Quick purchase of housing for asylum seekers takes neighbours off guard

UPDATED: Councillors unanimously approved the building purchase at their meeting on July 10, and called on staff to move forward with plans to use it as transitional housing. 

The City of Ottawa is poised to pay $11 million for a nunnery it plans to make into transitional housing, its latest purchase or lease to provide homes to the increasing number of newcomers to Ottawa and relieve pressure on overburdened shelters.

Members of the finance and corporate services committee approved the deal on Tuesday, days after homeowners around the property off St. Joseph Boulevard in east Ottawa found out about it.

"There wasn't a lot of time to deliberate. We were under the time frame of the vendor," Robin Souchen, the city's manager of realty services, explained to councillors.

"If we don't approve this the deal will die, as all offers made do, and the vendors can go to the next bid. And there were multiple bids."

The city had to compete against private bidders and raised its initial $10-million offer by $1 million at the urging of the seller, the Sisters of Charity.

"It's quite true that we were finding out about this as a community very quickly," said Orléans West-Innes Coun. Laura Dudas, who represents the area. "There's a good reason for that."

Dudas said many people she's spoken with expressed support for newcomers, while others felt blindsided.

Housing aimed at newcomers

Because of the sale's quick timeline there has so far not been any fulsome community consultation, but staff said they plan to host information sessions and an open house over the coming months.

"Everybody is committed to making sure that the newcomers that we will be welcoming to Canada and to our community are well integrated into the Orléans community," said Paul Lavigne, the city's director of housing services.

Paul Lavigne attends a Community Services committee meeting on May 23, 2023, where plans for homelessness spending were discussed.
Paul Lavigne, the city's director of housing services, says staff will work to integrate newcomers into the local community. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

The city's struggle to accommodate newcomers came to the forefront last year when shelters noted a surge they could not properly support.

Since that time, the city has bought two properties to help take the pressure off that system and the temporary shelters set up in community centres.

A former retirement home in Crystal Beach is now housing families, while a vacant office tower on downtown Queen Street is set to accommodate 130 single people. This site would house about 150 singles.

"Right now, the steps that we've taken so far, we haven't been able to keep up with the demand," Mayor Mark Sutcliffe told CBC after Tuesday's meeting.

"We're experiencing new arrivals coming to our city like we've never seen before in the history of our community. So we need to act quickly."

A report from city staff noted that, as of May, there's been a 55 per cent increase in people using the single adult shelter system compared to 2023. Of that population, 64 per cent are called newcomer clients.

Lack of 'meaningful' engagement

The 10.5-hectare lot on St. Joseph Boulevard at the intersection with Forest Valley and Youville drives was described by staff as secluded, with a lot of tree cover on all sides. Less than half of the area is suitable for development.

Its size is a key reason for the high price, staff told councillors, though the city has no immediate plans for selling or further developing other parts of the site.

Staff say 1754 St. Joseph Boulevard would house about 150 single adults, if council approves the purchase of the property from the Sisters of Charity.
Staff say 1754 St. Joseph would house 150 single adults if council approves the purchase. (City of Ottawa)

"There is an opportunity here … when you look at the long term," said River ward Coun. Riley Brockington, noting the "precarious position" the quick turnaround creates for the local councillor.

"Anytime we make decisions which may impact communities without first going out to the community, we are going to be criticized."

All of the seven written submissions and one in-person delegation to the committee were against the purchase.

Common concerns were the lack of consultation, potential effect on property values, changes to the neighbourhood's character and uncertainty over the new residents.

While several pointed to their experiences with nearby supportive housing for people with addictions and mental health issues, Lavigne said this housing would be entirely different and focus on giving a temporary place for asylum claimants to put a "foot down" in the city before transitioning to permanent accommodations.

Next steps

The committee approved the purchase with only Orléans East-Cumberland Coun. Matt Luloff dissenting.

If council also gives the green light, the city will move ahead with closing procedures, including an environmental assessment that must be completed by mid-October.

On top of the $11 million purchase price, staff expect $350,000 in taxes and closing costs. They told councillors the purchase should be covered under the federal government's Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP).

Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada told CBC it has so far reimbursed Ottawa for $58.3 million in eligible expenses incurred by temporarily housing asylum claimants.

City staff remain in negotiation for funding to create a specialized new welcoming centre.

"While IHAP has not been historically used to reimburse capital expenses, IRCC is currently working closely with partners to transition the program from an emergency response to supporting jurisdictions in building more permanent and sustainable interim housing solutions," spokesperson Remi Lariviere said in an emailed statement.

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe speaks at a federal announcement at Ottawa City Hall on June 30, 2023.
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe says the city has so far been unable to keep up with the pace of demand for temporary housing from asylum seekers. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Regardless of the challenges, Sutcliffe said the city needs to act quickly and decisively.

"We've always been a community that has welcomed new arrivals," he said. "We have to continue to do that."