Housing Update #1

To say that the last two weeks have not gone as I imagined would be a huge understatement. 

In case you missed it, I made the following statement after the events of a week ago Wednesday:

Statement on Housing Crisis and Police Response to the Removal of Shelters

What took place this week in Halifax has made it more clear than ever that we have an urgent housing problem to solve. What happened this week made me sick to my stomach.

The lack of homes for vulnerable residents is the result of years of neglect from previous Provincial governments. For the last nine years, I’ve been working on this and lobbying the Province to do more.

I continue to believe that the municipality should take back housing from the Province, assuming the funding comes with it.

It has been depressing and frustrating to watch the situation between protestors and police. None of us wanted to see events unfold the way they did this week. I don’t want anyone to be hurt or suffer and I appeal for calm.

I have heard the concerns about the policing approach and some officer’s lack of name tags and wearing thin blue line badges. This is unacceptable and this will be reviewed by the appropriate bodies, the Board of Police Commissioners, (edit) NS Police Commission, and possibly SiRT.

I do however feel that tents and temporary shelters in parks are not the answer and better options are now available from the Province.

HRM’s decision to do this was built on the Province’s commitment to providing both immediate, temporary accommodations (hotel) and long-term stable housing. I understand that this may not have been made available to all of the people involved yesterday, and I will work to connect them with provincial housing support workers to ensure they can access housing options as was intended.

I want to expand on two points:

One is I acknowledge HRMs communication on this has been less than great. People want to know what the end goals are. People don’t want to feel talked down to and mislead. People living in tents want to sleep believing that police will not show up at 6 a.m. and evict them. Every day residents, both for and against any actions HRM has taken, don’t know where this ends. It is frustrating to you, and it is frustrating to me.

For my part, while this crisis continues and while there are no other reasonable housing options folks want to take, I cannot support further removals of tents. That said, I feel large-scale encampments and structures are problematic and can’t be considered.

I have asked staff, that for the interim, while housing is built, or safe to code temporary structures are set up, that we should aim to keep the number of tents at each site down to 4-5 tents, and no closer than 75m from a playground, childcare centre, or school, or some similar set of common-sense guidelines. I am hoping we get some public policy clarity shortly.

The second is that HRM was struggling to deliver what we promised was going to happen.  When I wrote that statement it was not clear how many gaps there were in terms of delivering on the promised alternatives for these vulnerable people.

I now believe HRM doesn’t have the staff and structures in place to assure ourselves that housing or hotels were available for the folks. HRM doesn’t have the infrastructure and processes to make sure that when HRM is told stuff is going to happen by others, specifically the Province, that it is really going to happen.

These vulnerable people were unable to get into hotels, people are being kicked out of hotels over lack of funds to keep them there, the whole thing is an unacceptable mess, and runs contrary to what staff has been telling Councillors would happen over these last several months.

And yes, I am going to keep saying HRM has to do the work of holding the Province to account for not doing their job.

HRM also has to hold ourselves accountable for where we failed. We simply didn’t have the ability to ensure that the coordination was taking place, and connections were being made between our staff, the province, and the service agencies. 

The last two weeks are going to mean a big change in the way HRM does things. We are going to need social workers, we are going to need coordinators, we are going to need a staff task force that does nothing but finding solutions to the housing crisis that protects the most vulnerable.

I still don’t think HRM can step in and just do the Province’s job without them transferring a pile of money, and a pile of legal responsibility. What we really need to do right now is build capacity to know what is happening, what should be done, and the best way to do it. This is something that HRM simply doesn’t have right now.

I’m still here working every day to try and get people into adequate housing, and some of that work is outlined below.

What happens next?

There are a number of things happening or that are about to happen to try and make sure that there is real and adequate alternatives for folks living rough.

  • Crisis Housing Funding (Mayor Savage August 31) – Emergency motion to address the needs of the unhoused population and authorize the CAO to spend accordingly to progress emergency interim shelter opportunities. Motion providers authorization for spending above current budget, with Council direction to continue to work collaboratively with community partners and other orders of government to meet housing affordability needs more broadly. More here – https://wayemason.ca/2021/08/30/mayor-savage-crisis-housing-motion
  • A Lived Experience Advisory Committee on Homelessness (Councillor Lovelace August 31) – Established a committee made up of those directly impacted by homelessness on a First Voice committee, to Regional Council with valuable insight directly from those with first-hand experience with homelessness. There is significant academic research indicating the immense value of including the viewpoints of people with lived experience in social policy development. – read the motion here https://wayemason.ca/2021/08/30/lived-experience-advisory-committee-on-homelessness-councillor-lovelace/
  • Letter to Premier-Elect Tim Houston (Councillor Mason August 24) – Requests three things – the first is the need for extraordinary and immediate action to address the current lack of affordable SROs, one-bedrooms, or bachelors in HRM. Second, to consider the case for interim rent control measures. Third, consider that the control of housing is returned to HRM. Continue to pressure the Provincial government to get engaged in housing. Read the whole letter here: https://wayemason.ca/2021/08/30/letter-to-premier-elect-houston-regarding-halifaxs-housing-crisis/
  • HRM Affordable Housing Work Plan is already underway (updated August 27) and has seven main areas:
    1. Creating a grant program to contribute to affordable housing projects in the regional centre – done.
    2. Inspection and registration of rental properties; fall 2021, delayed due to COVID.
    3. Allow special care facilities (group homes), secondary suites and rooming houses/single room occupancies (boarding houses) in all zones – Secondary suites done, Centre Plan will allow in Regional Centre (Fall 2021), but work to allow in the rest of HRM remains (winter 2021).
    4. Considering a municipal affordable housing funding program; – done for centre in terms of cash, everywhere for permits and fees, not done for rest of HRM.
    5. Reviewing how municipal real estate assets can support and leverage affordable housing; and – report is due winter 2021.
    6. Developing holistic approaches to affordable housing changes in especially vulnerable neighborhoods. – report is due winter 2021/spring 2022.
    7. Restrict short term rentals (AirBNB) in residential areas to primary residences only – due fall 2021.