Nova Scotia’s provincial politicians are back to work at the House of Assembly this afternoon.
On Wednesday, Liberal leader Zach Churchill told reporters his focus will be on urging Premier Tim Houston to do a better job working with both municipal and federal levels of government to find short- and long-term solutions to the housing crisis.
“With the highest increases in rent and the highest rates of inflation, it has never been more expensive to be a Nova Scotian than under Tim Houston’s Conservative government,” Churchill said.
“At the centre of this cost-of-living crisis is the housing crisis, and it will not be solved until this government accepts their responsibility to fix it. Premier Houston needs to work non-stop to find answers to this problem in a collaborative and constructive way. If he isn’t prepared to provide that leadership, the Nova Scotia Liberals are.”
Tories make two housing announcements
Pressed by reporters about how he would go about solving these problems if he were premier, Churchill said he would spend more on modular or prefabricated houses to provide shelter for the homeless and people without affordable housing.
Within a few hours of Churchill blasting the Progressive Conservative government for not playing well with others, the PCs made two major announcements that involved significant cooperation from the Halifax Regional Municipality and the private sector.
As reported in the Halifax Examiner on Thursday, the Houston government announced it will spend $9.4 million to build 52 units that will house 62 people who are currently homeless.
HRM is donating the land and Prestige Homes, a division of the Shaw Group, will build the houses in Lower Sackville. Dexter Construction will provide workers to prepare the site and service the greenfield development. The first 30 units should be ready for occupancy by next summer. The province will pick up annual operating costs in the vicinity of $900,000 and a non-profit group will be established to take care of operations.
“We have seen this concept work in other jurisdictions, providing a simple home for people who are unhoused, so we are pleased to see the investment by the province married with private sector building expertise, and a municipal site,” said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.
“Working together, we will help more people move to better circumstances.”
There are currently an estimated 1,000 homeless people in HRM. An hour later, the Houston government made a second announcement aimed at providing temporary shelter this winter for some of the people living in tents in HRM and several other communities.
“We know that people experiencing homelessness deserve a dignified place to shelter in the colder months,” said Minister of Community Services Trevor Boudreau. “We’re providing funding for emergency supports across the province to ensure that people have warm places to stay.”
The province will pay Pallet, an American company that specializes in rapid-response one-bedroom shelters, $7.5 million for 200 temporary housing units. Half of the units will be set up in HRM where the municipality is providing land and “operational oversight.”
The funding will also be used to buy bed frames and mattresses, and to support operations in other communities such as Kentville. The Houston government will spend $1.8 million to open three new overnight shelters for homeless people in Amherst, Bridgewater, and HRM.
Half a million dollars will be added to a million-dollar emergency or “Diversion Fund” that helps people on income assistance who have been evicted or who risk being cut off by Nova Scotia Power because they can’t keep up with their power bills.
The Department of Community Services will also spend $180,000 to enable the RV campground at Shubie Park to continue to provide accommodation this winter for HRM residents with nowhere else to go.
The timing of both government announcements — providing short-term and longer-term housing relief for a growing number of homeless people — is clearly intended to defuse some of the criticism opposition politicians intend to heap upon the Houston PCs. The housing “strategy” Housing Minister John Lohr promised last spring is still missing in action.
With Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) reporting year-over-year rent increases in the vicinity of 10% for Nova Scotia, Churchill said the current rent cap of 2% is not working.
In response to a question from the Examiner about whether he will push to maintain the cap beyond the Dec. 31, 2023 deadline, Churchill said he would not. Instead, he outlined the following issues he said Liberal MLAs will be focusing their efforts on in the legislature this fall:
• Finding temporary shelter for the homeless population before winter hits.
• Fixing restrictive zoning laws that slow down development and prevent affordable housing from coming to market.
• Reducing building costs to bring more affordable housing units to market.
• Training more skilled trades workers as fast as possible.
• Ensuring the rental market is both attainable and affordable.
• Making it more affordable for seniors looking to exit the housing market to allow new buyers to come in.
NDP advocates for rent control
NDP leader Claudia Chender also intends to make housing a priority this session. Like Churchill, she said she isn’t planning to push for an extension of the existing 2% rent cap.
But Chender said she will be putting forth legislation aimed at helping renters and landlords chart a path forward. She sent the Examiner this statement:
We understand how precarious housing is for renters across this province with the temporary rent cap in place, which is why we will continue to advocate for protection for renters including a system of rent control in which renters and landlords would know what to expect year to year.
With rent control, the rate would be set each year based on the Consumer Price Index and would include opportunities for property owners to apply for larger increases if they had a major investment or increase in costs. Additionally, we are putting forward legislation to create an enforcement branch of Residential Tenancies as well as closing the fixed-term lease loophole that is allowing rents to skyrocket even with the rent cap in place.
The NDP also intends to push the Houston government to do more this winter to help people on fixed incomes deal with increased heating costs. More from Chender’s statement:
We haven’t heard what’s going to happen with the heating assistance rebate program, it’s absolutely our position that needs to either be that same increased amount as it was last year ($1,000 for households earning up to $85,000) or greater, to deal with the cost of inflation. We are proposing a seniors’ income supplement. We’re one of the few provinces that don’t have something that can help low-income seniors make ends meet and we know that seniors are among the fastest-growing population of homeless people in our province, which is quite frankly a travesty.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr will hold a bill briefing later this morning outlining changes to the HRM Charter and HRM Municipality Act, which the Tories say will “speed up approvals for developments, increase density, and reduce barriers to build new types of housing.”