Cape Breton regional councillors are challenging data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, saying the latest numbers could make it difficult to get financing for affordable housing.
The CMHC's last survey in October 2020 showed vacancies are up and some rents are down compared to the previous year.
Lawrence Shebib, executive director of the North Sydney Food Bank Society, said regardless of the numbers, there's definitely a need for affordable housing.
"We see it, just people living in deplorable housing," he said. "We see it when we're delivering the groceries to some of them. I mean, [places] not fit to house people."
Earlier this year, the food bank relocated to the former Seton Elementary School after purchasing it from CBRM for $1.
The building has undergone a huge transformation already, with former classrooms converted for public laundry facilities, food storage and assembly of care packages.
The society has also installed a large walk-in freezer and cooler and equipment intended for a community kitchen that will open soon.
The food bank also offers a wide variety of community services, including a used clothing depot and visits from a public health nurse through the Ally Centre of Cape Breton.
Shebib said the move has been widely welcomed and the community is excited about a proposal to add a mix of market-priced and affordable housing.
The society is working with New Dawn Enterprises, a social agency involved in community housing, to build a $4.6-million community hub with 10 duplexes on the site.
But there is concern that favourable CMHC financing will be withheld because of the agency's data.
Shebib said the housing project would be a perfect complement to the food bank.
"We know just by the numbers that we see, the number of people that are coming, asking if we know where there's available apartments," he said. "We get calls every other day of people wanting to rent apartments."
Part of the former school will be torn down to make way for the housing and the former school gym will remain for use as a community centre. The entire development will use solar power.
New Dawn CEO Erika Shea said in CBRM, about 350 individuals are on a waiting list for provincial rent subsidies and 180 for public housing.
She, too, said there is no question the municipality needs more and better housing.
"If we go back three years, we'd have typically had a vacancy rate across all the units of somewhere between five and 10 per cent," Shea said.
"We haven't had a single vacancy for the last three years and for us that continued through 2020 [and] through 2021."
There might have been a spike in vacancies and a drop in rental rates last year with a large number of international students at Cape Breton University taking online courses instead of coming to Sydney because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
New Dawn also runs an immigration centre and there were fewer arrivals last year.
The numbers appear to be reversing, but Shea said that might not be reflected in CMHC's survey data, which is gathered in early October.
"So the question is how long is that blip going to affect the community's ability to access financing to build affordable housing?" she said.
Shea said CMHC officials have suggested the North Sydney project might not qualify for financing because of the latest numbers.
The last survey showed the vacancy rate nearly doubled last year to 8.2 per cent from 4.6 per cent.
The agency also said two-bedroom rents decreased, while overall rents only increased about one per cent.
Shea said even before the recent influx of international students in 2018, the need for affordable housing was considerable.
"We had thousands of people living in substandard, unsafe, inaccessible, unaffordable housing," she said.
A 2019 study by CBU researcher Catherine Leviten-Reid found the CMHC survey sample did not take into account the range of housing in CBRM.
CMHC said it could not comment because of the ongoing federal election.
New Dawn is working with the university and a local housing coalition to gather data that Shea and others say will demonstrate the need for affordable housing in CBRM.
They are hopeful CMHC will finance the North Sydney housing project and others once that data is ready.
Meanwhile, CBRM council voted Tuesday to ask CMHC to check its numbers.
Chief administrator Marie Walsh said staff and councillors believe there are fewer vacancies and higher rents than the CMHC survey found.
"Just wondering where they get their information and just make sure they're comparing apples to apples," she said.
Walsh is a member of the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission, which published a report earlier this year that found better data is needed in smaller urban centres and rural areas.
"There's not a lot on housing statistics, so one of the action items is to look at them at the local level," she said.
"The recommendation was that municipalities look at the housing statistics in their area, because they know their municipalities better than anyone else."
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