Nova Scotia

Governance, oversight 'severely lacking' for N.S. public housing: AG report

Auditor General Kim Adair said the province's public housing units are underutilized, with over 1,500 of its 11,000 units able to accommodate more people.

About 6,000 people on wait-list as existing units underutilized, report finds

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Auditor General Kim Adair said oversight and governance of publicly owned housing in Nova Scotia is "severely lacking." (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Nova Scotia is not effectively managing its public housing units while thousands of people wait for safe, affordable government housing, a new report by the province's auditor general has found. 

In the report released Tuesday to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, Auditor General Kim Adair said oversight and governance of publicly owned housing is "severely lacking."

Speaking with reporters, Adair said the province doesn't have an effective governance structure in place for public housing, which is handled by the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

"We did this audit because low-income Nova Scotians depend on public housing and it's important they are provided access in a fair, consistent and timely manner," Adair said.

Existing units underutilized

Public housing is underutilized, the report said, with more than 1,500 of 11,000 units able to accommodate more people, despite 5,950 individuals on a wait-list for units as of Dec. 31, 2021.

"Essentially, the families that are in those units have more space than what they need," Adair said. "It could be circumstances where the children have grown up and moved out."

The existing units are 40 years old on average, Adair said, signalling an "aging infrastructure issue," which could be addressed in a future audit.

The average wait time for public housing in the province is two years, but the report said some applicants wait "much longer" depending on the location and size of the housing they need. 

On average, Nova Scotia's regional housing authorities are taking more than double the 60-day target for placing tenants into newly available units, the report said.

"Because demand is beyond supply, what's important is that the existing portfolio — the 11,000 units we're looking at — is used as efficiently as possible," Adair said.

Governance and oversight 'severely lacking'

She said governance and oversight are "severely lacking" in the delivery of Nova Scotia's public housing.

Adair's report notes that government responsibility for provincial housing has shifted three times since June 2019 due to departmental restructuring, and each restructuring has involved a new minister. "A lack of consistent leadership makes it difficult to have a clear strategy and move projects forward."

The report said there is no public reporting around wait lists, vacancy rates or turnaround times.

The housing department is failing to hold housing authorities accountable through reporting and evaluations, and public housing policies are not regularly reviewed, the report said.

The regional housing authorities are also failing to provide oversight and support good governance, the report said, noting their reliance on volunteers for oversight and lack of education and orientation processes for board members.

Inconsistent application process

During an examination of 150 applications to the housing authorities, the performance audit found that 132 were approved, but 54 of the approved applicants provided insufficient information while 23 exceeded household income limits.

The report notes that there were inconsistencies in practices between the regional housing authorities, including in their communications with applicants, wait-list rankings, and the way in which applicants were screened.

The audit also revealed issues with wait-list management, meaning that some applicants who needed housing the most weren't consistently placed on all wait lists that fit their needs in their municipality.

"These findings are extremely troublesome as priority access was designed to ensure applicants in greatest need are offered the first available unit."

Recommendations

The report makes 20 recommendations to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which include: 

  • Implementing an effective governance structure and accountability framework with clear goals, performance metrics, roles and responsibilities.

  • Creating a fair and consistent public housing application process and accurate wait-list ranking system.

  • Reporting publicly, at regular intervals, information necessary for applicants to develop realistic expectations for access to public housing based on prioritization, region and size.

The department has agreed to all 20 of the report's recommendations and set target dates ranging from 2022 to 2025 to implement them.

"We have made progress already on some of the areas highlighted and are working on plans to modernize operations so we can help more people and families," Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr said in a release.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Halifax Needham MLA Suzy Hansen said it was good to hear concrete information from the auditor general's report on public housing. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Suzy Hansen, the NDP MLA for Halifax Needham, said the governance issues need to be fixed before the provincial government builds more public housing.

"The numbers have shown that we need affordable housing, and public housing is just that," Hansen said. "But we also need to make sure the structures are in place that are going to be consistent."

Nova Scotia's regional housing authorities spent about $153 million in 2020-21; $67 million was funded by tenant revenue and $54 million came from the provincial government. The remainder was contributed by the municipal and federal governments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Simon Smith

News Reporter

Simon Smith is a reporter with CBC Nova Scotia. He can be reached at simon.smith@cbc.ca, on Twitter as @SimonR_Smith

with files from Preston Mulligan

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