Amid Nova Scotia's housing crisis, CBRM wants to make affordable homes a priority

Danny Graham, head of Engage Nova Scotia, listens to presentations on Cape Breton Regional Municipality's strategic vision in council chambers in Sydney, N.S., on Wednesday. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Danny Graham, head of Engage Nova Scotia, listens to presentations on Cape Breton Regional Municipality's strategic vision in council chambers in Sydney, N.S., on Wednesday. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Cape Breton regional councillors are considering updating their two-year-old strategic plan to add affordable housing and youth recreational opportunities as priorities.

Council held a workshop on Wednesday with presentations on CBRM's high rates of poverty and homelessness, as well as gaps in public transit and how they affect residents.

There's a provincewide shortage of homes and rental units, and prices have spiked while the housing stock hasn't kept up with a growing population.

Mayor Amanda McDougall said the existing strategic vision — which lists five priorities including economic development, a charter, harbour development, population growth and diversifying revenues — was good, but a public survey found it lacked a plan to address the difficulties faced by low-income residents.

"It's our job to make sure nobody is left behind and I think reorganizing our strategic vision to make sure those pillars are yes, we need development, yes, we need to grow our community, but we also need to strengthen the core and that is every single human being that lives here," she said.

Danny Graham, head of the non-profit agency Engage Nova Scotia, said a survey with a large sample of CBRM residents in 2019 found that people with low incomes, the young, disabled and single parents are "strikingly" worse off than most other people who live in the municipality.

"Our Cape Breton way of life is renowned," said Graham, who was born and raised in Sydney. "But we need to ensure that our quality of life keeps up with that.

"Those who are experiencing difficulty are experiencing significant difficulty."

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

McDougall said the numbers show CBRM is leading Nova Scotia in deprivation rates for income, education, health and housing.

"On a personal level, my heart sinks," she said. "You don't want to be the top three communities in the province with deprivation rates that are just so, so enormous.

"That is heartbreaking. That means that people in our community are suffering more than people in other communities."

In addition to Graham, workshop presenters included Undercurrent Youth Centre pastor Dave Sawler, United Way of Cape Breton executive director Lynne McCarron and Cape Breton University professor and housing expert Catherine Leviten-Reid.

Sawler said many of the communities around Sydney are experiencing the highest rates of poverty in the province and that is affecting youth.

He said unequal access to services, programs and resources needs to be addressed for the long-term health of the community and the only way to do that is with an intentional plan.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

"We have some reason to be concerned if we don't do something about some of the topics that we're here talking about today."

McCarron agreed, saying she has had success expanding transit to help low-income CBRM residents by going to the provincial and federal governments and corporate donors with solutions.

"If I have a plan to present to them, they're willing to contribute financially to that plan. But if I don't have a plan, if I just have a problem, then there's nothing for them to invest in."

Leviten-Reid said CBRM has a significant homeless problem as well as a severe lack of affordable housing options.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

She said if tenants complain about housing, they can face eviction, so she recommended municipal officials press the province to provide housing inspections to improve the housing stock and take pressure off of tenants.

Leviten-Reid also suggested CBRM council regulate short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, which further restrict the availability of local housing.

The mayor's community consultation co-ordinator, Mike Targett, suggested the municipality create three task forces to recommend ways to improve in housing, youth recreation and transit.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

The updated strategic plan still has to be adopted by council and McDougall said she hopes the task forces can be created soon, with the aim of getting some recommendations by the fall.

Workshop a change from two years ago

The workshop was held in public in the council chambers and was livestreamed with the video to be posted to CBRM's website.

McDougall said that was a change from the first session held two years ago, which created a backlash because it was held in private at a local golf resort and included presentations by local businesses.

"You always have to start somewhere and continue learning from errors," she said.

"We did need that initial time to come together as a brand new council and begin this conversation, but I think from here on out, it has to be a conversation that is had alongside the community."