With a waiting list of nearly 6,000, public housing in Nova Scotia is “severely lacking” proper governance and oversight, the province’s auditor general found in a new report.

Auditor General Kim Adair submitted the new report, titled “Oversight and Management of Government Owned Public Housing,” on Monday.

It contains 20 recommendations, all accepted by government, aimed at improving the governance of the province’s five housing authorities, which are collectively responsible for more than 11,000 government-owned homes.

In a grainy cellphone photo, a woman sits at a microphone. She's wearing a white shirt with a beige blazer. Behind her are four Nova Scotia flags — white with a diagonal blue lines, and a yellow crest featuring a red lion.
Nova Scotia Auditor General Kim Adair. Photo: Zane Woodford

Adair’s office tested the administration processes of three of those authorities — the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority, Cape Breton Island Housing Authority, and Cobequid Housing Authority — over an audit period of two years, from January 1, 2019 to December 31, 2020.

The high-level conclusions:

  • “The Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing does not have an effective governance structure in place for public housing and is failing to provide adequate oversight of the regional housing authorities. There are few performance measures, and there is no clear accountability or action taken when targets are not met.
  • “The regional housing authorities are not effectively managing public housing applications and tenant placement processes. Inconsistent and weak processes were identified amongst the three housing authorities examined.
  • “The regional housing authorities are not adequately monitoring continued eligibility for public housing. Housing authorities lack established consistent processes to address tenant-related issues in public housing buildings. Housing authorities do not have an established complaint process for public housing.”

“I would say our findings are very significant given the current situation where the demand for public housing far exceeds supply,” Adair told reporters on Tuesday.

“It’s the governance piece that is the most surprising, the fact that that overriding governance and oversight … we use the term ‘severely lacking,’ and those are very carefully thought-out words, severely lacking. And that’s very significant.”

There were 5,950 applicants on the waitlist for public housing at the end of last year, the audit found.

“This is more than half the total number of units in the province. Management has indicated the wait time for placement averages about two years, although this can be much higher depending on the location and size of unit required,” Adair wrote in the report.

A white sign shaped like a house with a peaked roof on which is written Welcome to the community of Mulgrave Park. Below that is a logo of three people in grey on a red square. The red paint has faded in the sun. In the background you can see the slope of the grassy lawn, a chain link fence, several homes in a row of townhouses, and beyond that Barrington Street. Taken in 2018.
Mulgrave Park, a public housing community in Halifax, is seen in 2018. Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Yet units are sitting vacant between tenants for much longer than they should. Adair’s audit found the target turnaround time is 60 days, but the average turnaround time during the audit period was more than double that.

“It is obvious that demand for public housing exceeds the current supply as shown by the long waits experienced by Nova Scotians. Therefore, it should be a priority to turn over vacated units in a timely manner so that they can be occupied by new tenants as soon as possible,” Adair wrote in the report.

Another inefficiency identified in the audit is the prevalence of what Adair called “over-housing.” That’s when a single person or couple is living in a three-bedroom unit, for example.

“It could be circumstances where the children have grown up and moved out, and their parents are in the same unit,” Adair said.

“We recognize it’s very difficult to move people who have lived in a home for many years, but there is a policy in place where if there is another available unit to suit them, and it’s in good condition and there’s proper notice, that that can be managed. And that would free up for those families, the larger families that are waiting, those larger units.”

Adair said she was surprised to learn there were an estimated 1,500 units falling under the category.

The audit also highlighted the three department changes since 2019; Housing Nova Scotia moved from the Department of Community Services to Municipal Affairs and Housing to Infrastructure and Housing and back to Municipal Affairs and Housing.

“Each restructuring has involved a new Minister and there have been five Deputy Ministers responsible for the housing portfolio over the three-year period from January 1, 2019 to December 31, 2021. During this same period the Executive Director, Housing Authorities has directly reported to numerous senior leaders, including five different people in five different positions,” the auditors wrote.

“A lack of consistent leadership makes it difficult to have a clear strategy and move projects forward. Every change at the senior leadership level involves a significant amount of briefing and getting new leadership up to speed on the portfolio and the issues and challenges faced by staff.”

Asked whether the government needs to build more public housing units, Adair said, “probably yes.”

“But that wasn’t the focus of our audit. That is definitely a question that I’m sure that the department and the government is struggling with,” Adair said. “But what’s important is that the existing units that we do have the 11,000 in this public housing program are used as efficiently as possible and we’re finding that they can do better.”

In what Adair called a positive note, the government is already moving on the major governance issues, based on a recommendation from the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission last year. In that commission’s report, tabled in May 2021, the first recommendation was to create a new arm’s length provincial housing entity to replace Housing Nova Scotia. The government issued a request for proposals this month “for Housing Governance Transformation Priority Work for Housing Nova Scotia.”

In a statement, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr said the new “entity will be accountable and solely focused on improving public housing for Nova Scotians from one end of the province to the other.”

Lohr said the government agrees with all of Adair’s recommendations, and it’s made progress on many of them.

“We are committed to making meaningful change for Nova Scotians in need of public housing, including those currently living in our units,” Lohr said.

The PC government’s approach to the housing crisis has centred mostly around making it easier for developers to build market housing, and Lohr’s statement made no commitment to build more public housing.

NDP housing spokesperson, MLA Suzy Hansen, said the government should be building new housing. But it needs to gets its house in order first.

“I think the numbers have shown that we need affordable housing and public housing is just that but we also need to make sure that the structures are in place that are going to be consistent and open and honest for the way that we need to run the processes,” Hansen said.

Liberal housing critic, MLA Lorelei Nicoll, agreed, saying better governance is “severely needed.”

“It’s alarming but yet it’s not surprising at the end of the day, what what she tabled here today,” Nicoll said, “because we see it in many ways and we know with the current economic structure that’s going on, any day, anyone can find themselves unhoused.”

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. This report is years overdue and not news to anyone who has ever, or currently resides, in public housing. They have been slum lords for as long as I can remember and it’s like pulling teeth to get anything done in a unit, unless you’re one of the few privileged people that can get anything they ask for. They will flat out lie, make excuses and even get backup from their lousy contractors just to get out of being held responsible for anything they or their contractor do, or DO NOT do, as is often the case. Their contractors get paid to not work half the time. The other half, the job is often barely done. All that and then heaven forbid you have a job and are hoping for a repair guy to come. They expect us to sit home for days or weeks waiting for someone to randomly show up. When I call they will not make an appointment time or call me before coming. Yet, I often work later than they do so how is that supposed that work? The waiting times are also not even close to acurate 120 days for a vacant unit sitting is actually a short time. I’ve seen units sit for well over a year before they were even looked at let alone painted and ready for a new tenant. Combine all that with the ignored social problems that come with living in a housing community. Funny thing though, if you’re late on your rent they notice that and suddenly know how to use a phone. Going to the tenancy board is a lot of time, work and preparation to get around the BS that they will spew and I’m sure they count on people either not knowing their rights or not fighting for them. I’ve been there, done it all with them and what I got from the tenancy board was not really worth what I went through except just to be able to say I was right in the end.

  2. Government once saw building rent-to-income housing as a core mandate. They recognized that the market and non-profits weren’t going to be able to fill the need. That all stopped though about 20 years ago. We have the same housing stock today for a city of 440,000 as we did for a city of 340,000. They absolutely need to manage the existing stock better, but even if that was a model of efficiency we will almost undoubtedly still have a long wait list. A wait list that’s more than half the total housing stock isn’t going to be solved by efficiency alone. They need to swallow their ideological objections and Build. More. Units.