The Mainstreeter’s Social Issue Discussion Series: Affordable Housing & Healthy, Diverse Communities

Lorne Abugov

Community webinar panelists Anthony Leaning, Maria Rigby, Chris Osler and Megan Sicard offered a range of perspectives and opinions on issues of housing affordability, suitability and choice, as well as social isolation, inclusiveness and diversity in Old Ottawa East. The next webinar in the series is entitled Community Advocacy in Old Ottawa East and will feature Capital Ward City Councillor Shawn Menard as one of the panelists. Photo Supplied

Community webinar panelists Anthony Leaning, Maria Rigby, Chris Osler and Megan Sicard offered a range of perspectives and opinions on issues of housing affordability, suitability and choice, as well as social isolation, inclusiveness and diversity in Old Ottawa East. The next webinar in the series is entitled Community Advocacy in Old Ottawa East and will feature Capital Ward City Councillor Shawn Menard as one of the panelists. Photo Supplied

Panelists delve into Old Ottawa East’s housing, diversity and inclusiveness during a wide-ranging and entertaining webinar

Old Ottawa East ranks high as a diverse and inclusive community but spiralling housing prices and a limited mix of available housing options limit the ability of young people and immigrant and refugee newcomers to buy or rent affordably and make the community their home. Those were the key conclusions of a panel of local residents with varied perspectives and backgrounds who shared their knowledge on March 17th during the third free community webinar in The Mainstreeter’s Social Issues Discussion
Series.

Panel moderator Phyllis Odenbach Sutton set the context for the panel discussion, which was entitled, Affordable Housing & Healthy, Diverse Communities, by reviewing community-specific data from the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study and the 2016 Census comparing Old Ottawa East (OOE) to the City of Ottawa overall. Adding in the Greystone Village development, she explained that there are more than 4,500 household units in OOE, and that core housing needs in the
the community is significantly different than elsewhere in Ottawa.

“When considering all households, we have a higher level of unaffordable housing in Old Ottawa East, and there is also a higher level of unaffordable housing for tenant households. There is a very low level of subsidized housing in our community, a higher level of housing mobility, and finally, a much higher level of renter households than owner households in Old Ottawa East than the City overall,” said Odenbach Sutton, who is the series coordinator for The Mainstreeter.

Housing affordability metrics were also affected by population data which showed that Old Ottawa East had almost double the percentage of youth residents (aged 15 to 24) compared to Ottawa’s overall community average, and almost triple the low-income prevalence among youth in the community in comparison to the City average.

These statistics caught the attention of panellist Maria Rigby, President and co-founder of OMRA, a not-for-profit that combats family homelessness by providing portable rent subsidies to newcomer families yearly on a time-limited basis. “The average house cost in Old Ottawa East is more than three-quarters of a million dollars now, and that’s up from about $500,000 just eight years ago,” said Rigby, whose organization helps to sponsor and provide settlement support for refugee families in Ottawa.

“Even the Lees Avenue apartments which offered the most diversity in our neighbourhood, in terms of culture, ethnicity, spiritual beliefs, and language, is also now priced out of reach for OMRA’s needs – units that were affordable five to 10 years ago are now too expensive.”

Panellist Chris Osler, while working with the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, spent several decades working on neighbourhood development and engagement in OOE, with a principal emphasis on community health. He explained that his focus was centred on questions such as who lives in Old Ottawa East, how diverse are we, and whether the community has attributes that make us welcoming and inclusive.

Osler felt that key to OOE becoming a more welcoming and inclusive community was to better understand and improve health equity within the community. “How I think of building healthy and diverse communities is to think about the range of equitable public spaces accessible to all in Old Ottawa East, and you have fantastic public resources in this community: the community gardens, the complete Main Street, the Deschâtelets hub, the Flora Footbridge, the Rideau River Nature Trail, and Springhurst and Brantwood Parks.” Osler also cited the current advocacy campaign in Old Ottawa East around removing the Alta Vista Transportation Corridor from Ottawa’s draft Official Plan as “super important to the health, recreation and well being of many, many Old Ottawa East community residents.”

Anthony Leaning, an award-winning architect and urban designer with experience in affordable and alternative housing, expressed concern that the rising cost of housing threatened the demographic diversity of the community that he and his family have really appreciated during their more than 20 years residing in Old Ottawa East.

“These pressures on housing costs have exposed the weakness here in our own community, in that we don’t have a broad spectrum of housing choice. Most of the area is single-family homes with a smattering of duplexes and doubles, and a handful of small, low rise apartment buildings. Lees Avenue, on the other hand, is almost entirely high-rise apartments, mainly rental and presumably somewhat affordable,” Leaning observed.

“There are very few options in between these two extremes. Although the new development at Greystone has somewhat filled in the middle part of the spectrum, the housing types offered there are fairly expensive, and mostly privately owned.” He concluded that the diversity that has been OOE’s strength for so long is at risk, “not just by market pressures but also by the inadequacy of housing choice in the type, the cost and the tenure, whether it’s rented or owned.”

The final panellist was Megan Sicard, an undergraduate student in Social Innovation at Saint Paul University and the co-founder of a project called “Habitations Partagées Mirela”, a nonprofit organization that matches two people to prevent social isolation and promote affordable housing.“

In her remarks, Sicard addressed the eight attributes of an age-friendly community, including indicators such as walkability, accessibility of outdoor spaces, transportation, housing, social participation and health services. She noted that “the future of communities around the world will largely be determined by measures taken to improve the quality of life of older citizens.”

The next free community webcast in The Mainstreeter’s Social Issues Discussion Series will provide OOE residents with a rare glimpse into the nuts and bolts of Community Advocacy in Old Ottawa East from the vantage point of those pleading their cases to government decision-makers as well as those on the receiving end of the advocacy. The webinar, which will feature both Capital Ward City Councillor Shawn Menard and The Mainstreeter’s John Dance, is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, May 19 at 7:30 pm. Registration is now open at https://bit.ly/communityadvocacy_ooe.

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