Quebec was granted $1.4 billion for affordable housing. Quebec City, Montreal, and Gatineau came together to make the ask. Nova Scotia should ask for $160 million based on a per capita equivalent. The mayors of Sydney, HRM, Bridgewater, Kentville, Yarmouth, Truro, and Wolfville could get together and make a similar coordinated bid.
HRM’s portion of that money would be about $68.8 million. Could HRM be trusted to figure out how to spend this amount? The federal government may want to see that HRM and the province have firm policies on affordable housing. This is something that both HRM and the province need to get their act together on.
If Halifax spent $9 million for 52 units under the Rapid Housing Initiative, could it stretch the $68.8M to provide housing for all the 300 Haligonians sleeping rough this winter? The province has jurisdiction over the rent supplement for affordable housing but maybe HRM could deal with the building part. On November 17, 2020 HRM CAO Jacques Dubé admitted that housing was a joint responsibility of the province and the municipality. Maybe that’s a sign that they can figure out how to work together.
HRM could fund the other 13 applicants that originally applied to the Rapid Housing Initiative. There would be no one-year time restraint. The nine projects for which there is available information cost about $30.7 million, which would result in 165 affordable units. That number is nowhere near what HRM needs, but it is a start.
Another idea is for HRM to repurpose the convention centre. Big conventions were already in decline when it was built. The restrictions imposed by COVID-19 demonstrated how meetings and conventions can be held virtually. Pretending there will be a return to normal is both delusional and expensive — but what a great opportunity to convert the convention centre to small affordable apartments. If small apartments can be built between 300-700 square feet, the 120,000 square feet of the Convention Centre could result in approximately 170 units. This number may vary with hallway width and common space. The building code for residential use is slightly different than that for office towers, but the fact that the government of Canada has suggested using old office towers for the Rapid Housing Initiative means that the building code is not an insurmountable obstacle.
A repurposed Convention Centre could be arranged like a housing cooperative. The renters could spend a portion of their monthly rent to pay for elevator maintenance, heat, electricity, and other expenses. The oversight could be dealt with by a cooperative board.
Constructing apartments in the building will take time, but this is also an opportunity to create employment. Money that is being spent to keep the convention centre operating and empty could be spent to keep it operating and filled with safe and accessible housing. If HRM can spend $11.1 million bailing out the convention centre it spent $59 million erecting, then it certainly has money to deal with the homelessness crisis.
If HRM didn’t want to make use of the $59 million we already spent to build the convention centre, another option could be to purchase the South Tower of the Nova Centre. The tower is not fully occupied by tenants. Any current tenants could relocate to the Bank of Montreal tower adjacent to the South Tower. The South Tower is not fully finished on the interior, so there is an opportunity to make small apartments.
A lot of individuals and groups thought that building the Nova Centre wasn’t a good idea. Let’s remedy that big financial mistake by at least making the space useful.