It’s tough right now for anybody living on a low or limited income to find safe, affordable housing in downtown Ottawa. It’s even tougher if you’re queer, a housing advocate says.
Rob McDonald works for Housing Help, a local housing information and assistance agency servicing the Ottawa area. He says that along with high rents and low incomes, homophobia continues to be a major problem for people looking for safe and affordable housing.
McDonald says stories of discrimination are common when people can’t afford their own living accommodations and are forced to share rentals or live in rooming houses.
“I had one case of a man living in a rooming house whose neighbors found out he was gay and were afraid they were going to get AIDS from the toilet seat. Another person came to see me and said he had to get emergency money to move because his roommate was gay. He said, ‘I have to get out of there. I can’t live with a fag.'”
Along with discrimination, there are other problems for gays and lesbians looking for affordable housing.
The majority of services and resources for the gay community are in the city’s central core. Living downtown is often viewed as ideal by gays, but rental prices in the core are the most expensive in the city. People who can’t afford to live in Centretown are forced out. This makes accessing the majority of Ottawa’s services difficult for people with low incomes.
“A lot of [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered] people do need to be central because that’s where all the services are, but the central area has very high rents now,” says McDonald.
The Canada Mortgage And Housing Corporation’s 2004 rental housing survey reported that the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Ottawa is $940. In Centretown it’s $1,156.
Former city councillor Alex Munter says rental prices in Ottawa skyrocketed over the last decade for a variety of reasons.
“From 1991 to 2001 the population of the city of Ottawa grew by 100,000 people. In the same 10-year period, it lost 4,000 rental-housing units. The Harris government abolished rent control in the mid-1990s and then both the [provincial and federal] governments cancelled social housing.”
This combination of factors has left Ottawa tied with Vancouver as the second most expensive city for renters in Canada. And Centretown rental rates now tie those of downtown Toronto for the dubious honour of being the highest in the country.
Munter says the long-term consequences of the lack of affordable housing in Ottawa’s downtown may be significant.
“People won’t be able to afford to live in the centre of the city. We’re going to push people further and further away.”
This trend is already happening, agree Munter and McDonald. People are leaving Ottawa because rental prices are simply out of their reach.
“What we’re seeing in our office is that a lot of people are moving over to the Outaouais side,” says McDonald. “I’ve seen a number of people who have just given up. They might move out to Cornwall or some place where the housing is better. They’ve just given up finding housing in Ottawa.”
The situation is tough. Moving out of downtown makes Ottawa’s queer services and community more difficult to access. Equally important, it makes it more difficult for people to find friends in the gay community, to build a sense of community and belonging.
Housing Help tries to help. The group boasts a registry that connects landlords interested in renting to the gay community to queer people searching for affordable housing. The registry is one of the few safe options for people looking for affordable and queer-positive housing.
Housing Help began the registry to help overcome the additional barriers facing the gay and lesbian community. The organization received no special funding to launch the registry, and they rely on word of mouth advertising. A lack of response in recent months has disappointed McDonald.
“It’s a hard thing to keep going. Every time we take it out to the community, people say that’s a great idea but it’s been harder to get people to list with us,” says McDonald.
He’d like to see the community turn first to the registry when seeking somewhere to live or tenants to fill an apartment. He’d also like to see more of a coordinated effort between existing housing services, such as the housing registries run by the gay and lesbian centres of both Carleton University and the University Of Ottawa.
Felix Ng, the administrative coordinator at the Carleton queer centre, agrees that services aimed at Ottawa’s gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendereds need to work together to assist people in finding affordable housing.
“It would be good for the [queer] community in Ottawa to amalgamate some services. Better networking and a more centralized area people can access would help,” says Ng.