In the trenches

Developers, buyers, advocates, and realtors — meet the people on the front lines of Nova Scotia’s frenzied real estate market

Anthony Winston III, his wife, and their two young daughters swooped into Halifax from Southern California for a few days of house-hunting in early January. 

It was their first time in Canada, let alone Nova Scotia, and their real-estate agent took them on a tour of their preferred neighbourhoods for a more laidback lifestyle and some acreage close to nature. 

With listings scarce, there wasn’t a single suburban property on the market that met their needs in Kingswood North in Hammonds Plains, Fall River’s Schwartzwald, Westwood Hills, or Bedford’s Ridgevale subdivision. But they found something further afield, near the airport in Oakfield, that was within their $700,000 budget. 

“We got lucky,” says Winston, who’s opened a subsidiary of his engineering consulting business here to ease his family’s immigration path. “Most people aren’t looking for homes during the holiday break. They got our offer and accepted it.” 

The Winstons are part of an unexpected influx of newcomers who have been helping make the Halifax housing market feel more like Toronto or Vancouver over the past two years. 

Looking to immigrate from the U.S., the Winstons came to Halifax in January to find a new home.

Demand from new immigrants, people moving here from other provinces, Haligonians choosing to stay home, along with Airbnb and other investment purchases, are showing no signs of letting up. 

In a market that remains short on supply, prices are poised to keep rising, putting a house or condo further out of the reach of many first-time homebuyers. Renovictions are continuing with landlords offering cash for tenants to move out so they can bring in new ones and raise rents. The city and province can’t move fast enough to grapple with the growing number of unhoused and precariously housed people. Developers are scrambling too. 

NO SILVER BULLETS 
One big reason for the housing shortage: no one anticipated the population boom. 

Kelly Denty, who heads up planning and development for Halifax Regional Municipality, remembers working on the amalgamated municipality’s first regional development plan as a staffer in 2006, when one-per-cent population growth targets were considered “pretty ambitious.” 

But for the past six years, the population’s been increasing at two per cent annually, a gain last year that was the equivalent of adding a nearly 10,000-person town. 

“Looking backwards now, what really changed was the federal immigration policy in 2016,” Denty says. “And there’s of course the COVID factor. (We became) this hot growth spot in the past two years. ‘If you could work here, why wouldn’t you?’ ”

With immigration and migration from other provinces expected to continue, Denty and her team are reviewing the regional plan to look for new tracts for development and possibilities to add more housing in sites already developed. 

The 34-year municipal land development veteran also has a seat at the table with the new housing taskforce set up by Premier Tim Houston to cut red tape and speed up development decisions.

She says the taskforce meetings are focused on ways to streamline efforts, not override the municipality, though that’s within the panel’s powers.

Denty, who took over as chief planner in 2017 from her ousted predecessor Bob Bjerke, says her job is never a black and white exercise. “Everyone wants the silver bullet and there is no silver bullet,” she says “That’s the difficult part to try to explain to folks. Every piece of land is different. The context is different. You try to be sensitive to that and fair and provide something predictable to the community and the developer and council.”

The toughest part is balancing expectations. “We tend to say if everyone’s a little bit uncomfortable, you’ve probably gotten it right,” she says. “If one group’s really happy, you’ve really messed up something.”

“We want … a legacy building, something that will be there for a couple hundred of years” — Mickey MacDonald

THE LONG GAME
Mickey MacDonald has been sitting on a prime downtown development opportunity since 2007. That’s the year the serial entrepreneur bought high-end department store Mills Brothers on Spring Garden Road and the Chickenburger fast-food restaurant around the corner on Queen Street.

He tore down the Chickenburger building in 2012 with plans to demolish Mills and partner with Halifax-headquartered apartment behemoth Killam to build on the sprawling site that borders on Birmingham Street.

MacDonald tells Unravel Halifax the timing was right, with housing demand set to surge as the federal government awarded J.D. Irving’s Halifax shipyard a multimillion-dollar contract to build naval ships. But the development deal fell through. 

MacDonald says he needed more time to buy neighbouring properties. “Rather than building out a half or three quarters of the block, it was more economical to do the whole thing,” he says.

He’s since bought the last pieces, including the former home of popular haberdashery Duggers Menswear, and found a new partner: seasoned developer Danny Chedrawe, who owned the now-demolished building on the Queen and Spring Garden corner of the block. “Danny has the knowledge and the connections,” says MacDonald, who’s worked on smaller real-estate developments in Bedford. “We’re riding on his coattails.”

The $100-million-plus, mixed-use eight-storey complex, dubbed The Mills, will have 190 rental apartments, a parkade, commercial space, and pedestrian promenade.

“I ended up playing the long game to get the whole block and it worked out great,” says the high-school dropout, who made his first millions from a business he started by selling cellphones from a car lot in Bedford in the late 1980s. “It’s in the centre of the city. We want to build a legacy building, something that will be there for a couple of hundred years.”

TOO LITTLE, TOO SLOWLY
While developments of all sorts are under construction in the city and its suburbs, the supply of housing isn’t coming fast enough to help many.

Michelle Malette, executive director of the community-based Out of the Cold Community Association, is worried someone living outside this winter will freeze to death.

“In the last couple of years, things have gotten much more desperate,” she says. “Housing costs have gone up so much and there’s so much scarcity.”

In her previous job as a housing support worker with shelter and housing non-profit Adsum for Women and Children, Malette was able to help most people in need. In the last two years there, before her volunteer job at Out of the Cold turned full time, she was finding it increasingly difficult to find spots in shelters or affordable housing for people.

Buildings with apartments that used to rent in Dartmouth North for $600, for example, have been bought and renovated and now go for more than $1,000, she says.

At the same time, successive federal and provincial governments have failed to build adequate affordable housing, she says. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation by reducing the number of beds shelters can offer.

Nova Scotia’s Affordable Housing Association estimates Halifax has more than 475 homeless. “That’s the number of folks that we know of in shelters and couch-surfing,” says Malette. “But there are so many more. Some folks don’t always reach out and there’s much more stigma around using a shelter or being unhoused. I have no idea at this point how many people are living outside.”

Malette never imagined the homeless situation in Halifax would get bad enough to see her volunteering lead to a paid job at Out of the Cold, which formed in 2007 after the closure of low-barrier shelter Pendelton Place. The grassroots outfit got funding from the federal government’s Reaching Home program, which is aimed at reducing chronic homelessness.

In the middle of the pandemic, Mallette spearheaded an effort to transition Out of the Cold from a shelter with several beds in a community centre gym into a hotel, all while managing a growing staff and handling frontline work.

With a new $2.7-million contract from the province, Malette and her team have pivoted again. Out of the Cold will now provide support services for residents of the emergency modular units municipal council ordered to shelter dozens of homeless in Halifax and Dartmouth. The first occupants have moved into the downtown Dartmouth units near the waterfront on Alderney Drive, with space for 26. The modular units planned for the Centennial Pool parking lot in Halifax, with 38 spots, have been delayed. The municipality is spending nearly $4.9 million on the initiative, $1.2 million more than anticipated.

Malette says when she first started working at Adsum and volunteering with Out of the Cold 10 years ago, she had a charitable outlook. “My views on what people need in housing definitely have changed over the years,” she says. “It’s about solidarity and making sure people have what they need. It’s all those things about redistributing wealth and how a small number of people have a large amount of the wealth, and we allow people to be unhoused and live outside. Those things are not OK.”

“None of us have ever seen anything like this in our careers, unless we were in Vancouver or Toronto” — Pam Cherington

HERE TO STAY?
Realtor Pam Cherington believes Halifax was destined to one day be a hot spot for “come from aways,” but the pandemic has amped things up.

“None of us have ever seen anything like this in our careers, unless we were in Vancouver or Toronto,” says the owner of Red Door Realty. “When you’re living in a big city you kind of expect that stuff. But in Halifax, it’s overwhelming.”

Properties that in a more normal market would take a month or two to sell are snapped up in days, sometimes with a dozen offers or more. Homes that sat around for years have all been sold. 

“The lack of supply is the result of all the people who want to live here,” says Cherington. “That’s the difference. Halifax’s small size didn’t work for us in the beginning and now it is working for us.”

Many of the new arrivals have more money to spend on housing, a big part of the surge in home prices over the past two years.

“It’s hard advice to say, ‘I really think you need to offer $220,000 over the list price,’” Cherington says. “Those are words that not everyone can hear. They’re like, ‘What?’”

It’s not only a tough time for buyers. Cherington says one of her agents came to her saying she felt bad after talking clients out of buying a house. “It was so much money and it had gone so over (the listed price),” she says. “Now they probably won’t be able to buy a house, because that’s how much the market’s gone up in four months.”

Making things that much trickier to navigate, as many as a quarter of real-estate agents have less than a year of experience, says Cherington. The Nova Scotia Real Estate Commission says new realtors accounted for 17 per cent of all licences in the province in 2021, up from 10 per cent in 2020.

“It’s very daunting for anybody who has any sort of a moral compass,” she says. “It’s your job to get your clients a house. You have to sit back and say, ‘I did what I could.’”

Cherington arrived in Halifax in 1984 from Calgary after spending her early 20s “chasing booms” across Canada.

While the current market might be the most challenging in her nearly 35-year real-estate career, Cherington is optimistic. 

She isn’t sure the market is worth losing sleep over, as she did when the award of a $25-billion shipbuilding contract started a North End home-buying buying frenzy in 2012.

“People were spending $400,000 on prefabricated homes. I was worried they were losing their shirts,” she says. “Now they’re up double. All that worked out just fine. And this will work out just fine too.”

For buyers nowadays, it’s all about “where you set your bar,” she says. That might mean adjusting expectations and looking at less expensive properties so they can afford to bump up their offers.

The biggest issue for sellers is “if they’re going to buy, what are they going to buy?” she says. 

What’s next is tough to predict.

“Is it here to stay? I guess it is. I don’t know,” says Cherington. “I don’t think it can go down.”

WORKING OUT
Halifax wasn’t Winston’s first choice after the police killing of African American George Floyd got him thinking about leaving the U.S.

He and his wife applied for visas for New Zealand and considered Mexico. When those options didn’t pan out, they decided to try Canada. They were looking at Toronto when his wife, physical education teacher and cheer coach Erin Nicole Winston, stumbled upon Nova Scotia.

“It just fit the lifestyle we wanted. It’s a lot more green … and much more liberal and more accepting than the U.S.,” he says. “What really attracted us was learning about the history in terms of American slavery and reading about how a lot of the southern slaves escaped to Nova Scotia. As an African American, it really struck a chord with me.”

The couple and their daughters, five and seven, visited Africville during their house-hunting trip. “It felt really powerful being there,” he says. 

The Chicago native says his consulting business, Winston Engineering, has always operated virtually so opening an outpost here was no stretch. He’s already licensed to practise as an electrical engineer in the province ahead of his family’s plan to relocate in June.

“Personally and professionally, things are working out pretty well,” he says. 

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