by Lisa Montroy
A new research project conducted by Carleton University masters of social work students is highlighting the increasingly greater need for safe and affordable housing in West-Central Ottawa. The study found that the majority of participants live in private rooming houses (91.2%), and a small number live in supportive or subsidized housing (8.8%).
A rooming house is a building with multiple rooms that are rented out individually, with tenants sharing a bathroom and/or kitchen. Rooming houses play an important but often undervalued role in providing affordable housing in our communities. Most rooming houses are usually owned by private landlords, with standards and regulations determined by the municipal government.
The areas served by Somerset West Community Health Centre (SWCHC) and Centretown Community Health Centre (CCHC) – known as West-Central Ottawa – have the highest concentration of rooming houses in Ottawa.The findings also highlight the impact of poor housing conditions on physical and mental well-being.
Eighty-four percent of participants were between the ages of 35 and 60 and over 90 percent receive social assistance. The cost of rent varied from $362 to $710, with the average a little over $500 a month. This means that individuals receiving income from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) pay around 45 percent of their monthly income for housing, and individuals on Ontario Works (OW) pay about 72 percent.
Comparing data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s 2006 study on rooming house tenants in Ottawa and the data collected through this study, rooming house rents have increased by 38 percent, while OW rates have only increased by 28 percent. This suggests that rooming house tenants are making proportionally less money than they were 10 years ago, while spending a greater percentage of their income on rent.
Since housing affordability is defined as spending no more than 30 percent of one’s income on housing, rooming house tenants are in a highly precarious housing situation with little income left for food and other basic necessities that influence health and well-being. The research findings supported this, with all respondents reporting that they access food banks and/or soup kitchens to survive. Seventy-one percent of participants also reported that they skipped meals each month.
People who live in rooming houses also reported significantly lower levels of physical and mental well-being than the general population. Eighty-two percent reported having a health condition and 35 percent reported having three or more diagnosed conditions. They also affirmed findings from previous research that many tenants experience common issues such as mould, broken windows, exposed pipes and electrical wiring, no heating for long periods in the winter, unsanitary common areas such as bathrooms and kitchens, bed bugs and cockroaches.
At Centretown and Somerset West CHC, we believe that safe, secure, and affordable housing is essential for the health and well-being of all Ottawa residents. We also believe that rooming houses provide an important first housing option for many who would otherwise live in overburdened City shelters. We will continue to advocate for improved conditions in rooming houses as part of a safe and healthy community where everyone matters.
This column is a collaboration between the Centretown Community Health Centre and Somerset West Community Health Centre (CHCs). They provide a full range of health and social services to individuals and families. Through leadership and support, they foster the active participation of individuals and groups in a common effort to build healthier communities.