Houston dives into housing crisis

Nova Scotia's housing crisis hit a flashpoint in August, when police clashed with advocates for unhoused people in Halifax parks. Photo: Ben Murray

With rent relief and affordable-housing projects, the provincial government tries to stanch a growing problem

Newly elected Progressive Conservative premier Tim Houston revealed little about his plans to tackle Nova Scotia’s housing crisis during the provincial election, except to say he opposed rent caps and favoured development. His government’s throne speech, laying out the party’s agenda, mentioned blueberries (three) more times than housing (one).

But with calls for him to do something about the soaring rents, tight vacancy rates, and short supply, he’s rolling out a sweeping strategy.

He’s extending the current two-per-cent cap on annual rent hikes for two years, a tenant protection he’d previously criticized as discouraging development. He’s earmarked $35 million to build 1,100 affordable housing units and $10.1 million to address homelessness, and plans to construct new student residences for NSCC’s Stellarton, Dartmouth, and Halifax campuses.

“Addressing the housing crisis is truly critical,” Houston said a press conference on Oct. 20. “We’ve heard from Nova Scotians … No more of government looking the other way. It’s time to act … There’s people that are homeless. Winter is coming. We have listened enough and know enough that we feel confident in getting started.”

Gary Burrill. Photo: Ben Murray

Housing advocates, including NDP leader Gary Burrill, welcomed Houston’s surprise strategy as a strong start after decades of provincial neglect (by all three parties) on affordable housing.

“Thousands of people advocated for an expansion of the rent cap, and today (Oct. 20) people can celebrate a major victory that will help thousands of people be able to stay in their homes,” Burrill says in a press release. “While this change will mean the immediate relief of some of the anxiety people are facing with the rapid increases in rental costs, permanent rent control, beyond the two-year rent cap, is still needed to protect tenants.”

But many residential rental property owners worry about the rent cap, saying the allowed increases won’t cover growing expenses, particularly as energy and insurance costs surge.

Jenna Ross, founder of Happy Place Property Rentals in Halifax and its surrounding communities, says the rent cap implemented under Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government already has had a huge impact on her business.

She serves as property manager for around 100 rentals, most of them single-family homes. Nearly 30 per cent are opting to sell. It’s partly an effort to cash in on the red-hot real-estate market, but people also are concerned about curbs on their ability to increase rents, Ross says.

She likens concerns about rent increases to blaming a grocery store manager for higher grocery prices.

“People think they’re taking the rent money and putting it in their pockets,” she says. “The margins are very tight, and they take all the risk, whether or not a tenant pays rent or takes care of a place, or if the roof or septic goes.”

Ross says people are scrambling to find places for their families and, if the properties are sold, they often end up off the market as buyers take over and move in themselves.

Many other Nova Scotians, however, welcome the rent cap measure. Acorn, a grassroots anti-poverty group that got its start in Cape Breton in 2011, issued a statement saying it’s “thrilled” with the extension of the rent cap, but will continue to fight to make it permanent with added measures to protect against landlords jacking up rents in between tenants.

Acorn was glad to see Houston adding inclusionary zoning powers in Halifax, a land-use tool that would enable the city to mandate a certain percentage of affordable housing in new developments.

The group also said 1,100 affordable housing units is a good start, but it estimates more than 8,000 people are on the waitlist for public housing in Nova Scotia.  “We’re looking forward to continuing to work with and fight the provincial government for stronger protections for tenants and affordable housing targets,” Acorn says in a statement.

Pictou County developer Jamie MacGillivray says he’s tried to build affordable housing but found the process too bogged down when trying to work with the province’s affordable housing program and won’t try again. He said construction would go up faster if developers could build apartments with rents of $800 to $1,000 a month, with government then offering subsidies for tenants in need of affordable housing. “Instead of the big bureaucracy, why not just use the money to provide subsidies to people?” he says.

The Ecology Action Centre expressed concern about Houston’s proposed task forces to expedite large residential developments and create a “Master Transportation Plan” for the Halifax Regional Municipality.

“We celebrate the introduction of new funding and policy to address the housing crisis in Mi’kma’ki, but we also want to ensure that while building with haste, we do not perpetuate other problems like urban sprawl, gentrification, and the biodiversity and climate crises,” says Kortney Dunsby, sustainable cities coordinator with the environmental non-profit. “Development patterns that foster healthy and complete communities need to be prioritized.” 

As he unveiled the housing strategy, Houston said recent governments have taken credit for the increase in Nova Scotia’s population but failed to address the ballooning housing shortage.

Tim Houston (left) and John Lohr present the government’s housing plan. Photo: Communications N.S.

He said rent caps are necessary until more affordable homes are available. “Tenants need help, and they need certainty,” he said. “They don’t deserve to be punished by historical prior poor government decision making.”

The premier said he’s been working on the file with housing minister John Lohr (Kings North), and community services minister Karla MacFarlane (Pictou West).

Lohr says the strategy is based on the exhaustive report released in May by a group of experts the province enlisted to examine the affordable housing crisis. The Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission, whose members included developers, housing advocates, and government officials, made 17 recommendations.

Top on the list was the establishment of a new independent housing entity to develop a strategy with a 10-year vision for affordable housing.

That wasn’t on the table with Houston’s announcement. But the premier said the first steps his government is taking are big, and there will be more to come to address the housing shortage.

The Strategy

  • $35 million to support over 1,100 new affordable housing units across the province and make 425 new rent supplements available immediately.
  • $10.1 million over two years to provide wrap-around supports, shelter, and culturally relevant housing for the homeless across Nova Scotia.
  • Identify a list of provincially owned properties that can be used for housing to get projects underway on these lands as quickly as possible.
  • Inclusionary zoning, a planning tool that requires or encourages affordable housing in new developments.
  • Create a planning task force to focus on faster development approvals for large residential projects in HRM.
  • Form a regional transportation group, including engineers and planners from HRM and the province, to create a master transportation plan for HRM to ensure roads, ferries, and public transit are ready for rapid residential growth.
  • Build new residences at NSCC campuses in Pictou, Halifax, and Dartmouth and create a province-wide student housing strategy.
  • To ease the skilled labour shortage, work to recruit and retain more apprentices and eliminate the provincial portion of personal income tax on the first $50,000 of annual income for construction trade workers under the age of 30.
  • Rent-cap legislation to limit residential rent increases to 2 per cent per year until Dec. 31, 2023, while more supply is built.
  • Tenants will be given a minimum of three months’ notice before they can be evicted due to renovations.
  • If a tenant doesn’t agree to terminate the tenancy, landlords must make an application to the province for an eviction order.
  • Landlords must give the tenant between one and three months’ rent as compensation for the eviction.
  • Landlord violations of the new protections can lead to additional compensation for tenants.
  • Rental increase notices can only contain one amount, regardless of whether the tenant decides to renew their tenancy as a month-to-month or yearly lease.
  • Landlords can’t charge different rental rates for different lease terms.

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