Last August, the federal government signed a 10-year-deal with the province of Nova Scotia to cost-share a $400-million-dollar contribution towards affordable housing.
The timing couldn’t be better for people trying to find a place to live in Metro Halifax. Not only is the population growing but the vacancy rate is at a historic low — 1.6%. Meanwhile, data from the province show rents went up 9% between 2015 and 2018 and the cost of electricity and food continue to rise.
“Affordable” housing as defined by Ottawa is a place to live which doesn’t chew up more than 30%* of household income. By that definition more than 30,000 households in Nova Scotia require “affordable” housing at a time when less than half can find it.
Housing Nova Scotia administers 11,700 public housing units or about $1 billion dollars worth of real estate. Co-operatives and non-profit housing groups own and manage another 1,300 apartments. That leaves some 17,000-25,000 households paying too much for housing and too little to heat and to eat, which results in poor health and higher medical costs.
The welcome infusion of “new” federal and provincial money for housing must be leveraged to increase the supply of affordable housing units, said representatives from the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS). They appeared alongside the deputy minister of Municipal Services and Housing at yesterday’s meeting of the Legislative Committee on Community Services.
Deputy Housing Minister Nancy MacLellan presented an initial three-year “action plan” which essentially commits $62 million to repairing existing apartment units and maintaining rent supplements for people currently being housed. AHANS was not impressed.
“There are 35,000 households in core need,” said Jim Graham, executive-director of AHANS. “The three-year plan is talking about a handful of new units: 87. It is talking about a handful of rental supplements that won’t make an impact and it is talking about a $62 million investment in existing public housing. How will that build toward the future?”
“Nova Scotians deserve a Housing Nova Scotia which will take a proactive approach to growth and take advantage of a billion dollars worth of real estate and not simply administer programs, said Graham, a passionate advocate who spent a couple of decades working for the province in Municipal Affairs and Housing before leaving to pursue other options.
“It took 20 years to dig this hole and it will take another 20 years to get us out,” he said. “There is no short-term fix but this plan lacks vision.”
In its presentation to the Committee, AHANS recommended the province consider converting public housing units which have traditionally housed only low-income people to non-profit units that would include a more diverse range of incomes and uses. It suggested the McNeil government budget more money to deliver rent supplements to vulnerable people. AHANS said as of last week, Halifax currently has 281 people who have been homeless for more than six months who squat, sleep in cars, or couch surf.
Last but not least, AHANS suggested the province needs to provide Housing Nova Scotia with more money to hire professionals with respect to financing deals and assessing properties so it can expand its holdings to compete with private developers who are gobbling up most available property.
For her part, deputy minister MacLellan (six months into the job and the fifth CEO of Housing Nova Scotia in seven years) is agreeable to working with non-profit groups such as Phoenix House and AHANS to try to find ways to “modernize” the housing strategy in order to supply more homes to more people. One of the current problems is that high-rise apartment buildings filled with seniors receiving rent subsidies can’t generate enough money to cover the expense of maintaining the building.
“What’s the long-term model that has us leveraging expertise in the private-public sector, mixed use, mixed market and mixed income and how do we move our existing public housing stock to that and how do we support the development of new stock that we don’t own under those models?” asked deputy minister MacLellan. “This sustainable model would give us rent at market rates from commercial space while we still provide rent geared to income and affordable housing for residents.”
British Columbia was mentioned as a possible role model but housing has rarely been a priority with Nova Scotian governments because the payoff is long term while life in politics tends to be short.
In July, 2018 the McNeil government announced 1,500 additional rent supplements would be disbursed. So far, about 800 have been assigned. MacLellan says that’s because the rent supplements are part of a three-year program and the other 700 will be assigned by July 2021.
NDP Housing critic Lisa Roberts thinks there is a better way to tackle what everyone in the room agreed is a “housing crisis.” Roberts says it’s time the province acted to bring in rent controls. Deputy MacLellan says the Liberal government is not considering that option. PC MLA Steve Craig says his party isn’t keen on it either. Roberts says constituents have told her the low vacancy rate mean landlords “have their pick” of potential tenants and don’t want/need the hassle of paperwork related to rent supplements for low-income people. Roberts says the upshot is a landlord often chooses to rent to someone else.
Chantal Chassé attended Tuesday’s meeting to complain that living in affordable housing presents its own challenges for tenants with maintenance issues. She blames the racking cough of her school-aged daughter on toxic mould present in her unit of a building owned and managed by the Tawaak Housing Association. The First Nations woman said after numerous complaints to the superintendent, she is frustrated at being unable to reach anyone on the non-profit’s board of directors with authority to fix the problem.
Asked how many Nova Scotians are on the wait list today for public housing with subsidized rent, MacLellan suggested 5,000 people are waiting an average of 2.5 years. She notes that’s down from 7,400 people on the list in January 2018 and 10 years from now, she hopes the numbers will be much lower.
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*This number was originally published in error as 20%.