Market alone will not solve the housing crisis

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle Herald.

That Halifax and Nova Scotia have an affordable housing crisis is not breaking news, and it is good to see the province announce the formation of an Affordable Housing Commission, with a mandate to recommend strategies and actions within six months.

While this process plays out, Halifax needs to continue to take rapid actions where it can, while demanding new and long-delayed tools from the province. The province needs to either get back into building new units or give housing and funding to Halifax and get out of the way.

Halifax has experienced five years of unprecedented population and economic growth. While this is welcome, it has increased stress on an already expensive housing market.

COVID has made this bad situation worse, with impacts ranging from distancing rules, halving capacity in homeless shelters, to an already in-trouble housing market made worse by the great many people choosing to move here, perceiving safety.

The 2015 Halifax Housing and Homelessness Partnership study showed 20 per cent of residents cannot afford market price rental housing. Halifax’s population has grown nine per cent over the last five years. The number of people who need below-market housing continues to grow with the population, and the number of affordable units has not grown with demand. The market will not solve this problem.

Unlike many municipalities in much of the rest of the country, housing in Nova Scotia is delivered by the province. Many other provinces chose to fund municipalities to deliver housing, but that has not been the case in Nova Scotia since 1996.

As a result, the Metro Regional Housing Authority is a provincial entity and new affordable units are almost exclusively built at the direction of the province while most federal money goes to the province, not to Halifax.

Halifax and Winnipeg are the only two major cities in Canada that do not deliver housing directly. In 2018, Halifax voted in favour of my motion asking the province to give the responsibility for housing back to the municipality. That discussion is still being had.

Despite not directly delivering housing, Halifax has been trying to effect change where it can, following its Affordable Housing Work Plan. Halifax has approved a program for affordable housing built by not-for-profits and funded by developer-paid “density bonus” money. HRM has waived “municipal construction fees” for non-profit affordable housing, and worked to reduce red tape by removing barriers on the development of secondary suites.

The municipality has also improved regulations regarding single-room occupancies while working to ensure programming in vulnerable neighbourhoods. The municipality is also starting to identify appropriate surplus municipal lands for use in affordable housing projects, such as the recent sale of lands in North Dartmouth for $1 to the Affordable Housing Nova Scotia society.

By April, the work plan should be complete when council removes barriers to the development of special-care facilities and implements policy for registration of residential rentals.

Halifax has identified other lots for affordable housing that are the right scale for not-for-profit groups. Larger lots like St. Pat’s High or Bloomfield are too big for quick and successful affordable developments and have instead been sold for development. This will capture significant density bonus funds for investment in affordable projects.

Halifax could do more if the province provides the necessary tools the municipality has long asked for.

Most important among these tools is inclusionary zoning, which would allow the municipality to require that most new and some renovated residential developments include some affordable homes. Without this, the municipality cannot influence or control any rental pricing.

Other tools that have been requested include asking the province to complete the enforcement regulations for the affordable-housing provisions in the Halifax Charter. Without this, the municipality cannot hold developers to any commitment to include affordable housing in a development.

There are other tools the province could provide, such as simpler mechanisms to ensure affordable housing stays affordable, like targeted rent control on designated units, the ability to require a developer covenant affordability on deed, and no-net-loss provisions that require maintenance or replacement of affordable units. The current reverse-mortgage model for guaranteeing affordability is too short and complicated to be tenable.

While the recently announced temporary measures for rent control are important, we need a long-term strategy. Who really thinks rent increases of 20-100 per cent in one year is ever fair?

The province needs to ban these unfair practices and provide financial incentives to avoid renovictions.

Most importantly, the province must increase Income Assistance rental rates which have not kept up with inflation and are nowhere near meeting the costs of rent and basic necessities.

With provincial support, we can have more shelters, more supportive housing, and build more housing for people requiring below-market housing.

Together, one way or the other, the province and Halifax can rapidly develop and implement programs that will improve the quality of life for so many vulnerable citizens. It’s time to stop talking, and start building.

Waye Mason is a Halifax regional councillor representing District 7 (Halifax South Downtown).