The provincial and federal governments are building new public housing for the first time in decades, but the opposition calls the 222 units planned a “drop in the bucket” in the face of Nova Scotia’s housing crisis.
The governments said the new homes, 80 of which will be barrier-free accessible, will house 522 low-income families, single people, and seniors in Bridgewater, Kentville, Truro, Cape Breton, and HRM. Rents will be geared to income.
The total cost is $83.2 million. Over five years, the province is spending $58.8 million, or about 70%, and the federal government $24.4 million.
Provincial Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr and Halifax MP Andy Fillmore, on behalf of federal Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Sean Fraser, made the announcement in Halifax on Wednesday.
“While we didn’t get here overnight, we’re taking the bold action needed to increase housing supply in our province,” Lohr said.
Lohr said the government will start building next spring. It hopes to move people into the new homes in fiscal 2025-2026. He said “the bulk” of the new units will be in multiple areas of Halifax and Cape Breton. The province will build all the new units on land it already owns next to existing public housing. The government wasn’t ready to announce specific sites.
Premier Tim Houston’s PC government had been resistant to the idea of building more public housing, something advocates and the opposition NDP have been calling for for years.
Lohr himself had previously ruled out building new public housing.
“I think that if you look back to my more recent quotes I was softening that position because I realized that this was something we had been working on as a department over the summer,” Lohr said.
Lohr said the money from the federal government changed the government’s plans. It was going to build barrier-free units by renovating 40-year-old buildings.
“My staff pointed out that this was a pretty inefficient way of doing it,” Lohr said.
With the federal funding, Lohr said the department decided to build new units and move up to 222.
“Another driver is simply the housing crisis, and simply knowing the waitlist and simply knowing that we wanted to do more,” Lohr said.
MP says feds back on housing after decades of inaction
Fillmore said decades of government inaction and under-investment on housing have “caught up to us.”
“And that is nowhere more evident than in Canada’s stock of affordable housing, which has now reach a crisis point here at home and across the country,” Fillmore said.
Asked why it took so long for the federal government to get back into public housing, Fillmore said it takes time to come to agreements with other orders of government.
“By intention, decades ago, the federal government removed itself from the housing equation and that became a provincial responsibility throughout the country,” Fillmore said.
“It’s taken some time to fight our way back into that space … but I think it’s clear that we have landed in this space with great authority and with a great deal of capital that we’re making available, and I think we’re already seeing the positive impacts of that.”
Is it enough?
In a 2021 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia, the authors found Nova Scotia needed more than 30,000 new public housing units. Hundreds more people have become homeless in HRM alone since then.
Pam Menchenton, executive director of client services for the Nova Scotia Provincial Housing Agency, said there are about 5,000 people on the wait list for public housing.
Heather Fairbairn, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Provincial Housing Agency, said about 40% of those people are in the Halifax area.
Lohr said the province has a current housing needs assessment. He wouldn’t say how many public housing units are actually needed.
“That information plus our own waitlist tell us there is demand for these units,” Lohr said.
“We’re short units right now. We know that. We’re short units all over the province, and the biggest need in housing right now is to have more supply, so this is one thing we can do to add more supply and at the same time add accessible units, which we know we need as well.”
A ‘drop in the bucket’
Halifax Needham MLA Suzy Hansen, the NDP’s housing spokesperson, told reporters it was a good step.
“It’s also a good way to show that people have been advocating for this to happen, people have been on the ground working hard to push for more public housing,” Hansen said.
“It’s huge, but I mean it’s a drop in the bucket when we think of the numbers. If we split it up between the five areas, we might get 40 units or more, but that doesn’t even touch the waitlist. It doesn’t even touch the priorities, does not touch those that are in tents. I think it’s really, really good that it’s happening. I think we need to expand upon that and continue to do that work.”
Liberal leader Zach Churchill said Wednesday’s announcement is an example of what can happen when governments work together.
“I do think we need to some more proactivity from the province,” Churchill said.
“If the premier is going to double the population of Nova Scotia, we do have to have an overall housing strategy to increase not just afordable houisng units, but also single-family houses and market housing as well.”
Churchill pointed out there are “regional gaps” in the announcement, including in the tri-county area in the south of the province.
Asked why the previous Liberal government, in which Churchill was a minister, didn’t build public housing, he said “the acuteness of the challenge has only become apparent in recent years.”
New pilot programs announced
The government also plans to launch a series of pilots programs. Those are “aimed at creating more options and opportunities to add housing to existing properties, create mixed-income communities, and transfer some existing public housing units to community-based housing organizations and/or resident ownership.”
On the transfer of existing units, Lohr said, for example, that the province has a number of rural public housing units that are “chronically empty due to such poor locations.”