance to pay the bills — stress and anxiety can feel like unlimited resources, while money is a finite one.

As one renter, Candyrose Freeman, put it, being a renter at the margins in Ottawa is like having “a boot on the back of your neck.” Many live in constant fear of what happens when the day comes that they simply can’t afford the rent being asked of them. “I have lots of friends who are absolutely hand-to-mouth.”

Freeman found herself homeless in her 40s — “through no fault of my own” — and so she has experience with “housing insecurity,” a phrase often discussed in the abstract by policy-makers but one that has real meaning for someone like Freeman.

Where did she go when she had nowhere to call home?

“Shelters, or couch-surfing, or staying with friends,” she says. “It’s a myriad of things, piecing together a life when you have no roof over your head.”

From her perspective, Ottawa’s housing issues have nothing to do with a lack of resources.

The issue is a lack of political will.

“We are one of the richest countries on the planet. This is unacceptable,” she says. “People want to thrive. They want what’s better for their children,” she says.

“Given the opportunity, people will thrive, every single time.”

But for people scraping to get by, there is often nowhere to turn if they can’t make things work on the open market.

The City of Ottawa commenced a 10-year plan for housing and homelessness in 2014, with a lofty goal of ending chronic homelessness. Despite some progress by the city, there are still more than 10,000 people on the waiting list for social housing, which can mean a wait of up to a decade. With Ottawa’s current rental crunch, a long-term plan to end homelessness does little for those in need now.

This is something the city is aware of. In a recent report on homelessness, it was noted that “the appearance that the ‘line is just too long’ acts as a deterrent for people who should be registering to receive housing assistance.”

And when it comes to affordable housing, the city also acknowledges that the private sector isn’t offering much additional support.

The city’s director of housing services Shelley VanBuskirk said that “lower vacancy rates and higher rental costs are placing demand on the wait list for social housing and for affordable housing options.”

She said recent demand for rental housing in the private sector has resulted in less interest from landlords to participate in the city’s rent supplement program — a program that allows the city to secure units in private rental buildings and pay the difference between the “negotiated market rent” and the rent geared-to-income that the household is responsible for.

And a problem the city faces is that it can’t shove affordable housing demands down the throats of developers.

That reality played out recently at city hall.

On July 11, city council voted to approve three large towers at 900 Albert St. According to the city’s community plan for the area, 25 per cent of the towers’ housing units were required to be affordable units. However, the city does not have a mechanism to enforce the rule laid out in the community plan and council was left to pass a motion that would “encourage” the developers to include affordable housing. Whether that happens, remains unknown.

But what is known, is that people are struggling now, and with the current state of Ottawa’s red-hot rental market, relief doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

“You have a situation that’s getting more and more dire, and it’s affecting more and more people,” says Finnamore. “We need to level the playing field,” says Freeman.

“If you want to make a cottage industry out of homelessness — keep doing what you’re doing.”

With files from Taylor Blewett

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