Today, a large majority of the affordable housing we see in Ottawa is owned and operated by Ottawa Community Housing Corporation (OCH), an organization that operates at arm’s length of the city government, but whose sole shareholder is the City of Ottawa. The housing stock in their portfolio was largely constructed in the 1970s, and they constantly struggle to keep up with basic repairs and maintenance.
The construction of public housing in Canada began following WWII, as a temporary fix to the general housing shortages not uncommon to many cities around the world in this post-war time. For many, the erecting of towers symbolized an urban reform and the triumph of the new modern city, following in the path of the modern planning pioneers who revered ‘the tower in the park’. The building of public housing in Canada all but halted in the late 1970s, however, as it was generally accepted at this point across North America that public housing had failed. This was most notable in the United States, where the world watched the demolition of the Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis, less than 20 years after it was constructed, and due to incredibly rapid social decay. Why this form of housing failed is another story, but it is safe to say that most criticism at the time fell into three categories: form/design, demographic and management.
The question to be asked is, therefore, where does this leave us in Ottawa with the housing stock we have at our disposal? Demolition is not an option, as the number of affordable housing units is dwindling, and the housing that exists is in major need of life-cycle reinvestment. Ultimately, the OCH has a limited mandate when it comes to building or acquiring more stock, not to mention limited funds.
Many Canadian cities with these same concerns are now seeking redevelopment opportunities in cooperation with the private sector. Inexpensive land and other financial incentives can be offered by the government in exchange for private developers to provide new affordable units in housing developments with mixed income tenancy, more appropriate unit types (town houses for families rather than apartments for example), and higher urban density in general in city centers.
Of course, it is only a small percentage of the total newly constructed units that are affordable, as this is necessary for the private builders to remain profitable. The private management of the units eases the cost and responsibility of the municipality, and maintenance falls under existing city infrastructure. This system comes with a price though, as most of the land the government can offer is already occupied by public housing. New construction means demolition; and thus residents become displaced and communities become scattered. Well executed phasing is vital for the dignity and convenience of existing tenants.
Redevelopment in conjunction with the private sector is only one possible solution to the woes of public/affordable housing providers in Canada, however. And while it is not a perfect solution, it may still be one for the City of Ottawa to consider. In order for this to happen, the mandate of OCH needs to be readdressed, in order for us to move forward with both a higher quantity and quality of affordable housing, and the experience and knowledge of both parties will ensure responsible economic, social, and environmental building practice and design.
This would be an opportunity for mutually beneficial redevelopment, and this would, in turn, benefit tenants and citizens alike, as we strive to build a better city.
Story and image: Claire Cowling
**Editor’s Note: the Pruitt Igoe is located in St. Louis, not Chicago as previously published.