A once-in-a-lifetime fight

A once-in-a-lifetime fight

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story | Contributors: Moira Donovan | Published: February 1, 2024

To look at the Halifax skyline is to see a city in transition, with cranes bisecting the horizon and new buildings taking shape. In literal and figurative terms, it’s a city on the rise. This trajectory has rippled out beyond Halifax too, with towns like Wolfville growing by 20 percent between 2016 and 2021.

Overall, Nova Scotia’s population is leaping ahead after years of standing still; the growth rate in 2022-23 was the province’s fastest rate since 1951, bringing economic growth, diversity, and energy to communities across the province.

But beneath this picture, trouble has been brewing, from the growing numbers of tents clustered below those new buildings, to the increasing strain homeowners and renters face in trying to find — and stay in —their homes.

“We're just seeing a lot of people who have run out of options in terms of affordable places to live, so it's a really dire situation,” says Kevin Hooper, senior advisor of social Development and housing at United Way Halifax. “And we have ignored it for so long, that we really don't have the tools at this point to really address it effectively.”

But people in the province — from elected officials, to tradespeople, to non-profits — are searching for solutions, nonetheless.

Given the scale of the need, there is no one action that represents a fix. Instead, reining in Nova Scotia’s housing crisis requires a wide array of actors and multiple levels of government to address issues like the longstanding shortfall in public funding for housing, the lack of skilled workers, and the need for new models of housing delivery.

Tackling these challenges won’t be easy, even as the need for a solution grows more urgent; the CMHC has estimated the province needs an additional 70,000 homes built by 2030 to restore affordability, and Turner Drake & Partners estimates that at the current pace of construction, Nova Scotia could be short 41,200 housing units by 2027.

But some say there’s hope in the fact that, after years of ignoring the issue, Nova Scotians are starting to treat the housing crisis like the once-in-a-generation fight it is.

“It needs to be addressed at all sorts of levels, because otherwise, we are just not really going to be able to respond,” says Hooper. “On the whole, I think it's really encouraging that the complexity and the depth of the issue is being recognized.”

The area where the need is most serious is in the population of people who can’t afford a place to live.

Since 2019, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the HRM has increased fourfold, and now stands at roughly 1,060 people, a figure that is increasing at the rate of about ten people a week.

“It's ramping up so fast, and it's just a by-product of a market that's completely out of bounds,” says Hooper. “The vast majority of the people who joined that list of homeless individuals over the last year especially, are people who just have been priced out of the market, we’re not seeing a huge increase in people with complex needs.”

But homelessness can derail people’s lives, nonetheless. Advocates say people who end up homeless for more than six months face significant challenges in getting themselves back on track.

Since the 1990s, the province’s solution to fixing this problem has focused on the private sector as the source of housing development. But with housing costs having outstripped so many people’s means – the median after-tax household income in HRM is currently $59,000, meaning they can spend about $1,400 on housing, while the cost for an average one-bedroom is more than $2,000 — Hooper says the private sector can’t respond to the issue in full.

“It is such a huge imbalance between what housing currently costs and the amount of money in people's pockets, that there's just no private sector solution to this problem.”

Hooper says in recent years, there’s been recognition at the provincial level that a new strategy is needed, particularly in the government’s 2023 announcement of 222 new units of rent-geared-to-income units in communities across Nova Scotia — the first time the government has built public housing since 1993.

The province is sharing the cost with the federal government, with the former contributing $58.8 million and the latter $24.4 million.

New units will be constructed on provincial land near existing public housing.

Housing Minister John Lohr says since coming into power, the provincial government has come to appreciate the need for different housing types.

“We realized that we need to have housing right across the spectrum,” says Lohr. “There has to be affordable housing, but there also has to be market housing at every level. So, we want to do what we can to enable housing right across the spectrum, but particularly affordable, of course, and deeply affordable also.”

As part of the province’s five-year housing strategy, Lohr says the province is dedicating other public resources towards affordable housing, including the land-for-housing program — where 37 parcels of provincial land will be offered for housing development, with a priority for projects that offer rent at least 20 percent below market.

“We're literally using the value of the land, so to speak, to buy affordability,” says Lohr.

Through a partnership with the federal government, the province has also increased the funding offered to developers — to construct units that remain affordable for 15-25 years — to $100,000, from $50,000, as the latter amount was no longer enough.

“That's incredibly important to the people who are able to get into those units, that are income tested,” he says.

Overall, the province is aiming to support the provision of at least 17,250 affordable units over the next five years, through a combination of construction, rent supplements, and home purchase assistance.

Regardless of housing type, a significant bottleneck is in the construction — an issue that has long preoccupied some people in the construction sector.

“I’ve known this for 25 years, that this day was coming,” says Duncan Williams, president and CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia. Not only did governments stop putting public funding towards housing, he says, they also turned their attention away from the trades, with a decline in training through the school system and an immigration process that favoured formal academic qualifications over work experience in fields like carpentry.

Williams says the sector is now starting to see progress from the province on some areas, including waiving the requirement that immigrants with a trade have the equivalent of a high school diploma before they can start as an apprentice, and a 50 percent reduction in the length of pre-apprenticeship training programs at community colleges.

“I refer to it often as, there's a thousand small levers, there's no silver bullet to this.”

Housing Minister John Lohr also points to programs like the More Opportunity for Skilled Trades program which offers a provincial tax rebate on the first $50,000 of income for skilled tradespeople under 30.

Despite the recent advancements, Williams says there’s still more to do, including greater cooperation between levels of government, and more engagement with industry.

“This is not about the industry getting its way; we are the experts,” Williams says. “Bring us to the table, and you'd be amazed at the complex problems that our industry solves on a daily basis.”

Williams compares the current problem to the aftermath of the Second World War or the Halifax Explosion — a challenge requiring a wartime response. Part of that effort, he says, entails recognizing the need to make way for a range of housing types – including different kinds of density and co-ops or community-based housing as well as private options — by clearing away bureaucracy that has stymied development.

“Nobody wants the wild west. But you have to find the happy medium,” he says.

The province has made attempts to address this through the housing strategy, especially in HRM. These measures include a temporary freeze on municipal permit and development fees and allowing for more flexibility in minimum lot sizes and lot coverage.

Williams says there also needs to be a recognition of the role of players other than the private sector.

“One of the challenges that we've got to recognize and overcome is the private market cannot respond and be the choice for everything,” he says.

Advocates say this needs to include community involvement in decisions around housing. Kevin Hooper says while having the province work with community organizations to provide housing — part of the housing strategy — is an important step, communities need to be engaged on a deeper level.

“I think in one way or another we need to build housing development capacity in a much broader sense than we've been used to in the past,” he says.

This could look like community land trusts, like the Black community land trusts in Hammonds Plains and Truro; United Way and partners are also exploring a land trust in Halifax. Land trusts offer long-term affordability and are governed by a board where a third of members are community members, giving them direct role in decisions over how the land is used.

It also means looking beyond detached homes or high rises for a solution. In this respect, the province points to programs meant to change the housing mix, including a $22 million dollar investment in modular houses for healthcare workers and tradespeople, and a pilot to incentivize construction of backyard or secondary suites through a $25,000 forgivable loan, in exchange for rent pegged at 80 percent of market rates.

“We know we have to change the way we build houses,” says Lohr. “We have to start looking at other more efficient ways of building.”

Hooper says provincial programs that encourage co-housing, such as Happipad, the home-sharing platform the province created to connect the people in possession of some of the province’s 130,000 empty bedrooms to renters in need of accommodation, also highlight the opportunity for different approaches to providing housing.

“It certainly makes clear that we are operating our existing stock of housing in a pretty inefficient way,” he says.

Taken together, these measures represent a shift in mindset — a no less complicated task than accelerating the construction of housing. But for something as important as ensuring that all Nova Scotians have a place to call home, it’s clear that the outcome is well worth the effort.

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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