Housing Motion and Speaking Notes

Today I moved a motion that I hope results in a really deep dive into whether the municipality should resume administering affordable housing on behalf of the province.  Below is the motion, and my speaking notes (check against delivery).   The motion, now passed at committee, goes to Regional Council for debate.

Motion as amended (check against approved report) (passed 5 to 1):

That the Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee recommend that Halifax Regional Council request a staff report to assess options for requesting the transfer of the responsibility to operate and deliver housing programs and services within the boundaries of Halifax on behalf of the Province, including but not limited to the following considerations:

  1. Transferring of the responsibilities of Housing Nova Scotia in the Halifax region, including Metro Regional Housing Authority (MRHA), Preston Area Housing Fund and other not-for-profits to the Municipality;
  2. Fund this transfer through property tax, by redirecting property tax points from the mandatory education and social housing funding collected by the municipality for the province, to ensure the core housing program operations would be funded by property tax revenue, rather than provincial grants;
  3. Develop an approach for provincial participation and cost sharing in Federal housing and regionally significant housing programs with equitable distribution of funds based on population;
  4. Discuss the housing allowance paid to clients living in MRHA becoming the same as the program provides to other private and not for profit land lords.
  5. Make recommendations regarding management structure as either an arms length agency, a department of the Municipality, or combination of options.

Speaking notes (check against delivery):

Thank you Mr Vice,

I’d like to thank the committee for hearing me out today.

I want to start by talking about what this motion is not. It is not intended to be a political statement. It is not intended to take back social services from the province. It is not intended to suggest this solution works for other municipalities in Nova Scotia. It is not intended to suggest that the managers and staff of Community Services, Housing Nova Scotia, or Metro Regional Housing Authority are doing anything but their best. It is not intended to be grandstanding, a political impossibility, or some kind of attempt at distraction from real and hidden agenda. It is certainly not intended to be an attack on the Liberal government, or the NDP government that was in power when I was first elected, or the conservative government of Donald Cameron who launched the municipal review and service swap in the first place.

The fact that all of these things have been suggested on social media and some folks talking to me the last few days fills me with sadness – it is as if some folks can no longer imagine anyone just trying to actual take a broken situation and find ways to make it better.

My goal is simply to get Halifax talking with the province about the delivery of housing and how to best serve the public that both the province and the municipality serve.

Let me tell you how I arrived at this proposal. In 2016 I attended the Canadian Housing And Renewal congress in Montreal on behalf of Halifax. Rather than fly in for the one formal event I attended the whole three days, touring housing in Montreal, meeting municipal and not for profit staff, listening to staff and politicians from across the country talking about housing, hits and misses, success and failure. I learned a lot.

The staff from the provincial government were not there, could not attend, because the House had just started sitting. HRM staff and politicians covered for provincial staff and politicians, as we are happy to do as good partners. I gave a short speech about how happy Nova Scotia and Halifax were to host the 2017 conference. I was then handed the “glass house”. This glass house. It symbolizes the fragility of housing for those that are most vulnerable. At this conference in 2016 I became convinced that we would never advance housing in the urban context of Halifax unless we had housing as a part of the municipality.

In 2017 the conference was here at the Marriott Waterfront. At one point it hit me – the fear we have of getting housing is that we will be downloaded on, not transferred. That even if we get a grant, that grant would be frozen, and slowly over time the cost of housing would start to eat into our operational budget. But part of the 1996 service swap in Nova Scotia was never completed! We still collect in-excess of $135 million in Mandatory Education funding for the province. What if some of that money was used to create a stable, property tax funded housing program that the municipality ran? I’ve been working toward this motion since that moment of clarity last summer

Now a lot has been made of the Hayward report and the service swap that followed in the mid 1990s. Folks, this document here, the Hayward Report, this report is now 25 years old. We have staff with Masters degrees working for us that were born the year this was released. Councillor Smith was 3 when it was a current document, Councillor Austin 10. I was in University studying political science, and I thought and still think this report is an important landmark report. I supported it then, I support it on the balance now. But surely, we cannot say it should never be re-examined?
What we see in other medium and large municipalities is that having a housing agency, corporation or department that can work directly, hand and glove with planning, can yield good results. I put to you that there is a reason that almost every city and province delivers housing this way in major municipalities.

I want to say also that I don’t know that this is approach is appropriate outside of Halifax and possibly CBRM. I think this is probably an example of where what works in the city is not going to work elsewhere. Every other province with a city our size is working toward having a different relationship with the urban areas than with the rest of the province. Every one! I think we need to do that too, and to do that goes against the Hayward report from first principals.

HRM has done great work on the Housing and Homelessness partnership. We have identified the need, we know we need 5000 units in five years. We know that the number of units built these last two years is nothing or almost nothing. In my time, here we have been unable to get affordable housing projects out of the ground, we have been unable to get units in the Mary Anne, the Margaretta where required by DA, and in other private developments when offered at Pointe North and others. We are stalled and sinking. I am not blaming anyone, but the emperor has no clothes. We need to get together with our partners at the province and examine every single option to get 1000 units a year being built and renovated. My motion is intended to get that discussions started, and it includes a number of things I think would be best to be considered, while keeping the door open for other options.

In closing – I know exploring housing delivery means some folks on Council are worried about getting the phone calls, dealing with the deferred maintenance, taking on debt and stress, being responsible to clean up a problem we didn’t create. I get it. But to paraphrase “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Housing is NOT working right now. We are not building the housing we need to address urban poverty and workforce housing in Halifax. We need to take action and change the paradigm. To continue as it is and expect different results is the definition of madness.

I didn’t have to send this to regional council, but I recognize this is a huge ask and I want to have that debate here and there. So with that in mind – This is for a staff report to explore options. Please help explore the art of the possible. If there is something in my motion you can’t accept, or want tweaked, please let’s edit the motion so you can support it. If we need more time to gather info before we pass it, make a motion to defer so we can try to get there.

Updated at 5:06pm to fix formatting of motion and correct language of motion.