NIMBYism clashes with Ottawa housing goals

As a new Ottawa City Council starts to sink its teeth into their work, there are assurances on all sides that affordable housing and homelessness are a priority for the City. With a housing and homelessness emergency declared in Ottawa in 2020, it is no surprise that affordable housing was a major election issue last fall, with a campaign promise from Mayor Sutcliffe on creation of housing and a refreshed mandate for the Planning and Housing Committee that ensures housing affordability is a priority. However, when the rubber meets the road and development applications come to the Planning and Housing Committee to facilitate the development of dense, car-lite residential buildings, there is often a surprising amount of push-back. For many of these proposed developments, citizens or community associations often delegate to voice their opposition to these projects and present a myriad of reasons why they are unsuitable for their neighbourhood.

There is considerable consensus among residents on the need for the creation of affordable housing in Ottawa, with 69% of Ottawa citizens polled indicating affordable housing as an important election issue last year. However, this consensus seems to break down with the question of where these housing units are to be created. The “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) phenomenon is no stranger to Ottawa, and this mindset is hindering the City’s efforts to implement the solutions needed to respond to the housing and homelessness emergency.

NIMBYism has already been on display at multiple Planning and Housing Committee meetings this term of Council. For example, at the end of February, a proposed development in Orleans, which would include dozens of affordable housing units, came before the Committee. Of the 13 delegations given at this meeting, four opposed the development, all being residents of the area and pointing to a petition signed by 845 local citizens against the development. The petition and delegates spoke of lack of on-street parking, negative effects on property values and additional traffic in the area. The development was delayed, a sad outcome when at least one-eighth of Ottawa households are in a state of core housing need, where housing is either unaffordable, overcrowded or uninhabitable. 

More recently, a planned development on Winona for a mixed-use building with 60 residential units was brought before the Planning and Housing Committee. The only delegation on this motion was from the Westboro Community Association, which voiced concerns of neighbours over the development. A main concern was the building being set too close to the road and so not allowing for adequate large shade tree planting. While tree canopy coverage in Ottawa is an important issue, the forestry department had already provided assurances that the applicant was planning to plant trees along Winona Ave, and that the soil volume and space between the building and sidewalk was sufficient for these trees’ viability. Other concerns included the landscaping not reflecting the character of the neighbourhood, the development not creating a good transition to neighbouring properties, and the height of the building not having better landscaping to draw the eye downwards. In a perfect world, developers could take their time working with the community to address every concern and to create the perfect proposal before building. However, in the age of a housing and homelessness emergency, delays caused by these kinds of “neighbourhood character” concerns are unacceptable. 

With the reality of acute need for affordable housing, unnecessary delays on building plans only further entrenches the problem. As Ray Sullivan said at the May 3 Planning and Housing Committee meeting, “Responding to an emergency doesn't look like sitting on resources and waiting for perfect conditions. It means action.” Ottawa City Council must take real action on the many mandates and promises they have espoused surrounding housing creation. As well, Ottawans need to come to terms with the fact that we cannot restrict solutions to only those that don’t affect us or our neighbourhoods. The preservation of “neighbourhood quality” over providing the human right of housing simply cannot continue. NIMBYism and the status quo need to be set aside if Ottawa is truly going to commit itself to doing the work needed to create a city that works for everyone. 

Laura Daly volunteers with Ecology Ottawa's Council Watch program.

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