Social Housing Occupants Won’t Get Option To Buy

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Housing Affordability, Media Appearances

Ottawa’s social housing stock likely won’t be offered for sale to tenants who can barely pay subsidized rent, a city official says.

“(Tenants) can just barely afford the rent with all the subsidies we give them,” said Russell Mawby, the city’s social housing manager. “The rule of thumb seems to be that about 15% of the people who apply (for a mortgage) actually qualify, just because it sometimes costs more to be a homeowner than it does to be a tenant.”

A report released last month through the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Winnipeg-based think tank, suggests Canadian municipalities should allow long-term social housing tenants the opportunity to purchase the homes they live in at discounted prices of up to 50%.

“The benefits of allowing tenants to purchase their homes are massive,” said Paul Willett, author of the report. “(They include) reducing reliance on the state, creating civic pride and a greater sense of social inclusion, improving neighbourhood appearance and safety and providing a basis for financial security.”

Mawby said on the surface, it sounds like a good idea, but he’s not convinced it’s a practical exercise.

“When we lost that housing stock, how do we replace it?” said Mawby, who oversees a department with a social housing waiting list containing more than 10,000 names.

“How do we ensure that the folks who can’t become homeowners have places to live if we’re taking units out of a limited portfolio? If social housing needs big capital upgrades, do you really fix up those units and hand them over to folks whose ability to actually pay for them is constrained at best?”

Mawby said owning a home is a dream some people living in social housing may be able to realize, but he doesn’t support the idea of selling homes which are badly needed by those who can’t afford to buy a house.

“We should encourage and enable folks who can get into home ownership to do so,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily have to be by selling off that housing stock.”