Rent increase pushes Halifax woman toward homelessness
'I've done everything in my power to find a new apartment,' says Joedie Muise
Joedie Muise has lived in the same apartment in north-end Halifax for 16 years, but she'll have to say goodbye to the space at the end of July before a rent increase takes effect, pricing her out of the building and possibly forcing her into homelessness.
When Muise moved into her two-bedroom basement unit on Windsor Street in 2004, her rent was $569 per month, which she paid for by working as a grocery store cashier.
"It's been a decent apartment," she said in an interview outside the building. "Although there are some troubles with it now."
The troubles include mould growing in the upper kitchen cabinets and the linoleum floors peeling up at the edges.
Muise has tried to keep mice out of the apartment by stuffing plastic bags in the gaps under her radiators, but they still seem to get in — she regularly finds their droppings under the bathroom sink and in the bathtub.
She would rather stay and contend with those things than have no home at all, but when the rent goes up on Aug. 1, it will exceed her total monthly income.
Around 2007, Muise stopped working because of fibromyalgia and started living exclusively off income assistance and disability support.
Over the years, her rent has increased several times, eating up more and more of her $1,000 monthly stipend from the provincial government. Last year, the rent went up to $899.
The latest increase, which is slated to take effect Aug. 1, will bring the rent up to $1,049.
Northpoint Properties, the company that owns and manages the building, gave Muise written notice of the increase in March.
It wasn't an eviction notice — the letter gave the option of accepting the new amount — but it had the effect of one for Muise. She told the building manager she couldn't afford to stay, and he's started showing the unit to potential new renters.
Northpoint declined an interview request for this story but sent a statement by email.
It read, in part, "While we are unable to comment on the lease terms of individual residents, rent increases are sometimes necessary to help alleviate financial stresses caused by increasing expenses such as utilities, insurance and property taxes."
The COVID-19 lockdown was in full effect when Muise started looking for an apartment, and since she doesn't have a computer or internet connection at home, she walked around the city looking for "for rent" signs. When Halifax Public Libraries reopened earlier this month, Muise took her search online.
"I've done everything in my power to try and find a new apartment," said Muise.
She said she's contacted about 15 different landlords and submitted formal applications for two apartments. Both her applications were denied without explanation.
In mid-July, she compiled a list of shelters where she might find a temporary bed if she can't find a permanent home by the end of the month.
"I'm scared," Muise said. "I'm terrified ... I have no friends or family. I've been on my own since I was 17. If I can't find another place to live, I will be on the street."
Housing support workers maxed out
If it comes to that, Muise could end up on the by-name list — a list of people in Nova Scotia who are experiencing homelessness. As of July 22, there were 438 people on the list who had been homeless for at least 14 days. Of those, 324 had been homeless for more than six months.
The Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia manages the by-name list and uses it to prioritize resources and services.
One of those services is housing support, and workers in that field are trained specifically to help people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, such as Muise. The provincial government funds 32.5 housing support positions at non-profit organizations across the province, with 27 of those positions just added in this year's budget.
Speaking to reporters last week after a cabinet meeting, Housing Minister Chuck Porter acknowledged that Nova Scotia has "had challenges in housing for some time," but he said progress is being made, and he pointed to housing support workers as an essential part of his department's response.
"Now provincially we have a good number of housing support workers which are just invaluable when it comes to working with landlords ... to help place people," he said.
But Muise hasn't been able to access that service yet.
Caseloads for the three housing support workers at Welcome Housing are capped, and executive director Diana Devlin said their priority right now is finding homes for people who are already homeless.
Devlin said the advice she's offering to people like Muise who still have a home is, "please, stick in there … stick it out as long as you possibly can where you currently are."
Devlin said Muise completed the intake process at Welcome Housing at the start of July, but they haven't been able to help her in her search.
"If a client wants to come in and do an intake process with us and do all the paperwork to apply for [public housing] we can put them on the waiting lists. But in terms of actively searching for housing for more people ... we can't do that," Devlin said.
A support worker reached out to Metro Regional Housing Authority on Muise's behalf to ask if she qualifies for a rent supplement, which would top up her income, but Devlin said they haven't received a response.
The rental vacancy rate in Halifax hit a record low of one per cent earlier this year, which Devlin referred to as "an incredible shortage of housing." She said it's good to see the province fund more housing support workers, but those workers can't place people in units that don't exist.
The wait for public housing
Muise has been on the waitlist for public housing since June 2018.
Around that same time, former Housing Minister Kelly Regan said she expected to reduce the public housing waitlist by 30 per cent within three years with the help of rent supplements.
Conversely, the waitlist for public housing has steadily increased since Regan made that prediction. As of March 2020, the waitlist had grown by nearly 30 per cent from the same time two years before.
Muise also reached out to her MLA, Lisa Roberts, for help. The New Democrat, who is the party's housing critic, said Muise's situation was "heartbreaking," but not uncommon. She said her office regularly hears from constituents facing untenable rent increases, but she can't do much to help aside from connecting them with the provincial housing authority that coordinates public housing.
Roberts said the crux of Nova Scotia's housing problem is that it relies too heavily on the private rental market to provide affordable options. Roberts wants to see the province build more public housing, and support more cooperative and non-profit housing.
"We're decades behind on investment and we need to do a whole host of things kind of today or yesterday so that people aren't ending up in this desperate situation," Roberts said in an interview.
Roberts said rent control would have protected Muise against her current situation. She introduced a bill almost two years ago that includes rent control, which is still sitting on the floor of the legislature.
In the meantime, Muise has already packed up most of her belongings, hoping she'll have somewhere new to take them by the end of the month.