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Troster: Downtown Ottawa needs strong social supports to bounce back

The homelessness and addiction crises have worsened during the pandemic. Our shelter system is bursting at the seams.

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We asked the new members of city council to explain some of their priorities for 2023. Today: Somerset Coun. Ariel Troster.

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It’s a snowy day outside, and I am writing this article from my kitchen table, where I worked for more than two-and-a-half years after the world shut down in March 2020. Today, it feels like a novelty, because since June, I have been working full-time, very much in-person — whether that has meant knocking on doors during my municipal election campaign or working from my new office at city hall.

Recently, Treasury Board announced that public service workers will be required to return to the office for two or three days a week in the new year. For business owners, this is a source of hope and for the people who dread a gruelling winter commute, it was a lump of coal before the holidays.

Still, the numbers don’t lie. The shift away from full-time office work has hit Ottawa’s downtown hard. According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, foot traffic in downtown Ottawa in September 2022 was 45 per cent below January 2020 rates. Roughly 55 per cent of the jobs typically located in Ottawa’s downtown core are in the federal public service. And according to Ottawa Tourism, visits to our city are 69 per cent lower than in 2019.

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Serving the residents who actually live downtown is one way for businesses to move away from relying on the commuter crowd. I can tell you from my doorstep conversations that people are dying for more green grocers and a downtown hardware store. And for those businesses to thrive, we need people to keep living in the core and must attract thousands more to move in.

But with the average price of a downtown one-bedroom apartment at $2,145, this is a hard sell. It is also difficult to convince developers to build family-size homes, so our downtown housing stock is quickly being flooded with 450 sq. ft. micro units.

When I knocked on doors during the campaign, the number one issue was the unsustainable cost of housing. Many people told me they felt trapped in their current apartments because the outrageous rental market meant they could not afford to move to a bigger home or downsize to a smaller one. And for my neighbours on a fixed income, the situation is even more dire. More than 10,000 households are on the wait list for subsidized housing, and according to the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, roughly 35 per cent of Centretown households are in core housing need.

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A potential solution to help solve Ottawa’s downtown conundrum is to convert empty office buildings into affordable housing. I recently visited the Slayte Building on Albert Street, which is being converted from an office building into apartments by CLV. The completed apartments are sleek and modern, showing that these kinds of conversions are entirely possible. But the rents average anywhere from $2,100 to $2,800

Calgary recently converted a 10-story tower into deeply affordable housing, attracting $30 million in funding from other levels of government and private donors to make it happen. These conversions aren’t cheap. Which means that funding from multiple sources is definitely needed to achieve any affordability targets and make these homes accessible to people living in Centretown, who typically have a median income $20,000 to 30,000 lower than the rest of the city.

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Ensuring that people have all of the supports they need to thrive downtown, regardless of income level, is also key to revitalization. The homelessness and addiction crises have worsened during the pandemic. Our shelter system is bursting at the seams. And city staff picked up an average of 28 improperly discarded needles a day in Somerset Ward in 2021. When our social services cannot match the very real needs in the community, these problems spill onto our streets and impact all of us.

When I spoke at council recently about my discomfort with an artificially low tax rate in the mayor’s budget direction, it was rooted in my deep concern for the residents who live in my ward and rely on city services. My sincere hope is to revitalize downtown Ottawa with the twin goals of improving its vibrancy and preserving its diverse character. The core is ready for a rebound — one that leaves no one behind.

Ariel Troster is Ottawa city councillor for Somerset Ward.

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