One of the Harbour City Homes houses that is for sale.
One of the Harbour City Homes houses that is for sale.

Tenants of affordable housing units on Brunswick and Artz Streets delivered a letter yesterday morning to the office of Harbour City Homes, requesting minutes from a recent meeting in which the nonprofit affordable housing property manager’s Board of Directors decided to sell nine of its properties, putting 34 families at risk of losing their homes to unaffordable price increases.

Harbour City Homes says it cannot afford to maintain all of its 214 units and that the sale of these buildings at market rates will allow it to improve the rest of its properties.

The tenants’ letter was intended for general manager Bob Thompson, who was not onsite. “We are quite interested to see who initiated this whole sale process,” says Deb Key, chair of the newly-formed Brunswick Street Tenants Association.

The tenants also requested a meeting with the board of directors. “They’re going on that they have no money,” Key says. “But there are a lot of grants available they haven’t applied to. A municipal grant for $20,000 per unit and another one for $25,000 per building. That would be $85,000 for my building alone.”

They have organized and formed a tenants association to work toward creating their own housing co-op to take over management of the buildings, in the hope of staying in their homes. It is probable that new owners, without the mandate to provide affordable housing, would seek significantly higher market rents once current leases expire within a year. “It’s inevitable that a lot of people are not going to be able to stay in the community,” Key says.

Key says tenants currently pay between $650 and $800 plus heat to live in conditions most middle class families wouldn’t tolerate. By contrast, Nova Scotia’s monthly shelter allowance for households with a budget deficit ranges from $223 to $620, depending on family size and style of housing.

The buildings show significant signs of neglect. Three tenants at the press conference said residents struggle to keep their flats heated during the winter due to a lack of insulation and unwillingness on the part of oil companies to fill their tanks.

The tenants say they have been dissatisfied with Harbour City Homes management of these properties for years, long before they received notices of the impending sale in their mailboxes. “[Bob Thompson] hasn’t done his job,” Key says.

In fact, the tenants say they have long been the ones maintaining the properties, using their own skill, labour and finances, while the property manager has neglected basic repair jobs. Key’s back porch has consisted of a piece of plywood with a tarp over it for more than a year, and her requests for a screen door have gone unanswered.

“We outreached to people in our community,” she says, “and there’s a lot of people with anger because they call the office [saying] ‘I need the ceiling fixed; there’s structural damage.’ It’s always the same thing. There’s never any money.

“My neighbour, Mr. Bowden, has been doing most of the maintenance work for years. We all chip in on the mowing and shovelling. We’re acting as a co-op already. Where has the money we pay been going? There’s nothing being put back into these properties.”

Their hope is that the Halifax will enact the right of refusal on Harbour City Homes intention to sell. It’s still unclear whether or not Halifax actually has that power.

A September 2004 report from HRM’s Grants Committee indicates that certain of the nine properties come with the “right of first refusal,” but according to Evan Coole of Dalhousie Legal Aid, it’s impossible to be certain without seeing the original sales documents. Coole has asked to see those on behalf of the tenants.

The buildings were sold to Harbour City Housing for between $1 and $5,000 on the condition they be used for affordable housing. It was part of a long-term effort by the municipality to get out of the affordable housing business.

Key is aware that housing is a provincial responsibility, but feels that the city’s contract with Harbour City Housing gives it “a certain obligation to do the right thing.” She says that one option would be for the city to allow the tenants to “purchase the properties back at the same price that Harbour City Homes was given.”

Councillor Jennifer Watts has also asked the municipal solicitor to review the relevant contracts. Politically, Watts has said that it’s unlikely the city will buy back the properties even if it can.

The tenants have been in communication with Watts but they have yet to have an official meeting with anyone from the city. Their goal is to learn what is possible before drafting a business plan for running their own housing co-op and a plan for assembling a board, and making a clear ask of the city.

In the meantime, they are working with Dalhousie Legal Aid to run a workshop for those wishing to file residential tenants complaints. Key speaks with a sense of urgency. “Contractors are coming here tomorrow to look at these buildings. I don’t want to lose this community. My goal and my dream would be to bring these buildings back to the way they were, back to their prime so we can start taking some pride in our city and the history that goes behind these buildings.”

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