Municipalities are created by laws and regulations passed by the government of the province they are located in. The powers that municipalities have (and do not have) are different in every province. What HRM can do is outlined in the Halifax Regional Municipal Charter which is an act of the Nova Scotia Legislature.
In Nova Scotia municipalities are given a list of things they can do. Municipalities have very limited powers to do things that are not on that list.
HRM has asked for more power for years. The municipality has had limited success convincing past NDP, Liberal or PC governments to grant them. Some powers were recently granted in Fall 2021 (see below)
Generally, in Nova Scotia municipalities like HRM are responsible for buildings – making sure they are safe, and saying where they can be built – and the Province is responsible for tenancy, rents, social programs, and social housing. Here is some more detail:
- Buildings – the municipality is responsible for assuring minimum standards to do with fire and life safety are met. Black mold on the walls or no heat in winter are examples – more info here.
- Building code – Municipalities appoint and employ building inspectors, who enforce the Building Code Act and ensure building code is met.
- Enable affordable housing – all cities and towns in Nova Scotia have to allow affordable housing to be built in their land use plans.
- Support affordable housing – implementing an incentive zoning for affordable housing units, registration and/or licensing of rental properties, removing policy and regulatory barriers to special care facilities, secondary suites, and rooming houses/single room occupancies; develop holistic approaches to affordable housing changes in especially vulnerable neighborhoods (more here)
- Help to fund Affordable Housing construction – HRM has grants for affordable housing built by not-for-profits, expected to be between $1-1.5 million a year, waives permit costs, and provides property tax relief for not-for-profit affordable housing
- Taxes and fees – HRM waives all or part of the property tax and permits and fees for affordable housing projects.
- Set municipal land aside that can be used for affordable housing, for example, HRM recently handed over properties in Dartmouth North to AHANS for affordable housing development.
- In the Fall of 2021 the Province gave NS municipalities the power to require affordable housing as a part of a development, to provide business with financial assistance for the purpose of increasing the availability of affordable housing (Bill 32) and Council will begin the process to adopt a policy to enable this in January 2022, which should be in place by summer 2022.
- Regulate land use and the supply of housing – determining where development can be built, approving developments, and making sure that transportation and services are available are municipal responsibilities
- Regulation – The municipality can also regulate some elements of land use, like short term rentals (AirB&B)
- Building Code – the Province adopts the National Building Code for use in Nova Scotia.
- Tenancy – leases, rent control, landlord-tenant disputes – more info here
- Affordable housing – through Housing Nova Scotia, which operates Metro Regional Housing Authority and funds not-for-profit housing groups.
- Shelter – all kinds of shelter, from extreme weather shelter to safe spaces for women and children, both building and operating
- Funding – Housing Nova Scotia has a $132 million dollar budget and is responsible for 11,500 public housing units.
- Social services – Department of Community Services “administers social programs, including employment support and skills training, income assistance, affordable housing and youth and family supports.”
Ok fine, so who builds social or affordable housing, and funds shelters?
Municipalities in Nova Scotia do not own any social housing or provide social services. Those programs and that funding has been delivered by the Provincial government for over two decades.
The old cities of Halifax and Dartmouth and the town of Bedford used to run their own housing programs, and all of the social housing in HRM was actually built by those municipalities or by not-for-profits funding through the municipalities.
In 1992 the Hayward Report on Municipal Reform lead to big changes in Nova Scotia. Building and operating affordable housing in Nova Scotia were removed from cities and towns and taken over by the Province in 1996. In HRM that agreement is often referred to as the 1996 service swap.
What needs to change?
HRM doesn’t have to be the government that delivers housing, as long as the number of affordable housing units increases.
Additionally, a municipality could not deliver supportive housing or shelter without provincial participation to provide the services and supports that only are delivered by the Department of Community Services. Ultimately supportive housing for the most vulnerable has to be lead by DCS.
There are fewer affordable housing units now than in 1996, while the population of HRM has grown by almost 25%
If the Province won’t deliver new affordable homes, HRM should be given the responsibility and funding to do it.