Building for two million people

Premier Tim Houston. Photo: CNS

Premier Houston talks rent caps and preparing to double Nova Scotia’s population

Premier Tim Houston says Halifax real-estate developer and landlord Scott McCrea sold him on to the idea of rent caps.

The Armour Group Ltd. CEO is big donor to the provincial Progressive Conservatives and served as chair of Houston’s transition team after he won the leadership bid.

“He was the one who was promoting extending the rent cap to me because he knew that’s what’s important for Nova Scotians,” Houston tells Advocate Media in a year-end interview. “He cares to the extent that he puts his on personal situation aside and focuses on the province.”

In the run-up to the summer’s election, Houston was a vocal critic of the Liberal government’s two-per-cent ceiling on rent hikes for apartment dwellers, arguing the solution to the housing crisis is more housing supply.

Houston says he still believes more housing is the answer, but his government’s extension of rent caps for two years is a necessary stopgap.

“We’re taking these steps now because we can’t allow tenants to pay the price through significant rent increases for the failures of government,” he says. “Government dropped the ball on the housing file. As a new government, we’re picking it up and we’re dealing with it.”   

The two-year extension provides a deadline to boost supply, he says. “I think we can make significant progress in that time.”

Landlords, particularly smaller ones, have bemoaned the strategy and worry rent caps might become permanent. Many say the restrictions on rent increases means they won’t be able to recoup rising costs like energy and insurance.

In early November, the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia surveyed its members. More than half of the hundred rental housing owners who responded say they’re either selling or thinking of selling their properties.

Houston says it could be worse. “If not for the urgency we’re feeling and the actions we’re taking (to increase supply), the landlords could be looking at a much longer rent cap.”

His government’s creation of provincial task forces for housing and transportation are part of the effort, and key as he looks to double the province’s population to two million by 2060.

While the housing task force can override municipal governments, Houston says the aim is to cut red tape by getting a simple yes or no answer on applications sooner.

“A lot of times from government, you see a maybe or we need more information, or we’re not sure,” says Houston. “You see that on a lot of housing applications … Some have been going for 10 years for subdivisions. If answer is no just say no. Don’t string people along. If it’s yes, say yes, and let’s get moving.”

On the housing and homelessness front, Houston says municipalities say it’s the province’s responsibility, yet complain. “There’s lots of times when I would read a particular council in some part of the province saying it’s a provincial issue.  And then maybe in the next article down, they say, ‘The province better not interfere in what we’re trying to do,’” he says. “With the establishment of the task force, we’re saying, ‘OK, housing is a provincial issue. Here we are.’”

To improve transportation in Halifax and the rest of Nova Scotia as the population continues to balloon, Houston says all options are on the table.

That could include a commuter rail, more ferries, buses, carpooling, and more roads around the province, he says. 

“We want to hear from people with their ideas about how to get around their communities,” he says. “We will listen to people, look at the analysis, look at the data and we also have to look at where the population growth is going to come from.”

Houston expects all parts of the province to attract newcomers.

“People have really woken up to the quality of life we have,” he says.

 The Halifax-Truro route already has a lot of traffic and if the corridor continues to grow that could open up new transportation opportunities “that we hadn’t really envisioned until we laid the housing and development on the same map,” he says.

He says the province is mindful that analysis on transportation options is already underway in different jurisdictions.

“We don’t have to re-create any wheels,” he says. “We just have to go find the best wheel and bring it here.”

See the rest of Advocate Media’s year-end interview with Premier Houston in future issues of The Reporter, The Pictou Advocate, and LighthouseNow. And in the next issue of Unravel Halifax, see our story about developer and confidante-of-the-premier Scott McCrae.

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