Nova Scotia

Why Halifax's vacancy rate is making it even harder to find affordable housing

Affordable housing service providers say changes in the housing market in Halifax have meant that a provincial rent supplement program, a tool that helps provide affordable housing, is losing its effectiveness.

'There's not much of an incentive for landlords to take our folks,' says housing support worker

Those who help people find affordable housing say Halifax's low vacancy rate is making it hard for low-income renters. (CBC)

For those renting in Halifax, an affordable place to live is increasingly hard to find.

With the city's vacancy rate having dropped to 1.6 per cent, many renters are feeling the squeeze.

But affordable housing service providers say changes in the housing market in Halifax have meant that a provincial rent supplement program, a tool that helps provide affordable housing, is losing its effectiveness.

They say that's contributing to an especially difficult situation for low-income renters. 

"In the past, we've had agreements with larger property management companies when the vacancy rate was on our side to say, you know, you can't rent these units. How about we take on those units?," said Leigh MacLean, a housing support worker with Halifax Housing Help.

"Now, a number of the larger property management companies refuse to take the subsidies." 

The subsidies in this case are used by the province to bridge gaps in affordable housing.

Rent supplements are money paid to landlords to help make up the difference between what someone can afford and the market rent for a unit. 

Supplements are either assigned directly to renters, or to agencies like Halifax Housing Help, which then help people find apartments.

Since they tap into existing rental property, rent supplements can be a quick way to provide affordable housing to people with diverse needs — those on waiting lists for public housing or for people in shelters trying to obtain more stable accommodations.

For instance, someone who gets $535 through income assistance may get up to $400 as a rent supplement. In some cases, as with families, supplements can be even higher.

In 2018, Housing Nova Scotia announced $18 million over three years to create 1,500 rent supplements for people on public housing waiting lists.

But with demand for rentals growing, and rents rising in Halifax, agencies say many landlords are no longer interested in accepting rent supplements.

"There's not much of an incentive for landlords to take our folks," MacLean said.

"Rents have become fiercely unaffordable … and the vacancy rate has gone from really good for us to absolutely horrible. So it's dire."

Leigh MacLean is a housing support worker with Halifax Housing Help. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

As they're are not obligated to accept rent supplements, more landlords are opting out.

The CBC spoke to five service providers who've struggled to make use of the rent subsidies allocated to them by the province in the past year. 

The subsidy amount isn't the only factor.

Miia Suokonautio​​​​​​, executive director of the Halifax YWCA, said the stigma associated with rent supplements can make them a hard sell.

In a recent analysis of the difficulties faced by women looking to move out of transitional housing in Nova Scotia, affordability was flagged as one issue, Suokonautio said.

"But so was stigma, prejudice, inadequate units for family size, neighborhood … and the rent [supplement] can't address those issues."

Other service providers echoed this. They say tenants receiving rent supplements are perceived as more problematic, making them less appealing to landlords. 

YWCA Halifax executive director Miia Suokonautio said rent supplements can't address the complex reasons struggle to find housing. (CBC)

Suokonautio said the YWCA was allocated five supplements in early 2019 and has not been able to use any of them. 

"We went to Housing Nova Scotia recently, where we had participants that we can't move out of our housing, and I told Housing Nova Scotia, 'Just so we're clear, I'm not asking for rent sups', because the problem is far beyond rent sups.

"We have tens of thousands of Nova Scotians who can't afford where they live. Just adding provincial money to subsidize the private market … you're throwing good money after bad."

'Subsidies inflate the market'

In a statement, the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing said there were more than 540 rent supplements assigned in 2018-19 and no unused rent supplements.

But a spokesperson for the department said it considers a rent supplement to be used when it is assigned to a person or service provider, and not necessarily when a lease is signed. 

The department also said of the 60 rent supplements assigned to service providers in 2018-19, those providers were able to secure a unit in all cases but one. 

But even when rent supplements work, advocates said they are still problematic.

"The subsidies inflate the market, we know that," said Leigh MacLean. "That's the double-edged sword of it."

Need for non-profit housing

Jim Graham, executive director of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, said the province is in "a very deep hole" when it comes to affordable housing, and that finding a way out will take more than directing money to the private market.

"We really need to focus on increasing the non-profit sector. Other provinces have a strong non-profit housing sector. Nova Scotia does not … in terms of numbers. And the thing with non-profit housing is it stays non-profit for a long, long time. So that's where the focus needs to be."

In the meantime, he said, people will continue to have "a very hard time finding affordable places to live."