Fill It First: Delivering More Affordable Housing, Faster Can Also Cut Emissions

A quick, effective option to help damp down the affordable housing crisis is hiding in plain sight. And if we make the right choices, the actions we take could help Ottawa get its greenhouse gas emissions under control.

With every level of government focused on opening up more new housing units faster, the main debate has been about where to build next. But what about all the empty rooms in buildings and underutilized land and urban spaces that are already out there waiting to be filled?

The numbers in favour of a affordable housing strategy tell a powerful story.

  • Four million empty bedrooms across Ontario, according to the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis. If just 2.5% of them could be filled with renters, they could house 100,000 people.
  • 20,000 potential new housing units, including 3,000 in Ottawa, that could be available if surplus office buildings are converted to apartments, based on an April, 2023 analysis by the Canadian Urban Institute.
  • Recognition in Ottawa’s own Official Plan that some 80,000 new housing units—just over half of the city’s projected need—should come from intensification. And there is so much underutilized space—in existing neighbourhoods, near new transit stations, and on parking lots and public land.

Quicker, Cheaper, Lower Carbon

A Fill It First strategy doesn’t eliminate all the need for new housing construction. But filling those underutilized buildings can help get more homes into the market more quickly and at lower cost via homeshares, secondary suites and duplex conversions. With a shortage of skilled workers, supply-chain constraints and inflation, housing solutions that require less labour and fewer materials can provide welcome shorter-term relief.

The units are on land that is already serviced, where infrastructure is in place. So the public cost per new home is far less, and that means lower rents for people who desperately need them.

And the buildings are already heated. So they reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to new builds, while avoiding the emissions required to manufacture new construction materials.

Importantly, a secondary suite can also generate extra “mortgage helper” income to help some owners stay in their homes longer, or keep older and younger generations living closer together. OCAF and the City of Ottawa are exploring how income from secondary suites could help finance energy- and carbon-cutting retrofits to improve insulation and switch buildings to heat pumps.

Even if affordability is the first motivation for a home retrofit, renovating to minimize energy use and greenhouse gas emissions opens the door to new funding and finance streams from the City of Ottawa and the federal government. And a more energy-efficient home is cheaper to live in, putting an end to the days when anyone will have to choose between food and heating or cooling.

‘Missing Middle’ Density

Missing middle” refers to housing options like accessory dwelling units, coach housing and new apartment buildings that are more dense than a block of single-family homes but less concentrated than a residential high rise. Locating these units close to public transit, shops, services and recreation can cut driving, transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in half and bring a wealth of community benefits.

Concentrating population in denser, more walkable neighbourhoods with better access to jobs, services and recreation also makes it easier to run an efficient, reliable public transit system, while helping to attract new talent to Ottawa.

Office conversions are yet another tool in the affordable housing toolbox. They present important practical and financial challenges, but can be an important part of the effort to revitalize the downtown core, bringing new energy, vibrancy, and economic activity to a part of the city that has been far too quiet since the pandemic.


First Things First

When you can’t be sure where you’ll be living next month, or how you’ll pay the rent when it comes due, very little else matters. It’s a position no one should ever be in. It also means we won’t get the public momentum we need to hit our climate targets when so many of our friends and family, neighbours and co-workers are having trouble finding an affordable place to live.

Not every office tower can be easily converted to housing. Not every homeowner will want to take on a renter or build a tiny house in their back yard. But by making those options more easily available, we can put a Fill It First strategy at the top of our agenda for delivering affordable housing, and at the centre of our emission reduction plan.

If we get this right, we may just find out that one of the best ways is to confront two big, complex challenges is to solve them both in tandem.

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