Yesterday, the legislature’s Law Amendment committee held a 10-hour session to hear public input about environmental and housing bills.
The Houston government’s proposed Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act is better than any environmental legislation that’s come before it, but it’s still not good enough.
That was the recurring theme stated by 33 people who signed up to speak about the bill before the legislature’s Law Amendment committee.
Some particulars were repeated by several speakers: the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals need to be strengthened, and interim goals should be set; offshore oil and gas exploration should be ended, and existing operations should be phased out; biomass should not be counted towards the province’s renewable energy targets; and open pen aquaculture should be explicitly banned.
The Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act sets a 2030 target of Nova Scotia reducing GHG emissions by 53% below what was emitted in 2005, and a 2050 target of being “net zero” for GHG emissions.
But in real terms, the 2030 target weakens the targets that have long been advocated, said Tina Northrup of East Coast Environmental Law. “We suggest that the 2030 target ought to be amended to call for a 58% of 2005 levels.”
That desired 58% target was repeated by many other speakers.
As well, having just two targets — 2030 and 2050 — leaves two decades with no tight accounting of GHG emission reductions. Several speakers wanted to see targets set at five-year intervals, adding targets for 2035, 2040, and 2045.
As well, there was an uneasiness with the act’s aim to get to “net zero” by “balancing greenhouse gas emissions with greenhouse gas removals and other offsetting measures.” Those technologies are unproven, and shift the onus of reducing GHG emissions away from emitters and onto unnamed parties.
Offshore oil and gas
Northrup said she’d also like to see the legislation amended to “end offshore oil and gas exploration and development… We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This is not the time for Nova Scotia to be considering investments in offshore drilling, development and exploitation, it should be the time for Nova Scotia sending a clear signal that we are divesting away from fossil fuels.”
Noreen Mabiza from the Ecology Action Centre echoed that sentiment and added a tight timeline: all new offshore exploration should be banned by Jan. 1, 2022, and all existing expiration ended by Jan. 1, 2025.
The Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act sets a target of 80% of electrical generation coming from renewable sources by 2030.
“We’re looking for 90 percent, but 80% is a strong target,” said Marla MacLeod of the EAC. “But we don’t want things that are not actually renewable as part of that — and large scale burning of forest biomass is not a renewable energy source.”
A growing body of scientific literature shows that most of the carbon captured in forests is in the soil, and clearcutting the forests releases that soil-bound carbon, which cannot simply be restored by planting more trees. One speaker yesterday — Gretchen Fitzgerald of the Sierra Club — said that in terms of its climate change impact, burning biomass for electricity is even worse than burning coal.
Speakers also said the act has unclear goals for aquaculture, saying only that the province will “support low-impact sustainable aquaculture through a licensing process that weighs environmental considerations and includes provincial regulation for potential environmental impacts, animal welfare and fish health, without explicitly banning open net offshore fish farms.
The fear is that as British Columbia is banning those fish farms, companies will merely shift their operations to the Atlantic provinces unless there is also an explicit ban here.
A bill to cap residential rent increases at 2% until December 2023 will hurt more people than it will help, four landlords told the committee last night.
In brief, all four warned the committee that many landlords will choose to sell their rental properties because costs for insurance, heat, and water are rising faster than what the proposed rent cap will allow them to collect from their tenants. The rent cap is being continued — after a one-year freeze —just as inflation for September climbed to an annual rate of 5.2%.
Amanda Knight owns five properties she rents to 13 tenants in Pictou and Colchester counties. She also manages other properties in Antigonish County and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
“We have all heard about the “greedy” landlords who have raised rents in the double-digits, but what about the majority who increase rents incrementally or who haven’t increased rents in years?” she asked the legislators.
Knight explained how prior to the rent cap, she had told one tenant she planned to raise his rent by 50 dollars, or 9%. He had received one rent increase since 2008, 13 years ago. But since the 2% rent cap, that now means Knight can charge only $11 a month more.
“My power bill went up $25 a month, my heating costs went up $65 a month,” said Knight. “This does not include the rising cost for water, insurance, and repairs. To put this in perspective, if this tenant had received an annual 2% rent increase from the time he moved in until today, his rent would have increased by $151 a month. Taking him from $551 in 2008, when he moved in, to $711 in 2021. Still well below market rent. He currently pays $561 a month, inclusive of heat, power, and water.”
Knight and two other landlords told the committee oil prices have jumped 30% since last fall and insurance companies have raised their premiums by nearly 40%.
All begged the committee to consider linking the cap on rent to at least the rate of inflation and to provide landlords with some avenue for appeal depending on specific circumstances. Here are Amanda Knight’s suggestions for improving Bill 62, the Interim Residential Rental Increase Cap Act:
- This rent cap needs to be increased. It needs to take into consideration landlords with properties well under market rent, and, it needs to take into consideration tenant income as the Province does when it subsidizes rent.
- It needs to take into consideration the ever-increasing cost to maintain these properties not to mention the cost to improve these properties which benefits the health and wellbeing of Nova Scotians.
Michael Burgess has owned several apartment buildings in North End Dartmouth for close to 40 years. Many are rented by people on fixed incomes. Burgess says he has two roofs on buildings that need to be repaired but the rent cap means he does not have the money to fix them.
“Any cap on rent is a cap on what landlords can spend on buildings, on maintenance, on people,” said Kevin Russell, the executive-director of the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia. “How do MLAs expect landlords to pay for the fuel to heat our buildings? Two percent is not sustainable.”
Russell warned legislators that unless the rate cap is increased, the bill will “knee-cap landlords” and tenants will find themselves without a place to live after their building is sold. He scolded the PCs for not heeding the advice of experts on the Affordable Housing Commission who stated rent control was not the solution to solve the current housing crisis and all stakeholders, including IPONS, should be consulted before making changes.
“Every political party promised during the provincial election they would consult with our industry before making decisions that affected us,” said Russell. “That didn’t happen with Bill 62. Bill 62 is a broken promise by the Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals, and the New Democrats.”
All changes suggested by landlords such as linking the rent cap to inflation or implementing a process of appeal for landlords charging below market rents were voted down by the committee. The bill will now return to the legislature for one final debate before being passed into law.
No tenants showed up to speak to the committee.
Province refuses to open secret meetings
The committee also heard from a councillor, the CAO of the Halifax Regional Municipality, and HRM Mayor Mike Savage last night. All three outlined concerns that Bill 63, the Housing in HRM Act, gives the minister of Housing too much authority and too little accountability over future decisions affecting new housing developments in the region’s fast-growing city.
The bill is supposed to cut red tape and fast-track the construction of more housing through an Executive Panel of five people appointed by the minister. The panel would have broad powers to designate new building areas within HRM and to amend or alter agreements with developers previously approved by HRM staff and council. Not surprisingly, that’s raised a few eyebrows at City Hall.
Savage acknowledged the appointment of an Executive Panel could improve cooperation between the province and HRM to step up the building of more affordable housing. However, he remains concerned the province may try to override years of public consultation and planning meetings that have (finally) endorsed what kind of development should take place under the Centre Plan, the Integrated Mobility Plan, the Rapid Transit Strategy, and the Climate Change Plan.
“Minister John Lohr says he does not seek to usurp HRM planning responsibilities but this bill gives the Minister the authority to designate special planning areas and to approve and amend existing development agreements,” said Savage.
The committee’s PC majority voted down an amendment proposed by Liberal leader Iain Rankin. It attempted to ensure Lohr’s verbal commitment to Savage would be put in writing as part of the bill.
Another objection raised by Savage and others is that the province’s Executive Panel will meet in secret to consider future housing developments.
“In a democratic society people need to be heard, as well as housed,” said Savage. “Expediting planning approvals to short-circuit processes and public input may also not serve the purpose of increasing housing supply, as current labour and supply chain constraints contribute to getting projects underway,”
Dartmouth municipal councillor Sam Austin, a planner by profession, begged the province to reconsider the secrecy around the Executive Panel decisions. “Please don’t replace HRM’s public planning process with a private one.”
Austin argued the planning process should be open to the public because that participation often leads to better decisions. He cited the razing of Africville and the building of the Cogswell Interchange as two examples of poor decisions made behind closed doors. He also voiced concerns about what expertise the five-member panel would draw upon and how citizens would even find out what projects are being reviewed.
“The selection of the Executive Panel will be crucial to its success and watched closely,” said Kortney Dunsby, the sustainable cities coordinator with the Ecology Action Center. “A caution, giving absolute power to an Executive Panel of 5 provincial appointees to expedite large residential developments of single detached homes beyond the service boundary — homes everyone in my generation (Millennial) knows we cannot afford — is not the solution to the housing crisis.”
In Austin’s view, the Houston government’s proposed Bill 63 to fast-track more housing development could also re-open old wounds.
“This Housing in HRM Bill has the potential to be the biggest interference in municipal jurisdiction since amalgamation,” said Austin. “It’s been 20 years since we have seen anything like this. And so I couldn’t remain silent both as a representative for Dartmouth Centre, as a planner, and as a member of the public.”
For his part, Savage says the municipality is committed to expediting planning approvals and is in the process of hiring more people and changing processes in order to get more housing units started.
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Savage and Austin each had 10 minutes to speak to a bill, but they only allow an HRM resident 5 minutes to speak to the Centre Plan or any other planning issue. Hypocrites.