The Rent Control Announcement Was A Diversion, and Bad Policy

Politicians sometimes use diversionary tactics when they have to make awkward revelations. This has happened frequently for the Trudeau Liberals.

Last week it was questions from the press about when Canadians would get the COVID vaccine. Trudeau started by pointing out that Canada would be slower than some countries because we did not have domestic capacity to produce vaccines.

That was quickly shredded by various observers pointing out that no production facility created years ago would have the technology to produce new types of vaccine such as the one invented by Pfizer.

Andrew Coyne at the Globe and Mail noted that the real problem was that the Liberals were slow to place orders, adding: “We’re behind just about everybody: Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, Russia, India, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Japan, even Indonesia and Mexico.”

Nova Scotia has its own current example of diversionary press management. On November 12th, Premier McNeil promised an announcement the following week about the critical shortage of affordable housing in Halifax Regional Municipality. That finally happened on Nov 25th when Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Chuck Porter, held the long-promised press conference.

He had almost nothing to say about new affordable housing initiatives. Instead, he announced a rent control program, an idea that has been long opposed by the Liberals. Under it, rent increases are capped at two percent per year retroactive to September 2020 and continuing until Feb. 1, 2022, or whenever the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted. That became the news story.

Rent control will not result in a single additional affordable housing unit. For a variety of reasons, it will discourage both new construction and satisfactory maintenance of the existing inventory.

Porter mentioned $1.7 million to replace 30 beds removed from the homeless shelter system because of changes required by Public Health protocols for physical distancing.

Beyond that, there was no commitment or plan for expanding access to social housing. Instead, he announced the creation of the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission with 16 representatives from government, developers and property owners, and the not-for-profit sector.

In response to a question about the mandate of the group, the department replied: “The commission’s mandate is to engage with experts and stakeholders across the province to learn more about the current state of affordable housing and find sustainable, long-term solutions that build on the commitments made under the National Housing Strategy…The commission will have its first meeting in December, and it will finalize a Terms of Reference document soon after that. The commission will then make recommendations to the Minister of Municipal Affairs over the next 6 months.”

The group was recruited a couple of days before the announcement and will have support from departmental staff.

The department has nothing to say about numbers beyond the commitment to increase the number of supported units by 360 over the life of the 2019-2022 housing action plan. Nor does it have any comments about the mix between rental subsidization and new construction, nor about the proportion of units that should be managed by the not-for-profit sector.

One possible interpretation of this sequence is that the government is anxious to come up with a suitably ambitious plan that is informed by consensus recommendations from knowledgeable players in the space.

The other possibility is that the department has received no direction from the politicians about what they want to happen.

Premier McNeil has deflected questions about the use of unbudgeted COVID-19 stimulus money by saying about the necessary clerical work: “I don’t think Nova Scotians think that’s the best use of the premier’s time.”

If he cannot take a minute to delegate that, how could he possibly grapple with difficult policy questions about affordable housing?

The appointment of the committee may be an example of kicking the ball into the long grass, where it is pushed aside and hidden in the hope that it will be forgotten or ignored. The reason for the long delay was the need to come up with a suitable diversion for the media to talk about. That diversion put in place a bad policy and immediately sparked calls for the temporary measure to be extended.

We should nevertheless hope that the committee will take advantage of the opportunity and provide well researched and considered recommendations.

By mid-2021, we will have a new premier, possibly a new government. There is a good chance that the COVID pandemic (about which McNeil has done an excellent job) will be in remission. The critical shortage of affordable housing (McNeil’s words) will not have gone away.


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