Closing the Door on Poverty

As CEO of the city’s largest social housing provider, Jo-Anne Poirier helps make a difference in her community every day. OCH works to put a roof over the head of thousands of seniors, parents, children, singles, and persons with special needs throughout the city. And that knack for helping others doesn’t stop there. “I like to think that I provide some help to people to realize their potential,” Poirier says, “whether that’s a tenant, a staff member, or a partner.”

Ottawa Community Housing works to provide housing and a better environment for those in need

Goose bumps are part of Jo-Anne Poirier’s job description, especially when she hears tenant testimonials.

“I remember one mom and her three children,” says Poirier, CEO of Ottawa Community Housing (OCH). “She was an immigrant and a victim of domestic violence, and she came to us needing a home. We helped her get a nice, warm roof over her head, and supported her through our community development staff and our partners. She was able to go to school and complete her master’s degree. She and her children moved out of our housing and bought their first house.

“When I hear stories like that, I get goose bumps.”

Before coming to OCH, Poirier worked for 30 years in senior management in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. She was vice president of resource development for United Way and CEO of the Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign. She was the first vice president of business development for MBNA Canada Bank, and she worked as deputy city manager of corporate services with the City of Gloucester.

“I have a good understanding of business practices,” she says. “I feel very fortunate that I am able to combine my business and people-engagement skills with partnership-development strategies. My job is about relationship management and providing safe and healthy communities for our tenants.”

By the Numbers

$142 million
Annual revenue and expenditures

15,000
Homes (worth $2 billion)

32,000
Tenants

160
Communities

January 2013 marked Poirier’s fifth anniversary with OCH. She’s excited about where they’ve been—and even more excited about where they’re headed.

“During the last few years, we’ve had some major accomplishments,” she says. “We’re making sure our aging housing is kept in as good a shape as can be, so people can succeed and be healthy. And we’ve developed a tenant-engagement program. We realize that to be successful, our key partners are our tenants. Whatever issues come up—safety or maintenance—people work together towards the same goal.”

Poirier has also developed robust relationships with community partners.

“We have well over 100 partners with whom we work to provide services to our tenants. Many people living in our housing are vulnerable. Some suffer from mental illness or drug addiction. Our partnerships offer social engagement and support, and we are grateful for their help.”

But that doesn’t mean she’s resting on her laurels.

“We can’t feel that we’ve arrived,” she says. “This is a journey, and the destination is within reach. But we can never become complacent.”

Poirier says she’s focused on destigmatizing the community.

“There is often a misconception about people who live in subsidized housing. But people are taking notice. We’ve won several awards for our services, and the community is recognizing that we are good collaborators.”

Her most challenging job is securing funding. “There will never be enough affordable housing if private and public sectors don’t work together,” she says. “We’re looking to develop strategies with condominium developers and to build innovative income streams. We know we can’t count solely on government funding. We have to adopt an entrepreneurial approach while remembering that we are a public organization.”

One of her goals is to help tenants break the cycle of poverty by helping them get a postsecondary education and become gainfully employed. With the support from her board of directors, she spearheaded the creation of an annual scholarship, a foundation, and the development of leadership and empowerment programs for OCH tenants.

“Many of us have had a good life and have grown up in good circumstances,” Poirier says. “When you see people affected by mental illness or people who were raised by abusive parents overcome their circumstances and succeed and thrive … it’s really inspiring.

“I hope people sense the sincere desire I have to make a difference,” she adds. “We can’t change the world, but we can change our own environment if we’re all pulling in the same direction.”