Social Housing and the Registry Waitlist

By Tanawush Cheema


Affordable housing is a crucial issue, particularly considering today’s housing market. However, statistics surrounding homelessness and housing insecurity are staggering, with approximately 235,000 homeless Canadians each year [1]. While affordable housing programs exist, there continues to remain a prominent backlog on waiting lists across the province.


How Does Social Housing Work?

Social Housing employs a variety of means to provide affordable accommodations to those meeting several eligibility requirements using government subsidies and rent geared to income (RGI), in which a tenant’s net income is used to calculate affordable rent [2]. Major housing providers such as Toronto and Ottawa Community Housing utilize government subsidies to provide sustainable housing to tenants.


Section VII of the Ontario Human Rights Commission notes that Social Housing often accommodates individuals requiring additional support or income security, such as older persons; low-income individuals or families; individuals with disabilities; and those who are or previously have been homeless or require special needs [3].


Registry Waitlists

I sat down to speak with City Councillor Mathieu Fleury, councillor for Ward 12 Rideau-Vanier to talk about some of the issues surrounding subsidized housing. He is also the Chair of the Board of Governors for Ottawa Community Housing, the largest subsidized housing provider in the City.


“Landlords do not directly control the social housing waitlist; the chronic waitlist... is run by a separate entity called the Registry,” Councillor Fleury explained. He further noted that the priority waitlist, which accommodates urgent health and safety transfers, is managed by the City of Ottawa. Landlords such as Ottawa and Toronto Community Housing also manage internal transfer waitlists for their tenants.


Today, there are 13,000 individuals on the Registry’s waitlists in Ottawa, with 2,000 waiting in shelters or motels [4]. The majority of those on the waitlist continue to wait without temporary accommodation, often as long as eight years before they receive an offer [5]. Eight years is a long time, meaning circumstances, eligibility, and urgency might change.


However, the reason for this backlog is difficult to control. At this time, as Councilor Fleury pointed out, there is limited turnover taking place within housing providers. Fewer vacancies mean fewer units that can be rented out to applicants.


In adherence to the updated Housing Services Act (2011), the Registry is changing the number of refusals allotted to an applicant on the list [6]. Prior to this change, individuals on the list were permitted a total of three options before being bumped back to the bottom. However, with recent changes, households on the Registry waitlist must choose the one option that they receive.


While this can assist in shortening the waitlist, it removes individuals' rights to choose their accommodation, forcing them to choose between an unsuitable unit or being bumped to the bottom of the waitlist. After moving into a subsidized unit, tenants then have the option to apply for an internal transfer; however, in larger landlords, the waitlists are similarly long, with landlords obligated by the HSA to house those on the internal waitlist before those on the Registry’s [7].


In fact, Toronto Community Housing was recently investigated by Ombudsman Toronto for giving tenants on their extensive internal transfer list “false hope”; the investigation concluded that the corporation was in dire need of rewriting its internal transfer policy, particularly by prioritizing urgent health and safety transfers [8].


What’s Next?

My chat with Councillor Fleury included a discussion on some options to increase affordable housing in Ottawa. He notes a clear gap in support from other city councillors, as well as a lack of adequate preparedness to tackle the waitlist. He noted that most wards in Ottawa are home to homeowners, meaning that affordable housing policy simply is not a priority for their representatives.


Another issue that he pointed out was that of the operational challenges that exist at the municipal level. While a number of rental units are becoming vacant within the private sector, the city has yet to find a way to utilize them. He suggests that Ottawa adhere to a model in which it would rent out units from the private sector and sublet them at reasonable rates, which, unfortunately, it is not prepared to do at this time.


The Ontario Human Rights Commission makes the same suggestion, noting that accessing a pool of units within the private market would be beneficial for the additional purpose of providing temporary accommodation while on the waiting list [9]. This would allow individuals on the chronic waitlist to receive temporary, safe housing without concern of losing their spot on the list. It is clear that municipalities, providers, and the Registry need to adequately prioritize the needs of those on the waitlist in order to shorten it.


[1] Strobel, Stephenson, et al., “Characterizing people experiencing homelessness and trend in homelessness using population-level emergency department visit data in Ontario, Canada.” Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. Jan 21, 2021. May 26, 2021. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2021001/article/00002-eng.htm.


[2] “Subsidized housing.” City of Ottawa. May 26, 2021. https://ottawa.ca/en/family-and-social-services/housing/subsidized-housing


[3] “VII. Social Housing.” Ontario Human Rights Commission. June 1, 2021. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-human-rights-and-rental-housing/vii-social-housing.


[4] “Subsidized housing.” City of Ottawa. May 26, 2021. https://ottawa.ca/en/family-and-social-services/housing/subsidized-housing


[5] Glowacki, Laure. “'You're Losing the Right to Choose': Changes to Housing Wait List Panned | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, Feb 10, 2020. May 26, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/housing-waitlist-ottawa-1.5457620.


[6] “Proposed Amendments to the Social Housing Services Act, 2011.” Ontario’s Regulatory Registry. April 17, 2019. May 27, 2021. Proposed Amendments to the Housing Services Act, 2011 Related to Social Housing Waiting Lists (ontariocanada.com)


[7] “Transfers”. Ottawa Community Housing. May 26, 2021. https://www.och-lco.ca/transfers/


[8] “City Ombudsman says Toronto Community Housing Priority Transfer Process Giving Tenants False Hope.” Ombudsman Toronto. Jan 26, 2018. May 27, 2021. https://www.ombudsmantoronto.ca/Publications/News-Releases/News-Folder/City-Ombudsman-says-Toronto-Community-Housing-Pri


[9] “Housing.” Ontario Human Rights Commission. June 1, 2021. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-human-rights-and-rental-housing/vii-social-housing.