Ever since I’ve been in office, I’ve been working on housing insecurity, and so has the municipality. To say that this is a complex issue is an understatement.
Legislatively, housing is a provincial responsibility. More important than that, however, housing is a human responsibility. HRM Council has a strong interest in helping with the housing crisis, even though it isn’t in our mandate. (One challenge is that any funding that goes to housing doesn’t go to our defined mandate, so we have to limit other HRM services or we have to raise taxes and fees.)
We (HRM) have been struggling between what we could or should do and what we can do. We’ve also seen what has been happening with the temporary shelters and the tents showing up in public spaces and the lack of affordable housing.
In this post I talk about a number of things related to housing:
- Supply and Demand
- Housing Security
- Identifying the At Risk and Homeless populations
- Helping the At Risk population
- Increasing Supply
- Current HRM housing crisis
- What happens next?
Supply and Demand
The housing shortage is largely a supply and demand problem.
There are other factors as well, but at its core you need to have more “dwelling units” than you have families who want to live there. A comfortable vacancy rate is 3-4%. I have no idea where we are on that today, but I’ve never heard of a vacancy rate in Sackville that was higher than 1%. This is at the root of the problem.
We are growing rapidly (according to https://halifaxpartnership.com/research-strategy/halifax-index-2021/people/ which pulls it’s data from Statistics Canada), and much of that growth is coming from outside the country. With about a 2% increase in our population over recent years, we’ve also needed at least a 2% increase in the number of available places for people to live.
In Lower Sackville, as of August 2021, we have 12 apartment buildings either being constructed or in some stage of planning. They are:
- 3 buildings on Old Sackville Road
- 3 buildings on Sackville Drive (across from Nuthin’ Fancy)
- 1 building on Sackville Drive (beside McDonald’s)
- 1 building on Pinehill Drive
- 1 building at Cobequid and Glendale
- 1 building on Walker Service Road (plus townhouses)
- 2 buildings that are mid way through the planning stages, so are too early to list
These will certainly help with the supply, but they are going to take time. By the time they’re ready to move in, we will have more demand.
The impact of AirBnb
The supply also impacted by the number of AirBnb units in the city. (We refer to these as Short Term Rentals)
Someone could rent out 8 apartments, have them available as AirBnb spaces, have them only used 50% of the time, and still make money from them. By doing this, however, they have removed 8 dwelling units that are available for families to rent.
We need to do something to limit the impact that AirBnb (and other services like that) have on the total housing supply.
We (Regional Council) have requested a report about short term rentals. This currently due to come back in February 2022.
Housing security is an concern for all of us. Generally speaking, we all fit in to one of three categories:
- housing secure
- at risk housing
We have far more people in the “at risk housing” and “homeless” category than are recognized – mainly because we don’t have enough of a supply.
For example – you may be able to afford your own home, but if you’re spending more than 30% of your pre-tax income on housing then your risk is higher. You’re spending money on housing that it would be better to spend on food, heat, medication, transportation, education, or other needs. With this, your stress level is higher, and this increases the risk.
And if something happens to your home (a fire, a tree falls on it, etc.) then you need a place to live. Hotels are expensive, and finding another place to live for the short or medium term is incredibly hard. For this reason I constantly remind people that we are all at a higher housing risk than normal — mainly because we don’t have enough of a supply.
As a society, we need to move more towards having secure housing. That being said, we always have those who are in at risk housing or are homeless. This is a permanent situation, and we need to be able to address it.
What is Affordable Housing? (added 24-Aug-2021)
Affordable Housing is defined by the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission (in the 2021 Commission Report on this page: https://nsaffordablehousingcommission.ca/getinvolved) as housing that costs less than 30% of a households pre-tax income. This is the same definition that Housing Trust of Nova Scotia (https://housingtrust.ca/affordable-housing/) uses.
Within the HRM Land Use Bylaws for the Halifax Peninsula, this is shown as:
the monthly rent for the affordable housing dwelling units shall be no more than $750 per month for each of the ten units, and such rent (i) shall include heat, electricity, and hot water; and (ii) may exclude parking, cable, internet and telephone;
What is Density Bonusing? (added 25-Aug-2021)
Density Bonusing is also called incentive or bonus zoning. We are allowed to implement density bonusing as specified in the Halifax Charter (https://nslegislature.ca/sites/default/files/legc/statutes/halifax%20regional%20municipality%20charter.pdf).
The land use by-laws impose height restrictions on development that may happen. Density bonusing (or incentive bonusing) allows for a building to be built to one height if there are no affordable units, or higher if there are affordable units. There are sometimes other public benefits required as well.
In the Quinpool Road area, for example, a building is allowed to be 78 metres tall. If the building is taller than 62 metres, then it also has to allow for a) 10 affordable units and undergrounding of electrical and utility wires; or b) 20 affordable units; or c) 10 affordable units and a payment of $900K to HRM; or d) a payment of $1.8M to HRM. These two payments are to be put in to a reserve that is specifically for affordable housing.
The reserve is the Density Bonusing Reserve, and is a fairly new reserve account. As of March 31, 2021, has $2.7M in it. This is as reported on page 27 the consolidated financial statements here: https://www.halifax.ca/sites/default/files/documents/city-hall/regional-council/210817rc1161b.pdf.
A landlord may choose to benefit from density bonusing or not.
What is Inclusionary Zoning (added 27-Aug-2021)
Inclusionary Zoning would allow us to designate that a certain development has to have a certain number of units that are “affordable”.
HRM is allowed to set rules based on what is allowed in the Municipal Government Act and the Halifax Charter. Neither of these allow for inclusionary zoning, so we are unable to force a landlord to provide affordable housing.
Identifying the At Risk Housing and Homeless populations
Those who are homeless (especially in Lower Sackville) are hard to identify because they could be sleeping in the woods. We wouldn’t see them as clearly as if they were sleeping on a park bench down town. This makes it very difficult to identify how many people are sleeping rough or where they are sleeping rough.
We need to be able to reach these people. Services like the Sackville Area Warming Centre and Freedom Kitchen are great for doing just that. Everyone needs to eat, and in the winter most need to stay warm. This is part of the reason that I’ve supported both of these organizations since their inception.
One challenge with the homeless is that some are comfortable in the woods and don’t want to be identified. Another is that they have no fixed address, and so they can move around and we lose track of them.
Those who are in at risk housing are also hard to identify because they may look like everything is fine, but they may not have the enough medication or they may not have eaten today. We don’t have any organized way to identify people in at risk housing. Right now it’s fair to say that they slip under the radar.
Helping the At Risk Housing population
Setting the supply issue aside, the most common risk for the “at risk housing” population is money. The rent or mortgage may be too high. So how do we, as a society, help those who have a high housing risk?
- We need more apartment spaces that are “affordable”, and we need to have the definition of “affordable” match what the family can afford. It has to be less than 30% of the gross family income. This is a very difficult measure to achieve, especially with the disparity that we see between minimum wage and liveable wage. This will not be done voluntarily by most landlords, so we need to provide some incentives for this. Density bonusing is one way to achieve this. We also need to make sure that this is done discretely, so that we don’t allow private information for any tenant to be exposed.
- We need to provide more education in a number of areas. Some of this includes personal financial management, and some of it includes food storage, handling, and preparation. These could both be taught in grade school, and it could also be taught to those who are no longer in school. Living above your means is the biggest financial risk that any of us face. If we can provide education on how to manage personal finances then we can promote better decision making. For food – we could resume the home economics courses that were taught years ago, and teach people how to prepare nutritious meals. That could reduce the use of fast food which would also improve health.
- We need to provide education and encouragement for personal improvement. Most people want to be in a better place than they are in. Some do not know how to get there. This is one of the more challenging problems to overcome.
According to Statistics Canada (here: https://www.statcan.gc.ca/eng/subjects-start/prices_and_price_indexes/consumer_price_indexes) the cost of living has gone up 3.7% over the past 12 months. This increase is simply to maintain what we already have.
As of August 2021, rent increases are limited to 2% per year.
With these rates, the costs for any landlord are rising faster than their income.
Since any developer will lose money building a new building, there is no real incentive for them to build, unless the rent is high enough to cover future losses. This won’t help those who need affordable housing.
Since any landlord will lose money by keeping a building with no changes, maintenance may be put off unless it is absolutely necessary. Landlords may choose to upgrade their buildings and increase the rent high enough to cover projected losses later on.
If we remove the potential for profit, or even for breaking even, then landlords will not build here. That’s not a scare tactic or a doomsday scenario, rather that’s looking at from the other side of the coin.
This rent control model does not work.
I have not yet seen a rent control model that works to benefit both the landlord and the tenant. That being said, I am open to any suggestions about a model that could work.
We need to be able to increase the supply of housing across HRM. We have a number of developers who are willing to invest (as evidenced by the amount of construction in Sackville). We need to make sure that the rest of the system can support that.
One of the challenges (and one of the benefits) of COVID is that many people are working from home. People no longer have a long commute to work, and many meetings are more efficient. (A related challenge is that there is far less social interaction, and so it’s far harder for a group of people to become a team, but that’s a completely different subject.)
Since many more people are working from home, and so have more time available, there are many more home projects getting done.
The HRM Planning department has seen a 50% increase in the number of planning applications since COVID started, and they have to process this increase in capacity without a significant increase in the number of staff. We have also added some people to our Planning department, and so they have to be trained. We have also recently implemented a new computer system, and this requires some training and would need to have some initial adjustments made for it to be more efficient. All of this means that our Planning department has a far higher workload than they did in 2019, and things are taking much longer to process. We are looking at options to counter the challenges, but they will also take time.
Additionally, there is a supply and demand issue with the raw materials. Those who produce the building materials have also been impacted by COVID, so their workforce is down and they cannot produce as much material. Once they do produce that material there are a lot more people who want to buy it. The supply is way down, and the demand is way up, so prices go up and we still see that the materials run out.
These are two significant problems that are not easy to overcome, and yet they are the main cause of why we can’t build enough places for people to live.
Current HRM housing crisis
As pointed out, with the statistical information above, the housing crisis has been growing for years. We need more spaces for people to live.
We’ve heard about drastic rent increases. We’ve heard about a 0.5% vacancy rate in Sackville, and 1% vacancy rate across HRM (a 3-4% vacancy rate, as I mentioned above, is a better rate). We’ve heard the stories about “renovictions” and about one developer starting to demolish an apartment building while a tenant was still living in it. We’ve heard about the current housing prices skyrocketing, where some homes have sold for 250K above the asking price.
The demand is huge, and the supply just isn’t keeping up.
We’ve seen the provincial government impose rent control and COVID eviction bans in order to slow down the crisis.
We’ve also seen more people living rough.
Shelters and tents started appearing in in public parks in late 2020. At the time HRM issued notices that they would be allowed to stay, and that we would work with those who were staying there. HRM has since expanded this information here: https://www.halifax.ca/about-halifax/regional-community-planning/public-safety/common-questions-regarding-homelessness.
HRM has been working with some of those in the encampments, and some of them have moved on to more stable housing. I don’t have the statistics available on how many people were moved in to more stable housing, but I believe it was less than 10 people.
HRM has also received multiple complaints about the shelters and tents on municipal property, many regarding health and safety concerns (including fires), but also sexual assault and human trafficking.
On July 6, 2021, HRM posted a notice about the removal of temporary shelters located on municipal property here: https://www.halifax.ca/home/news/statement-regarding-removal-temporary-shelters-located-municipal-property.
On July 9, 2021, HRM posted a notice about three shelters that had been removed: https://www.halifax.ca/home/news/statement-regarding-removal-three-temporary-shelters-located-municipal-property.
August 18, 2021 temporary shelter removal (updated 25-Aug-2021)
Wednesday, August 18, 2021, was a horrible day.
After months of discussion, allowing residents to set up tents and shelters in municipal parkland, and after receiving multiple complaints about that, it became clear that a change was necessary. Through those months we reached out to the homeless people there and tried to find them suitable accommodations. We were about to find accommodations for some, but for others it was not possible.
In July we issued notices that the shelters needed to be vacated or we would take further action.
On the morning of August 18, contractors, and police showed up to remove the shelters that were in multiple locations. One of them was the Memorial Library property on Spring Garden Road. The removal took longer than expected, and a protest grew and became violent and dangerous. We’ve all seen some of the reports on traditional media and social media about this.
I was not there, so I do not have first hand knowledge about what happened. What I heard was terrible, and it was the type of confrontation that I don’t want to see in HRM.
I am troubled by reports of officers not showing their names but of wearing a thin blue line. I am troubled by reports of protestors throwing things at the contractors who were using a chainsaw to dismantle one of the shelters. I’m also troubled by a number of other aspects of this, and they are being addressed internally.
Some people were arrested for being part of a protest that wasn’t peaceful.
Some of the homeless found better accommodations.
Some of the homeless moved to other parks.
We removed the shelters from that park, but this didn’t do much to solve the homeless problem. We need to do more.
What Happens Next?
I am committed to working with people to understand what happened on August 18, and I am also committed to finding or developing real solutions to help the homeless issue.
In the days following the shelter removal, I’ve been in touch with a number of people about the crisis and about homelessness.
New ideas have come forward about programs that have worked in other places, and that we may be able to implement here. One of them is a workable but temporary solution, and the other is a workable and permanent solution for families to get themselves out of homelessness.
I’m meeting with others to work through the details of those ideas and see if we are able to move forward with them.