The provincial NDP said it’s working on legislation that will allow municipalities across Nova Scotia to tax developers who delay building on lots in Nova Scotia that are zoned for residential housing, instead leaving the lots empty for years.
NDP Leader Claudia Chender made the announcement in front of the former Bloomfield School in Halifax on Thursday morning. That lot, which is owned by Banc Group, has sat undeveloped for years. A group rallied outside the vacant central Halifax lot two weeks ago, demanding HRM expropriate the property so affordable housing can be built on the site.
Chender said the NDP will table the legislation about the tax in the fall sitting of the legislature.
“This will disincentive land developers who allow lots like this that should be housing to sit empty year after year, and in some cases, decade after decade,” Chender said at the announcement.
“While Nova Scotians are struggling with the shortage of housing and affordable housing in particular, large properties like this on transit, close to schools and workplaces, within municipal service boundaries, are sitting empty. Tim Houston has spent more time pointing fingers at municipalities than working with them to find real solutions.”
When asked how much the vacant land tax would be, Chender said they are creating a permissive legislation, so the amount of the tax would be up to the municipalities. Chender said the government of British Columbia has a vacant unit tax, and a registration system that tracks the number of vacant units in that province.
“We can’t do that here yet. Their tax is 3% per year, so we’ll have to see,” Chender said. “The municipalities will have to find a way that it doesn’t feel like a cost of doing business, which is often how the tax is levied in these kinds of situations.”
Chender said she wasn’t sure how many vacant plots of land there are in other municipalities across Nova Scotia. Chender, who is on a week-long tour visiting communities across the province, said while the problem is more acute in HRM, other municipalities are dealing with it as well.
“Incentivizing building is the headline for municipalities across the province. I think that in Halifax, we have the more egregious examples of where this kind of a policy is needed,” Chender said. “So, anyone who lives in this city or has spent any time in central Halifax just shakes their head at the number of properties in disrepair, this being one of them.”
‘It feels like they’re mocking us’
Sam Krawec, who lives near the Bloomfield site, also spoke at Thursday’s announcement. Krawec said it’s “frustrating” to walk past the undeveloped property every day knowing there are people in the city who need affordable housing.
“Banc Developments have been sitting on this property like it’s nothing to them. We know how wealthy these people are and it feels like they’re mocking us. I also walk by green spaces where people sleep in tents and sleep on benches, and there are more now than we’ve ever seen in this neighbourhood,” Krawec said.
Krawec said the community needs action to build more social housing that could make the community more diverse and vibrant. He said if developers leave a property empty, then it’s up to the community and government to “do something about it.”
“Introducing a vacancy tax is a step in the right direction, but it is also the bare minimum,” Krawec said. “We need to take action on social housing and create more affordable housing so we can get people off the street and build the communities that we need.”
Housing announcement a ‘small start’
Chender said Wednesday’s announcement by the federal and provincial government that they will build 222 units of affordable housing in Nova Scotia is a “small start and at least a mea culpa.” She noted that the province is estimated to need 70,000 units of housing by 2030.
“But the more shocking statistic is that 33,000 of those units will need to be affordable. What we have right now, including the announcement of 220 yesterday, is a drop in the bucket compared to the need,” Chender said.
Chender said the NDP is willing to work with municipalities to decide what is an acceptable delay in developing housing on a vacant site. She said developers often say developing a site is not economically feasible for them. She said that can’t be an excuse when the province is in a housing crisis.
“We need to especially speed that up incentivizing social or affordable housing as Sam was talking about. I think in this case [Bloomfield], we have a developer, and across the city we have developers who say, ‘we’re not building because it’s not economically viable for us’,” Chender said.
“The point we are making is that economic viability in the context of the housing crisis is not the top concern for Nova Scotians. The top concern for Nova Scotians is that housing gets built. That can be built in and considered, certainly, but we are talking about unacceptable delays and in the cases of the building we’re talking about, that is not the cause of the delay.”
Chender noted it was the previous NDP government that had a plan for the former Bloomfield school to be developed into mixed-income housing. That plan was quashed by the Liberal government, and the property was sold off to a developer. The 1.16-hectare site has remained undeveloped and in disrepair since. People in the neighbourhood have expressed concerns about dangers on the property.
Chender said the former Bloomfield school site has become a symbol for Nova Scotia’s frustration and disappointment with inaction on affordable housing.
“I remember this, not when it was a school, but when it was a community hub, subsequently. St. Pat’s Alexander, the former school, also in North End Halifax, which also sits empty, the former St. Pat’s High School site on Quinpool Road where many of my good friends went to school, sits empty and vacant,” Chender said. “This is unacceptable in the context of the housing crisis. The provincial government needs to step up and take responsibility for housing.”
Halifax regional council asked for a staff report on a vacant land tax in August. The motion from Peninsula South Coun. Waye Mason called for a report “regarding disallowed demolition under normal circumstances until a building permit has been issued, and the establishment of an empty lot tax.”