A senior undergraduate student, Samphe Ballamingie is completing a directed studies credit in Sociology, working with Dr. Tonya Davidson. After each Healthy Cities panel, she will produce summaries of the panelists' contributions, including select supplementary readings.
Ballamingie's recent accomplishments include winning the Extra Court Award at the Mobile Film Festival in Paris for her short film ACT NOW on CLIMATE CHANGE and completing a 2019 Summer Research Internship studying the role of public libraries and innovative practices at libraries in northern European cities.
On February 24, 2020, panelists City Councillor Catherine McKenney, Dr. Abra Adamo, and Josh Hawley gathered at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre for the third Healthy Cities panel, Housing in the City, sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Dr. Aaron Doyle, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, moderated the panel, asking panelists to reflect on how the city of Ottawa might develop healthier and more effective strategies to deal with our shared social problems of poverty, housing insecurity, and chronic homelessness. Doyle introduced the panel by bringing to the fore Ontario’s plans for a new jail in Ottawa, a project that would cost the provincial government a staggering sum of between $500 million to $1 billion. Homelessness often exists in a vicious cycle with incarceration, given the criminalization of poverty and addiction, and, as Ottawa faces what many have characterized as a “housing epidemic”, Doyle suggested that the funds allocated for a new jail would be better spent on a more radical and comprehensive housing strategy.
The first panelist, Catherine McKenney, Councillor of Ottawa’s Somerset Ward, described elements of some dire housing situations for many in Ottawa. More and more people are living in shelters and experiencing chronic homelessness, Indigenous people are overrepresented within this population; since April 2019, six hundred women and children fleeing abuse have been turned away from shelters due to lack of space, and over seven hundred children in Ottawa are currently living in motels. Councillor McKenney explained that this crisis emerged over a long period of time, and so it became easy for us to ignore Ottawa’s homelessness crisis; they explained that people are dying because municipalities are failing them, and they asked: “What do we do next?” In fact, McKenney put forward a motion – unanimously endorsed by City Council in January – declaring a state of emergency on housing and homelessness in Ottawa, in hopes of influencing 2020 Ottawa budgetary decisions and appealing to other levels of government for support.
McKenney explained that in developing its 10-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan (City of Ottawa, 2018), Ottawa sought to create a robust strategy with serious, measurable targets and actions. They cited many steps the city must take to eliminate chronic homelessness and housing insecurity, including (but not limited to): better support for people emerging from chronic homelessness; and stronger “housing first” policies aimed at providing people with immediate, independent housing. While scholars such as Katz et al. (2017) argue that “housing first” strategies prove successful in providing shelter, they echo McKenney’s call for better supports and treatments for those receiving immediate housing (p. 140). In order for “housing first” strategies to succeed, a comprehensive suite of economic, social and physical supports must also be established.
McKenney further argued that Ottawa must reduce core housing need by fifty percent. The common yardstick of housing affordability is that families should spend no more than thirty percent of their income on housing (though, as some scholars point out even this simple measure can be further nuanced) (see Herbert et al., 2018). McKenney says they regularly receive emails from families who spend more than thirty percent of their income on rent and risk losing their homes. The city must also maintain and repair its rental stock, to avoid painful and disruptive evictions that push people out of their communities during renovations and development, fraying social connections in the process. McKenney stressed the need to develop mixed-income communities for cities to be healthy.
The second panelist, Dr. Abra Adamo, Advisor of Housing Policy and Research at the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, has over a decade of experience in urban planning related to housing and homelessness policy, largely focused on community partnerships in academic spaces at the federal level. Adamo described the myriad complexities of housing. First, she provided a more fulsome definitions of housing affordability (i.e., beyond the 30 percent rule cited above): not only must people be able to pay rent, but they must also have enough income to afford other necessities of life. Second, Adamo asserted that while the notion of housing adequacy remains subjective, adequacy generally means a person's home must meet their unique physical and cultural needs. Finally, Adamo stressed that housing must address the critical vulnerabilities people experience; whether they are fleeing violence, or establishing themselves in Canada, we must offer housing that caters to these more challenging situations.
Adamo also questioned whether the city of Ottawa builds adequately along a spectrum of possibilities, arguing that most of the city’s development consists of either condominiums or (at the other end of the continuum) detached, single-family, suburban homes. She affirmed the need for more size-appropriate housing types, like duplexes/triplexes or low-rise apartments, as well as different types of tenure, not just market housing but also affordable rental housing, subsidized housing, etc. In her doctoral thesis, Adamo (2012) described Canada as a (sub)urban nation (p. 4), and noted that a rise in suburbanization necessarily affected the socio-ecological landscape of Canada’s city centres. This shift towards suburbanization has forced city planners to reconsider what a healthy and sustainable city looks like in the 21st century, encouraging them to implement ‘smart growth’ strategies for urban development that result in greater density and diversity of housing choices, which, in turn, confine growth to protect sensitive ecological terrain (Adamo, 2012, p. 7).
Our neighborhoods must be designed with smart growth strategies in mind, implementing “mixed use urban development practices” (Adamo, 2012, p. 7). Housing that is disconnected from services, schools, community spaces, and other social and transportation infrastructure leads to unhealthy communities, and in a city like Ottawa, where the vacancy rate lies at 1.8 percent, many are forced to live in places that are disconnected from services. Ottawa must design neighborhoods that are mixed use, with a full range of services available, and where reliable public transportation can reliably deliver you to your destination in a reasonable amount of time.
The final panelist, Josh Hawley, a PhD candidate in Sociology at Carleton, who grew up in the Herongate community, has worked tirelessly with Herongate residents to fight the mass evictions jointly enforced by the development company Timbercreek and the City of Ottawa. Hawley began by boldly declaring: “There is no housing crisis, rather we are experiencing the continual effects of colonialism and capitalism.” He argued that there are no market solutions that will mitigate evictions and the housing crisis, and that the only way to affect change is through freeing the land from the logics of capitalism and colonialism. Hawley asserted that people have the power to stand up against landlords and the owning class, arguing for a shift in how we relate to each other and to the land settlers are unwelcome guests on. As individuals, we don’t have much power, but when we have trust and support in the people around us, we can come together to act collectively.
During the question-and-answer period, Dr. Tonya Davidson asked Hawley: “What do you think of rent strikes?” (A rent strike is a form of protest against high rents or inadequate repairs or other grievances that involves tenants withholding their rent until their demands are met.) Hawley described an example of an effective rent strike in Toronto. When Nuspor Investments, the landlord of 1251 King Street West in Parkdale, introduced a 3.4% rent increase, residents protested in the form of a rent strike (Tierney, 2018). After nearly four months of withholding rent, the residents were victorious, as Nuspor Investments lowered the rent increase (Tierney, 2018). Hawley believes actions like rent strikes are essential to securing our right to affordable and adequate housing.
The Housing in the City panel brought to the fore a nuanced understanding of what it means to have healthy, adequate housing in a sustainable city. The lessons presented by Councillor Catherine McKenney, Dr. Abra Adamo, and Josh Hawley prove that Ottawa in particular, and Canada more broadly, must radically re-envision adequate and affordable housing to eliminate the growing homelessness crisis within our cities.
Katz, A. S., Zerger, S., & Hwang, S. W. (2017). Housing first the conversation: Discourse, policy and the limits of the possible. Critical Public Health, 27(1): 139-147.
Adamo, A. (2012). Intensifying inequality in the ‘sustainable city’: A political ecology of ‘smart growth’ in an era of neoliberal urban governance in the City of Ottawa, Canada. Doctoral Thesis, Carleton University. Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from: https://curve.carleton.ca/737169d8-a392-49b4-a91f-ce76c7a99944
City of Ottawa. (2018) 10-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan. Retrieved from: https://documents.ottawa.ca/sites/documents/files/Homelessness-Report-ENG_2018.pdf
Herbert, C. Hermann. A. & McCue, D. (2018, September). Measuring housing affordability: Assessing the 30 percent of income standard. Joint Centre for Housing Studies of Harvard. Boston, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College. Retrieved from: https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Harvard_JCHS_Herbert_Hermann_McCue_measuring_housing_affordability.pdf
Tierney, A. (2018, March 27). Group of Toronto striking renters declare victory. Vice. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/paxgxk/group-of-toronto-striking-renters-declare-victory
Willing, J. (2020, January 29). City council declares a housing and homelessness emergency. Retrieved from: https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/city-council-declares-a-housing-and-homelessness-emergency
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