Nova Scotia

Fairview residents struggle to find affordable housing as 'renoviction' looms

All residents in the 30-unit building must leave the premises by Saturday, as the new owner plans major renovations.

All residents in the 30-unit building at 25 Vimy Ave. must leave the premises by Saturday

Blake Zwicker has looked for other apartments he can afford, but has had no luck. (Robert Short/CBC)

Blake Zwicker's apartment is packed with boxes of DVDs and blue bags filled with clothing — the accumulation of his life's belongings, all being readied for his eviction later this week.

After four years in his apartment at 25 Vimy Ave. in the Fairview neighbourhood of Halifax, Zwicker was informed in May that he, along with all the other tenants in the 30-unit building, had to leave by Aug. 3.

"For me, it's the fact that where am I going to go? What's going to happen now?" said Zwicker. "I don't have enough money in the bank to hire a U-Haul. How am I going to do this?"

In April, AMK Barrett Investments Inc., owned by Adam Barrett, bought the apartment building from George Tsimiklis.

Barrett's real estate company, BlackBay, plans to renovate the building and says it needs to be empty to do that. Everyone must be out by Saturday, tenants have been told.

Zwicker says if it weren't for a family member's offer to stay at their place, he has no idea where he would go. (Robert Short/CBC)

Zwicker, like many of the tenants in the building, is on a fixed income. At $595 per month, his rent on Vimy was manageable.

He's been looking for a new apartment, but it hasn't been easy to find another place he can afford.

"A lot of the rent for those places was way out of my budget. And income assistance only gives so much."

That's a story Diana Devlin has been hearing a lot. 

"I have no qualms about stating that, categorically, Halifax is in the middle of a housing crisis," said the executive director of Welcome Housing, a group that helps people find affordable places to live.

"There are no units for them to move into. Vacancy rates are extraordinarily low. And there just aren't the same number of affordable housing units that there were even, say, three years ago."

The new owner of 25 Vimy Ave. plans to fix the building, including installing a new roof, windows and siding and renovating the units. (Robert Short/CBC)

The shortage of affordable housing is so bad that housing support workers at the organization are advising people not to leave their apartments unless there is a safety risk.

Part of the problem, Devlin said, is that the shelter component of income assistance has remained the same — $535 — since the mid-'90s. The province says there was an increase in 2006.

Another factor is what Devlin calls "renovictions."

She said there's a trend in Halifax of companies buying apartment buildings that have relatively affordable rents, evicting tenants in order to do renovations and then increasing the rent when the renovations are complete — effectively removing affordable units from the housing stock.

Diana Devlin is the executive director of Welcome Housing, an organization that helps people find housing they can afford. (Robert Short/CBC)

Current rental prices at 25 Vimy Ave. range from $535 to $695, depending on the size of the units, said Barrett. Once the renovations are done, he hopes to charge $700 to $800 for one-bedroom apartments and $900 to $1,000 for two-bedroom units — a rate he calls affordable.

"Of course rent is going to have to go up to justify the money that's being spent," he said. "We're going to go in, we're going to clean it up, it's going to be a benefit to the neighborhood."

Barrett said the building is "not really fit for humans to live in" right now.

"People can't live with bedbugs and cockroaches and prostitution and drug dealing going on. It's not safe and it's not a good thing."

Barrett said the building also has issues with rats, mould and water infiltration. BlackBay plans to put a new roof, windows and siding on the building, fix electrical problems and install a new kitchen and bathroom in every unit.

He said BlackBay is not receiving any outside funding to make the changes.

The new owner says the building, which is infested with bedbugs, cockroaches and rats, is not fit for humans to live in. (Robert Short/CBC)

Housing Minister Chuck Porter said in a statement on Saturday that the province has taken steps to improve access to affordable housing, including through capital contributions to increase the number of units, allocating more rent supplements and grants and loans to low-income homeowners for essential repairs.

The NDP's housing critic, Lisa Roberts, said the provincial government has largely relied on rent supplement programs to help people with low incomes afford housing.

"It's a poor use of public dollars because it's public dollars that transfer to the private sector and they never create us units," she said.

Roberts said in addition to the loss of many long-term rental units to short-term rental businesses such as AirBNB, there have been few affordable housing units built in recent years.

"The province either has to get serious about doing it or it has to get out of the way and let somebody else do it and fund them to do it," she said.

Residents have been preparing to vacate their apartments since May. (Robert Short/CBC)

Progressive Conservative municipal affairs critic Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin said the public needs to understand the underlying issue behind affordable housing needs.

"Why are there so many people on low and fixed income?" she said. "I think we need to be looking at the source of the problem and trying to look at ways to ensure people have more money so that they have greater access to things like their housing needs."

Smith-McCrossin said there should be more collaboration between the private sector and all three levels of government to meet people's housing needs

Bailiffs to be on hand on eviction day

As for the tenants, Barrett said the company has tried to assist them with the eviction by offering cash, helping with living arrangements and moving expenses, but few tenants have called his office to accept those offers.

A notice from the company dated July 16 reminds tenants that power, heat and water in the building will be cut at the end of the day on Aug. 3, and police, bailiffs and the fire department will be on site to board up windows and remove any remaining occupants.

Zwicker hopes he'll be out before then. He has accepted an offer from a family member to stay in Lower Sackville.

He says if that wasn't an option, "I wouldn't have any place to go. That's a bottom line — I wouldn't have a place to go."

Zwicker said some residents still don't have a home lined up.

"They're just waiting for the day that the company comes and puts everybody out."

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About the Author

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca