Councillors patted themselves on the back Tuesday, celebrating a job half done and more than a month delayed.
After hoping to have them done by the end of November, then by the end of December, the municipality’s modular housing units in Dartmouth were declared complete on Tuesday. Councillors toured the site on Alderney Drive in the morning, and then held a virtual meeting in the afternoon.
Two barrier-free units at the Dartmouth location are still incomplete, along with 38 planned for the parking lot of Centennial Pool in Halifax, now delayed until mid-March.
During their meeting on Tuesday, councillors were asked to approve an extra $1.2 million in spending for the project on top of the $3.2 million approved in November after HRM’s first attempt at modular housing fell apart.
Staff blamed the new cost overrun on “Unsuitable site material below existing parking lot asphalt” in Dartmouth, “Electrical and mechanical infrastructure costs to accommodate commercial kitchen equipment” in Halifax, and “site security” on either side.
But despite the cost and the delays, Coun. Sam Austin said the municipality should be celebrating.
“We did screw up on this project, but not in the way that people think,” Austin said. “Where we went wrong here is we oversold and then under delivered in terms of the time it was going to take and the cost.”
The Dartmouth Centre councillor said it was a project unlike any other HRM had taken on, and council approved it without the usual litany of staff reports required.
“We took on more risk here knowingly because we wanted to move as quickly as we could. And on that point, it’s kind of it’s been lost in all the shuffle, we’ve actually been very effective,” Austin said.
He pointed to the projects funded under the first round of the federal Rapid Housing Initiative, which aren’t complete after more than a year.
“That’s not knocking these projects. Building stuff is complicated and it takes time, but I think it underlines the point that what HRM has done here is pretty darn awesome,” Austin said.
“We have brought 24 units into HRM that didn’t exist before and created a semi-permanent home for out of the cold who has not had that in just four months, four months. No one else has managed anything like that. That’s pretty incredible.”
Coun. Waye Mason agreed.
“The delays are not due to lack of effort or planning,” Mason said.
“The delays are due to the emergency nature of COVID happening and reducing shelter capacity and creating and exacerbating the housing crisis and trying to respond very, very quickly in a way that is frankly unusual for us outside of the actual state in the state of emergency, like a hurricane or crane collapse or something like that.”
Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace said the timeline was pretty good considering the trailers themselves only arrived about a month ago.
“We weren’t really even sure what kind of footing those those modular units were actually going to be sitting on and so there’s a lot of uncertainty as far as getting the services to those modulars positioning them in a place that was safe and secure,” Lovelace said.
“Kudos to everyone who worked on this, and I just want to remind everybody, this is just one site. Now we’ve got the other site to to really get up and running and pushing forward. We can’t sit back on our laurels. We have a lot more work to do.”
Lovelace suggested HRM should send the provincial government an invoice for the modular units, although chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé told councillors the municipality had already agreed to pay for the units if the province paid to operate them and provide support services.
Coun. Tony Mancini also felt the province should be paying for the units, and worried HRM would have to continue building housing.
“Folks that are living rough or living without a home or homeless are now moving to HRM from other parts of the municipality or other parts of the province, in fact I’m also hearing from other parts of Atlantic Canada,” Mancini said. “They see that we are stepping up and providing these types of services, so where does it stop?”
Mayor Mike Savage said HRM needs to be “mindful” that it can’t go on forever, but council agreed to take on the cost of the modular units.
“We are stepping into an area that we haven’t done before because of the fact that this is, strictly speaking, not part of our mandate,” Savage said. “But it is part of our responsibility, it’s part of our conscience, it’s part of our community.”
Borrowing from Austin, Savage said HRM shouldn’t over promise on the timeline for the Halifax units, but he was happy to see the Dartmouth units complete.
“It’s an important day. It’s not a mission accomplished day. It’s a step along the process to try to help some of our most vulnerable citizens,” he said.
The motion to approve the budget increase for the project passed unanimously.