Nova Scotia·High Cost of Getting By

Low income renters face long waits for public housing. What happens to those who can't wait?

Hundreds of people are on waitlists for public housing. Many stay on the waitlist for years. Others choose to take a rent supplement where available instead. Even with help, finding an affordable, safe place to rent can be difficult.

Tenants say long waits for public housing and bad landlords are keeping them in unsafe housing

Sam Bonnar stands in the doorway of the duplex she rents in North Sydney. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

This story is part of a series from CBC Cape Breton called The High Cost of Getting By. In the series, reporters examine how the rising cost of daily living is affecting people on the island. For the last several months, reporters from our newsroom spoke with people who are struggling because of the high costs of basic necessities like housing, food and home repairs. 

Sam Bonnar moved into her little green duplex looking for a safe, clean and warm place to live with her daughter. Instead, she can't sleep at night because of birds nesting in the walls, has lost hundreds of dollars of groceries to mice, and drafty doors and broken windows plague her in the colder months.

After struggling for years to find a decent rental, the single mom decided to take a chance last summer on the duplex with a yard in a quiet neighbourhood of North Sydney.

"It's hard, especially when you're a single parent or a low income parent to find a place… that's affordable, that you can trust and rely on your landlord when there is an issue," she said.

The duplex Sam Bonnar is renting in North Sydney. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Bonnar's Ontario-based landlord Kim Gratto purchased the duplex sight unseen in 2021. Her son now lives in New Waterford and manages the property. They didn't know it was in such poor condition because they only received photos of the other half of the building which is in better shape. 

They put up an ad looking for tenants using the same photos but once they saw the space for themselves, withdrew the ad. By then Bonnar had already called and asked to rent the space. 

"We wouldn't have rented it until it was completely done except she was desperate ... she said where they lived before that with her child was not safe, that's why we allowed the rental," said Kim Gratto.

"We fully 100 per cent thought we'd be able to get it renovated for her within six months."

Bonnar said she went ahead with the rental believing repairs were on the way. 

"I'm a very open-minded person and I thought to myself, okay, if it needs some fixing up, I'll deal with it," said Bonnar. "It's frustrating because there is nothing that's cheap and affordable and kid friendly, pet friendly."

Sam Bonnar's pantry, littered with mouse droppings. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Bonnar works part time and is on social assistance. She receives a rent supplement of $239 from the province to help pay her $750 monthly rent, which doesn't include heat and power. Bonnar hasn't complained to the tenancy board or tried to move out yet because it has been so difficult for her to find a place on her limited income. 

She spent three years on a waitlist for public housing but in order to receive a rent supplement, she had to leave the waitlist. It took another year of waiting before she was approved for a supplement.

"I would rather have the help to help support me, to live where I'm at," said Bonnar.

Hundreds on waitlists

Despite having a higher percentage of subsidized housing than the provincial average, as of March, there were 639 eligible people on the waitlist for public housing in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. 

Currently, 616 people in the area receive a rental supplement.

Many families have to choose between getting a rent supplement or waiting it out and getting into public housing which charges them a maximum rent of 30 per cent of their income.

A broken baseboard heater on the side of Bonnar's bathtub. Her daughter is afraid to get out of the tub because she cut her leg on the heater in the past. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

A walk through Bonnar's home revealed broken baseboard heaters, soft rotten wood around the bathtub, gaping holes in the eaves where birds were actively flying in, holes around the foundation of the house where mice were getting in, and gaps around the exterior door frame leading to a loss of heat in the back porch. 

Her 10-year-old daughter needs help getting in and out of the tub because of a broken baseboard heater attached to the wall lining the tub. She cut her leg on it and is now scared to get out by herself. 

The Grattos are relatively new to investment properties and purchased 10 properties totalling 15 rental units on the island during the pandemic. They say it's been difficult to get contractors and many items like windows were backordered for months. Some repairs have been started however, and the Grattos say they intend to keep Bonnar as their tenant as those renovations take place. 

 Cheap or safe?

Affordable housing has become one of the top issues on the minds of Nova Scotians as the price of homes has soared.

Organizations like the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation consider housing to be affordable if a person or a family is spending no more than 30 per cent of their monthly income on a mortgage or rent. 

According to Catherine Leviten-Reid, associate professor of Community Economic Development at Cape Breton University, there simply aren't enough economical rentals in CBRM.

Under the subsidy program, if a person is under the age of 58 and earns $1,000 a month, $300 of that is expected to go toward rent. The subsidy is based on average market prices. For example, a typical one-bedroom apartment costs $721 a month, so a subsidy would total around $421.

Holes and soft spots in the siding on Bonnar's house. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

"So if you're a low-income tenant and you are receiving that subsidy and you can't find a unit at that price and you're renting at something that's higher than that, you're responsible for paying that… extra cost."

She said people are often stuck between renting cheaper but substandard houses and apartments, often not located near essential services, or appropriate housing that is too expensive for their budget.

"We have very low income assistance rates and we have minimum wages that are far less than living wages. So it's really hard for people to find a place to live that they can afford."

Leviten-Reid said 25 per cent of rentals in CBRM consist of public housing or are subsidized by a rent supplement, compared to the provincial average of 12 per cent. Yet long waitlists show that not everyone who needs help is getting it.

"It does confirm that there's a significant lack of affordable housing in our community and that we need to actually be building more public and then deeply subsidized, cooperative and nonprofit housing as well."

Possible Solutions

"The system is not working," said Levitan-Reid, adding the province has chronically high poverty rates and a significant homeless population. 

She said there should be a system in place where all rental units are registered and inspected. 

 In October 2021, the government announced an additional 1,100 new affordable housing units for the province.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr confirmed to CBC that none of the units will be created in Cape Breton, however, additional rent supplements were made available on the island.

Lohr said there were shovel-ready projects in the Halifax Regional Municipality which became the first priority, but that he realizes there is a housing crisis across the province.

He said there are many options being looked at including freeing up provincial land for developments. On May 31, the province announced that it had identified 37 pieces of vacant land and was accepting proposals for affordable housing projects on those parcels.


Brittany Wentzell

Current Affairs Reporter/Editor

Brittany Wentzell is based in Sydney, N.S., as a reporter for Information Morning Cape Breton. She has covered a wide range of issues including education, forestry and municipal government. Story ideas? Send them to