Op-ed: We must look at all options on the ‘housing continuum’ to make Ottawa an attractive city

Jason Burggraaf
Jason Burggraaf is executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association.

Recent analysis on affordable housing in Ottawa has shown that, between 2011 and 2021, Ottawa lost 31 housing units that rented for under $1,000 per month for every new unit added to the market under that price point.

The study, conducted by Professor Steve Pomeroy, a senior research fellow with Carleton University’s Centre for Urban Research and Education, should give all of us serious pause for thought on the issue of housing supply.

While Pomeroy’s focus is on the supply of affordable housing, 95 per cent of Canadians live in “market-rate” housing — either homes they own or homes they rent at regular prices. So, while the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association could not agree more with Pomeroy, we really need to talk about the need for housing supply across all segments of the housing continuum.

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The issue, of course, is how fast supply can be brought online to meet demand, given that 2024 is already knocking at the door. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. estimates that 3.5 million homes need to be built across the country by 2030 if we want to restore affordability. That’s a lot of homes, especially given that every house is the result of careful planning involving a vast ecosystem of companies, skilled trades and suppliers. 

To give credit where it’s due, the federal government has taken action by appointing Sean Fraser as housing minister, waiving the GST on new rental construction, and rolling out its $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund, which gets money to municipalities to expand zoning and process development applications faster.

But, in the short term, housing demand outstripping supply at all levels has us all stuck. Canada’s population is skyrocketing and millions of people are frozen in place because a lack of rental housing prevents people from moving into their first home, while a lack of entry-level housing prevents people from moving out of rental apartments, and a lack of move-up homes prevents people from loosening the stock of entry-level homes. At the back end of all of this, a lack of homes appropriate for retirees then prevents people from freeing up family-sized homes.

This just serves to underline that housing is a continuum and a lack of supply in any segment has multiple impacts, including directly contributing to an increase in home and rent prices.

To offer a personal example, two decades ago, my now-wife and I lived for five years in a 350-square-foot bachelor apartment near Hog’s Back. At that time, the monthly rent was $505. Now, that same apartment rents for $1,279, as the supply of rental apartments has not kept up with our population growth.

If I imagine us living there today, not only would we be spending more than double on rent, we’d barely be able to save for a downpayment on a house we likely couldn’t afford anyway.

And we would not be alone. High interest rates make it so difficult for people to qualify for a mortgage that even a dual-income family earning a very decent living cannot meet the mortgage stress test, let alone afford a home of their own in Ottawa. 

In fact, an Ipsos poll released in October indicates that two-thirds of Canadians have given up on the idea of ever owning a home. If that’s not demoralizing, I don’t know what is.

It’s clear that the status quo is not an option and, as we move forward into a new year, we have to take the lessons learned in 2023 and find workable solutions. All ideas need to be on the table, because the future of our city depends on it.

Housing options — whether that’s taller buildings, denser neighbourhoods or new communities in the suburbs — are critical to recruiting and retaining talented people in Ottawa and being competitive with cities such as Toronto and Montreal.

So, we’ve got to double-down and work together to ensure that Ottawa gets the housing supply it needs to continue to attract the best and brightest, to grow as a vibrant national capital city, and to guarantee that the people who choose to live here have a reasonable opportunity to live in a home of their choosing. That’s the kind of new year’s resolution that’s worth the long-term commitment.

Jason Burggraaf is executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association.

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