Premier Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservative government is keeping temporary rent control and pledging 1,100 new affordable housing units along with interventions in municipal planning as part of its plan to address the housing crisis.
Houston and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr unveiled the long-awaited plan at a news conference on Wednesday, announcing that rent control of 2% annually will remain in place until the end of 2023. That’s a departure from Houston and Lohr’s earlier statements.
“The long-term solution to the housing crisis does not rest in rent control. It’s been tried and it simply does not work long term. The only answer is more supply to meet the market demands. But for affordability to improve, availability needs to improve. But we all know more supply, more availability, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Houston said.
“In the short term, we must extend the rent cap. It simply must remain until the supply issue can start to be addressed. Tenants need help and they need certainty. They don’t deserve to be punished for historical prior poor government decision making. While the supply is being built up, we have to protect the tenants, and our government will do that.”
Reaction to the announcement focused on the rent control aspect, with both opposition parties happy to see the government change its mind.
“We see this as really a resplendent victory for those who have continued to raise the voices for rent control in Nova Scotia and have created this public outcry across the province which could not continue to be denied,” NDP leader Gary Burrill told reporters.
Burrill said the NDP would continue to advocate for permanent rent control.
Liberal leader Iain Rankin told reporters he was happy to see the government extend the temporary rent cap first brought in under Stephen McNeil’s government.
“That shows government’s listening, so I’m not going to critique that, I see that they’re adapting their own stance on some of these issues,” Rankin said.
ACORN Tenant Union, the organization advocating for renters that led protests calling for permanent rent control, celebrated the announcement.
“ACORN will continue to fight to ensure that the rent cap becomes permanent past 2023, and for full rent control that includes vacancy control so landlords cannot continue to bring up rents in between tenants,” said a statement from the group.
Houston also announced a plan to spend $35 million to create 1,100 new affordable housing units. Details on those units are sparse. There’s no indication of just how affordable they’ll be, and there’s no timeline on their construction. And the government is adding 425 rent supplements, the last government’s imperfect preferred method of delivering affordable housing. There was no indication of whether they’re tied to units or are portable, allowing people to move and keep their subsidy.
Residential Tenancies Act amendments discourage renovictions
In the House of Assembly on Wednesday, the government introduced amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act mostly designed to protect renters from so-called renovictions, when landlords evict tenants to renovate their apartments.
Those amendments require landlords to give tenants three months notice of an eviction for demolition or renovation (the current Act requires no notice), and requires landlords to compensate tenants when they’re renovicted. The compensation depends on the size of the landlord’s building. For buildings with fewer than four units, landlords will have to pay tenants one month’s rent. For buildings with more than four units, landlords will have to pay three months’ rent. There’s added compensation available for moving and other expenses if landlords don’t follow those rules.
There are also amendments to explicitly stop landlords from charging more rent for month-to-month leases than for annual leases. That’s a problem the Halifax Examiner identified in a story in August speaking with tenants who’d received notice of much higher rent increases if they opted to exercise their right to a month-to-month lease.
After tenants file notice to quit, under the amendments, landlords would have to give 24 hours notice before entering their unit to show it to a potential new tenant, and they’d only be able to enter between 8am and 8pm. Currently, there’s no notice required.
The amendments make it easier for tenants to get back their security deposit, too, with landlords required to file an application to keep the deposit within 10 days, or else they forfeit their right to it.
For landlords, the amendments grant the ability to raise rent at any time of year, not just on the anniversary date, while still limiting rent increases to one per year.
$10 million in short-term funding announced to address homelessness
There’s still no commitment from the provincial government to provide funding or support services for HRM’s planned modular housing, designed to house people currently living in tents and emergency shelters.
But along with the $35 million in spending for 1,100 units, the government pledged $10.1 million in spending over two years for shelters and supportive housing, and “culturally relevant” housing.
That includes $4.2 million “to maintain emergency shelter investments created during the COVID-19 pandemic;” $1.6 million for the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre’s Rapid Housing Initiative project (along with another $76,000 in start-up funding); $1.3 million in funding for hotels and support staff; $931,000 for transitional housing for organizations like the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia; $713,000 for Shelter Nova Scotia; and $630,000 to Adsum for Women and Children to start up versions of its Diverting Families program in East Preston and in the Shelburne, Yarmouth and Digby area.
That came as news to Sheri Lecker, Adsum’s executive director.
“It’s exciting for us, we’re really happy about it, but we didn’t know it was coming,” Lecker said in an interview.
Lecker said Adsum submitted a proposal to the last government for the program. The money will be used to show local organizations in East Preston and the Shelburne, Yarmouth and Digby area how to run a program similar to one Adsum has had success with in Halifax.
“We would like to pilot a program that we have been running here for about five years. It’s a very promising approach for ending family homelessness, and specifically chronic homelessness,” Lecker said.
“We just want to work with someone local in their home communities to really transfer the experience and the knowledge and the tools that we’ve developed, so that they can make it their own and they can run it in their own communities.”
Lecker was pleasantly surprised to see the government hold onto rent control.
“There’s an understanding and appreciation that there is urgency to these issues,” Lecker said. “And while there is continuing tendency to depend on developers and supply there’s recognition that that’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”
Good and bad for Halifax Regional Municipality
Houston’s government fulfilled a long-time request from Halifax Regional Municipality with its plan on Wednesday, allowing HRM and other Nova Scotia municipalities to use inclusionary zoning. That’s the practice of requiring developers to provide affordable housing in their buildings. Regional council first asked the province to grant it that power in 2016, and the Liberal government ignored it.
Amendments to the Municipal Government Act and the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter introduced in the legislature on Wednesday would allow municipalities to “require and regulate the provision of affordable housing within developments, including requiring that a specified percentage of affordable housing units be provided within a development.” They’d be permitted to take money in lieu of units.
Mayor Mike Savage told reporters at a media availability on Wednesday that he’s happy to see the government legalize inclusionary zoning.
“I believe this measure, first requested by HRM formally in December of 2016, will mean many more affordable units are included in new builds,” Savage said.
“There’s much here that is laudable, and we appreciate those measures from the provincial government. We also have concerns.”
Another facet of the government’s plan sees the provincial government dipping into traditionally municipal jurisdiction.
“We’re done with traditions. Our traditions are what got us to where we are today and that’s a housing crisis,” Houston said.
The plan is to set up a “planning task force” to speed up development in HRM. With membership from both levels of government, the task force will “focus on analyzing and approving large residential developments in the Halifax area.”
Houston said he’ll respect the environment, but any “appropriate” development will be permitted.
The government is going to convene a “regional transportation group” as well, which will “create a master transportation plan for HRM.
“This group will review roads, ferries and public transit to ensure the transportation system is set up for rapid residential growth in the coming years,” the government said in a news release.
Halifax already has such a plan. Regional council unanimously approved the Integrated Mobility Plan in 2017, focused on moving people around the city effectively, and getting them out of cars and onto buses, bikes and sidewalks. And it passed a Rapid Transit Strategy last year, including a plan for a bus rapid transit system with colour-coded routes running in dedicated lanes, along with fast ferries and a goal of electrifying the transit fleet.
The municipality also has development plans, including the Centre Plan, with final approval weeks away, and the Regional Plan, which together outline where HRM wants to see development happen and what it wants that development to look like.
The signal from the province is that it wants to override those plans. Savage said there was little in the way of consultation before the province’s announcement. He’s waiting for more details, but said the municipality has worked hard to make sure it’s supporting “the kind of development that makes sense.”
“We’ve built a city that respects the environment, that honours its residents, that listens to its residents in the construction process and in the development process,” Savage said.
“Our concern is what is this panel exactly going to do? And I’m open minded about what it might do. But I will say this, we’re not going to compromise on the environment, we’re not going to compromise on good planning, we’re not going to compromise on making sure that we are providing finding new ways for our citizens to get around the city, whether it’s walking better transit, riding a bike.”
Coun. Waye Mason was less measured.
“This is an intrusion into municipal decision making. This is not their job,” Mason said in an interview.
Mason said if the province wants to help with transportation, it should match federal transit funding and help HRM implement bus rapid transit and fast ferries.
He said he won’t support the planning task force.
“We all want development to go quicker. But what we don’t want is development to be approved outside of the Regional Plan areas and development to be approved for where we don’t have the road capacity and sewer and water capacity. It’s going to drive a lot of costs for taxpayers and ratepayers,” Mason said.
“I don’t have the assurances right now that they’re not going to just say, “Yep, build a bunch of condos in Blue Mountain-Birch Cove.’”