As the housing crunch hits rural N.S., Bridgewater tries to get ahead
Former menswear store on King Street will soon be an affordable housing hub
The exterior has been restored to some of its century-old glory, but inside, an old menswear store in downtown Bridgewater, N.S., is about to offer something entirely new.
Art Fisher refers to the ground level of the three-storey building as the storefront, although he isn't a retailer. Fisher is the executive director of a non-profit called the Family Service Association of Western Nova Scotia, which bought the former Rofihe's Ltd. building after that business closed in 2018.
Once the finishing touches of the building's renovation are complete, the storefront on King Street will reopen as a hub for affordable housing. Anyone who is without a permanent home, or struggling to keep their home, can walk through the doors and ask for help.
For some, the answer won't be far away; the upper levels of the building are being converted into apartments that will soon be ready for about one dozen tenants.
Although the project has been in the works for years, it's nearing completion in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which Fisher said has highlighted "huge gaps" in the services available to people in Bridgewater who are at risk of homelessness.
Housing not just an urban problem
Through his work, Fisher sees the evidence of housing insecurity daily, but he said he fears the issue is largely overlooked in rural communities — something he's hoping to change.
"This is about trying to create a system where we can communicate back to this community, and to multiple levels of government — provincial government and federal government — that we need to take homelessness and affordable housing seriously in rural Nova Scotia."
Housing insecurity has come into the spotlight this year in Halifax, where mass evictions and huge rent hikes are increasingly common.
Advocates in Halifax recorded a spike this summer in the number of people sleeping on the street and shelters are looking for ways to house more people before winter sets in.
Fisher said those problems are not uniquely urban.
"We have rents escalating very quickly. We have buildings that used to be affordable for people where they now have to move out and find something else, and there's nothing else to find," he said.
"People in [Halifax] tend to think that homelessness doesn't exist in rural [Nova Scotia], but it does. And our housing program is overwhelmed with people who need housing."
The housing crunch seems to be hitting other rural areas, too. This summer, the outgoing mayor of Lunenburg told CBC that short-term rentals were causing significant disruption to the housing supply in her town. Just last week, the Municipality of Clare issued a call for the development of an action plan to address its own housing shortage.
Bridgewater council looking for housing solutions
Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell said housing is the number one issue he and other candidates heard during the latest municipal election campaign, which is why he's launching an all-council committee to look for solutions.
He made the announcement at the new council's swearing-in Monday night.
"We're basically going to come at this from all angles," Mitchell said in an interview.
"Everything from sitting down with the province to sitting down with developers, to looking at our own policies to see if there's any barriers that are preventing more affordable housing units from being created. Essentially leaving no stone unturned."
Just before this fall's election, the outgoing Bridgewater council approved funding for the development of a co-ordinated access system meant to streamline services for people experiencing homelessness.
Lisa Ryan, who works as a rural housing co-ordinator alongside Fisher, is now setting that system up. The housing hub in the old Rofihe's building will be a key access point.
Co-ordinated access systems are being put into place across the country, and the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia is managing one in Halifax. It's because of that system that the association can keep tabs on the number of people experiencing homelessness in HRM; at last count there were 480.
Ryan said specific measures like that are essential for properly responding to the needs of any given community.
"It gives a broader picture to what community development and economic development can look like within a local area so that housing developments, even businesses, can shift their plans," Ryan said.
She said she expects the numbers that Bridgewater's co-ordinated access system will reveal may be shocking to some, "but not shocking to those who are working on the frontline."
"They're seeing a drastic increase in the numbers almost every month."
Fisher is already planning for an expansion of the affordable housing project on King Street.
Once the storefront and its upstairs apartments are ready, Fisher is hoping to scale up with more apartments in a vacant building next door — a former hardware store. After a refit, it could hold a few dozen affordable units.