N.S. housing bill amended after concerns by Black community over gentrification

HALIFAX — A bill the Nova Scotia government says is aimed at addressing the housing shortage in the Halifax area has been amended following concerns by a group representing African Nova Scotians.

Housing Minister John Lohr said the government decided on the amendment after receiving a letter on Thursday from the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition. The legislation, which has yet to be adopted, would allow the minister to nullify Halifax Regional Municipality bylaws if the province determines they would impede housing development and construction.

Vanessa Fells, director of operations for the coalition, said in the letter that the legislation could dramatically increase gentrification in historic Black districts.

“This (bill) is deeply concerning as it could nullify all the work African Nova Scotian communities have done to protect and preserve their historic communities in favour of land developers,” Fells wrote.

“If this bill passes as currently proposed, it will allow the further gentrification and possible erasure of our historic African Nova Scotian communities within Halifax Regional Municipality.”

The government's amendment would require the housing minister to consult with representatives of historic Black communities before he or she blocks any city bylaw that specifically affects them.

Lohr said the power the housing minister would have under the legislation is conditional. The bill would allow the minister to block a bylaw within six months of it being adopted by council — but only if doing so is deemed in the public interest.

The amendment, Lohr said Friday, was adopted in collaboration with the province's Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs.

“We thought we should put in an amendment to just clarify that (bill) for the peace of mind for those communities,” Lohr said. “We do recognize the historic injustices that these communities have experienced and have no desire to add to that.”

Fells welcomed the amendment, adding that her organization pushed for the change because the bill was too ambiguous. “The whole point of sending the letter was to make sure the government understood the implications here,” she said in an interview. “I’m not sure they did until they thought about the amendment.”

NDP caucus member Suzy Hansen is also pleased with the change to the bill and believes it demonstrates the power of paying attention to what the government is doing. “I think your voice actually does matter and we’ve seen this … in bringing forth an amendment to be able to make changes."

The legislation has drawn objections from municipal officials in Halifax, including Mayor Mike Savage, who has called the bill undemocratic. In an appearance before the law amendments committee earlier this week, Savage said the legislation came without consultation, and he questioned what it could mean for the autonomy of municipalities.

“To be overruled without public consultation is distasteful in a democracy and it leads to the question, which bylaws will be nullified next?” Savage told the committee.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press