A skyline view of a handful of apartment buildings on the horizon.
Apartment buildings in Halifax. Credit: Zane Woodford

A Nova Scotia researcher says the province’s lack of affordable housing requires “urgent action,” and that includes addressing problems with rent supplements. 

“One of the mechanisms that is in place to assist renters — and I would argue that it’s a major focus of the current government — needs to be changed in order to make sure that Nova Scotians have housing that is affordable,” Cape Breton University professor Dr. Catherine Leviten-Reid said in an interview Monday.

“So how can we make changes to the rent supplement program to better assist tenants? But also we have to be looking at how can we make changes to the rental market so that the people who are receiving supplements are situated in a rental market that also works for them.”

Leviten-Reid authored an article published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) on Monday titled ‘Lack of affordable housing in Nova Scotia requires urgent action: It’s time for the provincial government to step up for tenants.’ 

The piece includes suggestions for addressing problems with rent supplements,  “particularly given their expanded use, recent changes to program eligibility, and the clear demand for them.” 

“Right now, with the limitations to the rent supplement program, if you are lucky enough to receive it, you are not living in affordable housing,” Leviten-Reid told the Examiner. “You’re getting only partial assistance from the provincial government.”

A smiling woman with blonde hair and a black shirt is in front of a white backdrop and smiles at the camera.
Catherine Leviten-Reid, associate professor with Cape Breton University’s Community Economic Development program. Photo: Contributed

‘Housing that’s actually affordable’

“For people who have housing right now, if we better designed the rent supplement, it could mean that they are living in housing that’s actually affordable to them,” Leviten-Reid explained. 

Among the program’s limitations highlighted in her article, she said rent subsidy amounts don’t consider the actual cost of rent. In addition, utility costs aren’t factored in.

“I think there’s a built-in assumption that utilities are included in rent, but they’re not necessarily,” Leviten-Reid said. 

She described this as a “flaw” in the way Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) collects its rental market data. According to data she’s collected in Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) and nationwide, Leviten-Reid said renters are responsible for a significant portion of their utility costs.

Data on rentals from CBRM show that 77 per cent don’t include lights, 58 per cent don’t include heat, and nine per cent don’t even include water,” she wrote in her piece. 

“It’s important to highlight here that affordable housing means you are spending no more than 30 per cent of your household income on shelter costs — meaning both rent and utilities.”

Higher percentage of housing in need of major repairs

With the exception of cases where housing support workers are involved, housing conditions aren’t a consideration when providing rental subsidies.

“Providing a government subsidy to a tenant living in housing needing major repairs without mechanisms to ensure that landlords address those repairs is hugely problematic,” Leviten-Reid wrote. 

Compared to the rest of the country, she said Nova Scotia also has a higher percentage of housing stock that’s in need of major repairs. The province also has what she called “limited oversight” of housing conditions. 

“Certainly we need to be thinking about the condition of housing in which people are living,” she said.

Leviten-Reid said tenants often express a fear that if they request much-needed repairs, they could be evicted.

“In older rent supplement programs, units were inspected, and the agreement between the housing authority and the landlord included acceptable standards for the housing provided,” she wrote. 

“Why is that no longer the case?”

‘Underestimates true cost of renting’

Leviten-Reid said rent supplements aren’t universally available to all those in need. But for those who are fortunate enough to have them, tenants must pay anything above the average market rent (AMR) cap. 

“It used to be that the rent was agreed upon by the landlord and the housing authority. So that agreed upon rent could have been above the cap. But it had to be in keeping with the marketplace,” she said. 

“But it wasn’t passed on to the tenant to be responsible for paying that amount. Now we’re really relying on average market rents, which underestimate the true cost of renting in our communities.”

Need massive investment in affordable housing stock

In addition to redesigning the rent supplement, Leviten-Reid also pointed to “critical” policies outlined in the CCPA-NS Housing for All report (as reported here). They include legislating rent control tied to the unit, implementing a province-wide landlord licensing and inspection program, and strengthening tenant protections. 

Describing rent supplements as “absolutely an important tool” in the short term, she said the province needs to make the program work better for low-income Nova Scotians.

“Let’s make the supplement better. Let’s think about how it interacts with the rental housing market,” she said. 

“Of course, part of that too is that supplements only work when you have housing in which to put people. And so we need to be also making a massive investment in affordable rental housing stock.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. Thank you for this article.
    I moved to Nova Scotia a year ago and part of the job I now have involves helping people in HRM apply for rent supplements. I was shocked to see how low the government has set the ARM cap in our communities. It bears little relationship to the rents that people in this area are actually paying.
    There is a disconnect between what the government believes people are paying and the amounts landlords are currently charging for their units. People who qualify receive amounts so low that their rent is still not in any way affordable, given their income. It is urgent that something be done to address this.

  2. Landlords hold all the power and always will. Considering both the provincial and federal housing minister’s are landlords I’m not holding out hope that they’ll do anything about the power imbalance and greed inherent to commodified housing.