Province must spend $25M on affordable housing now, commission says

·5 min read
Rising rental costs have made housing less affordable for some people, the commission reported.  (CBC - image credit)
Rising rental costs have made housing less affordable for some people, the commission reported. (CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia should spend $25 million immediately to help those most in need of affordable housing, according to a report published Monday by the commission created to examine the province's affordable housing situation.

That "quick-start investment" would support 600 to 900 households who most desperately need a place to live that is affordable and adequate to their needs.

"The need is obviously much greater, but we call on government to make an initial investment of $25 million to initiate these quick actions in the next 100 days," said the report from the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission.

The report included 17 recommendations, each with a list of action items, together totalling 60 things the province should do to improve Nova Scotia's housing situation, which the commissioners describe as being "at a breaking point."

"Some of our challenges are massive trends impacting every arena of life in our province — low incomes, rising land and construction costs, high energy costs, population growth, changing demographics," said the report.

"Then we were hit with COVID-19. The perfect storm of conditions in 2020 pushed our system to a breaking point."

The cabinet minister responsible for housing, Geoff MacLellan, told reporters Monday the commission had put a lot on the table for government to consider.

Although he shied away from supporting specific recommendations, he offered overall support for the commission's work.

"It's all very comprehensive stuff," said MacLellan. "I've been through it once, and in the coming days, we'll have a lot of work to do to brief and present to the premier, treasury board, cabinet.

"But I can tell you that one thing for Premier Rankin, it was very clear with me, is that we get moving on this immediately and start to have these recommendations take shape."

One recommendation MacLellan seemed ready to endorse was the call to replace Housing Nova Scotia, the government agency responsible for funding and overseeing public housing, with an entity outside government.

"I certainly see the value in it," he told reporters on a Zoom call. "It makes perfect sense to me."

Commissioner Ren Thomas, associate professor in the school of planning at Dalhousie University, said Housing Nova Scotia is limited in its power to create new affordable housing units.

Speaking to CBC host Tom Murphy, Thomas outlined one of the agency's biggest shortcomings.

"For example, partner with private sector developers in order to develop housing, develop those partnerships that we really need to see between the private sector and public sector, as well as the community housing sector," said Thomas.

During the commission's work, it heard from roughly 2,000 people either as part of a survey, a written submission or participants in virtual workshops.

"We learned that our current housing crisis is not the result of one specific event, but rather the consequences of systemic challenges that have been building for years, including a chronic under-investment in housing; inadequate funding for maintenance and capital renewal of the existing public and community housing portfolios," said the commissioners' report.

While Nova Scotia's population has grown, housing stock, particularly rental units, have not kept pace with that growth, according to the report.

"This is good news for our economy. However, supply has not kept pace with demand. Our rural communities are challenged by availability, while the vacancy rate in Halifax is very low."

That lack of available apartments has allowed rents to increase, even during the pandemic.

"Rental rates continue to climb," said the report. "For example, the average rental rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Halifax increased by 4.1 per cent in 2020."

Little agreement on rent control

When it comes to rent control or placing a cap on rent increases, the commission, made up of developers, housing advocates and government officials, seems to have been unable to reach a consensus.

"While some see rent control as an anti-poverty safeguard against displacement, gentrification, and economic evictions, we need to carefully consider all its potential effects," stated the report. Opponents are concerned rent control can suffocate supply and divert investment away from residential rental units, leading to deterioration.

Instead of supporting or dismissing the measure, the commission recommended current temporary measures imposed during the state of emergency continue until February or when the state of emergency is lifted.

Since last September, landlords have been prohibited from evicting tenants to do renovations, and have not been able to raise rents more than two per cent.

Instead of rent controls, the commission is calling on the province to explore a number of other measures designed to try to "prevent the loss of long-term renters that are at risk of being priced out of their neighbourhood."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said that recommendation "badly missed the mark."

"If this recommendation is followed and rent control is lifted at the end of the state of emergency, immediately, there will be large numbers of people in Nova Scotia who will be served with major increases, which they will not be able to afford and will have to move," he said.

Among the recommendations made by the 17-member commission:

  • Establish a new, independent provincial housing entity.

  • Mandate the new housing entity to develop a provincial housing strategy that sets a 10-year vision for affordable housing.

  • Review the Residential Tenancies Act to examine opportunities to improve renter protection and strengthen landlord-tenant relations.

  • Support municipalities to complete a housing needs assessment to establish a baseline from which they must plan for sufficient amount and diversity of housing supply to meet projected needs.

  • Invest $20 million immediately in multi-partner mixed-use, mixed-income demonstration projects that feature innovative construction techniques.

  • Grant local governments the authority they need to eliminate or minimize municipal taxes, fees, or charges for affordable housing developments, including partnering with the private sector, if they so choose.

  • Offer a rebate for the provincial portion of the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) on new construction that includes affordable housing.

  • Work with the Property Valuation Services Corporation to consider creating a new assessment classification for affordable housing.

  • Explore the benefits of transferring public lands to support the creation of community land trusts.

The commission was formed in November.

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