Housing affordability challenges have NDP calling for swift action
Seven families recently forced out of living situation at Dartmouth hotel
With little notice, Rebecca Sparks and her family found themselves confronted with the growing housing challenge in Halifax Regional Municipality.
Sparks, her two teenage children and their dog, were one of seven families that came home this week to the Travelodge in Dartmouth to learn that they had to leave within 48 hours. The message was posted on their door.
"No letterhead, no signatures, just, 'Unfortunately, your time is up at the Travelodge," she said. "You have until Feb. 21 at noon to be gone.'"
It's part of a larger situation members of the NDP caucus have been highlighting in the first two days of the spring sitting at Province House.
On Friday, the party introduced legislation for short-term rentals that would require anyone running an Airbnb-style service, regardless of size, to register with the province.
The bill, which is unlikely to pass in the Liberal majority legislature, would also require rental platforms to provide information about the obligation of hosts to collect and remit HST.
A sliding scale of fees, ranging from $20 per year for someone who rents a room in their own home up to $5,000 a year for platforms such as Airbnb, plus $1 per night per rented room, would be collected and paid to municipalities.
The bill also includes fines for people who operate without registering.
New Democrat Lisa Roberts, the Halifax-Needham MLA, said the bill has more teeth than legislation from the government that will not require all short-term rentals to register. It also comes with lower fees.
Roberts said she wants to see the government be more responsive to a growing problem that's seeing more people challenged to find an affordable place to live, or to stay in their existing situation as landlords look to renovate or rebuild to try to capitalize on a booming housing market with razor-thin vacancy rates.
For the NDP, that would include some kind of rent control. Although Roberts conceded there is "mixed evidence" when it comes to rent control, she said there needs to be some level of protection for renters while also allowing property owners to make reasonable rent increases as necessary.
"We are getting contacted by constituents who have seen rent increases in hundreds of dollars per month," she told reporters at Province House.
"We're saying that where there isn't major capital improvements that there should be some connection between the amount that rent can go up and the general CPI, the general inflation and cost pressures."
Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters that his government has "a number of announcements that will come out over the next period of time" related to housing.
He said the government is reassessing some investments already made to determine if the effect has achieved the desired outcomes.
Meetings are also planned with the municipality and the private sector to see what partnerships are possible to provide more options for people looking for housing, he said.
The government has a first-time home buyer program for families, but McNeil said he also realizes some people are just trying to find shelter overnight while confronting other issues.
"We need to wrap services around them, whether it's addictions services or mental health. So those are the kinds of investments we would work with our partners to do."
There are other factors at play, too, said McNeil. The growth and development in the Halifax area has resulted in people who once had what they thought was an affordable place to live in the downtown being pushed to outlying communities.
Rent creep is now making its way to those areas, too, said the premier.
"And that's been the real domino effect that we're trying to put some support around and trying to work with the private sector to make sure that we provide some options," he said.
'It's breaking my heart'
The premier said no single policy approach or partnership will fix the situation.
"This will require a multifaceted approach because everyone who finds themselves under-housed has a different reason, and that's why we need to continue to [work] on this."
Sparks, whose family is preparing to move to another hotel, said it's been difficult finding a new place to live, with landlords being very specific about prospective tenants and rents that far exceed the amount of money she has for housing.
She said she's planning to file a human rights complaint on the basis that she believes she's being discriminated against because she receives social assistance.
It would be one thing to deal with the situation if she were on her own, said Sparks, but knowing how it's affecting her kids has made it difficult.
"Seeing my kids' faces, and knowing how disgusted they seem like they're feeling with me because of the situation that we're in, is just crushing my spirits right now. It's breaking my heart."
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With files from Diane Paquette