The Need For Affordable Housing Continues To Be Neglected

There is a serious shortage of affordable housing in Nova Scotia, largely concentrated in Halifax. It is due in part to the municipality’s enviable growth rate and to chronic inattention from the province.

The municipality grew by about 10,000 inhabitants last year. This, together with low-interest rates, fuelled a boom in residential construction. The vacancy rates for apartments dropped to the 1% vicinity putting upward pressure on rents.

Some of the space for new construction was created by knocking down older buildings that had inexpensive rents. The replacements had more units in the same space, but higher rents.

Affordable housing advocate Jim Graham says there are 500 homeless people living in HRM now, 375 of whom have been homeless for six months or more. Many others are living in precarious situations. There is a waiting list of 5,000 people for public housing.

There are 11,300 provincially owned subsidized housing units. A further 2,000 households benefit from rental subsidies in privately-owned buildings, and 1,300 households live in community housing co-operatives or not-for-profit housing.

Both new builds and taking care of existing stock have been neglected for decades.

The average age of public housing buildings is 40. The primary focus of the 2019-2022 Nova Scotia Housing Action Plan is to begin a program of substantial rehabilitation of those units.

The action plan’s modest ambition is to add fewer than 500 supported households over three years, almost all of them by additional rent supplements.

The COVID pandemic has temporarily slowed the rate of population growth. Vacancy rates have gone up a little, so rents will not go up as quickly. This provides, at best, temporary relief from the problem getting even worse.

Homeless people are not on any political party’s list of key voter blocks. All three parties have neglected the area during their times in power.

Compare to the well-organized lobbies for the film industry which takes tens of millions every year without creating a single self-sustaining job, or the advocates for the Yarmouth ferry costing similar amounts with negligible (none in the last two years) impact on tourism numbers beyond the Yarmouth area.

We need to do much more for the needs of those having precarious housing or no housing at all. Some thoughts:

  1. Rent control is attractive to some politicians because it is a highly visible sign of doing something, at no cost to taxpayers.

    It is not the answer. As economist David Rapson argued in the Herald on Wednesday, it creates all the wrong incentives. Developers will be less likely to add to the housing stock in a world where government controls the prices, so availability would become even worse; landlords will feel little incentive to provide good maintenance and timely repairs.
  2. The boom in construction is the result of a growing population. That growth produces significant increases in income, property, and consumption taxes. Both the municipality and the province should allocate a portion of that revenue to increasing the amount of affordable housing.
  3. Governments are not especially effective as landlords. Among Canadian provinces, Nova Scotia has one of the lowest rates of participation by the not-for-profit sector in delivering affordable housing. New Brunswick’s not-for-profit sector is the dominant force in their program.

    Find ways to engage qualified organizations in that sector. The municipality has taken steps in that direction, including the sale of land this week for 25 townhouses in Dartmouth North for a nominal $4.
  4. Many of those unable to afford housing are working for low wages. Our minimum wage is $12.55 per hour, scheduled to go up to $13.10 in April. In 2018, Ontario changed from $11.60 to $14.00 per hour with no discernible adverse impact on employment. Alberta is at $15.00 and BC will increase to $15.20 next June.

    Nova Scotia should raise its rate to $15.00 in April.

On October 1st, the federal and provincial governments announced that “Over 10 years, $513 million will be invested to improve the lives of Nova Scotians through new programs like the Targeting Housing Benefit, and continued investment in existing programs like home repair and adaptation.”

There is less to this than meets the eye. It seems to be largely about continuing the existing programs of rental subsidy and property maintenance.

The Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing declined a request for an interview. Asked by email about goals, they replied that “There isn’t a specific percentage, or number of affordable housing units to rent supplements we consider appropriate” nor could they go beyond “significant” when asked about the future role of the not-for-profit sector.

A promised announcement by Minister Chuck Porter about the province’s response didn’t happen. We are now told that it will happen “in the near future.”

In response to a question on a different topic this week, Premier Stephen McNeil responded for the umpteenth time that his sole focus was keeping COVID-19 in check. When there is only one person who can make decisions and only one topic having his attention, progress on all other matters comes to a halt.


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