Nova Scotia's next government faces uphill battle to address housing woes
There's an estimated shortfall of up to 25,000 housing units in Halifax alone
While candidates and parties are busy asking for votes during this summer's campaign, many Nova Scotians are asking, in return, for solutions to the waning affordability of housing.
The issue takes up some space in every major party platform, but the ideas vary as much as the colour of houses in Nova Scotia.
They range from rent control, which is the central tenet of the NDP platform, to new taxes for non-resident property owners, which is the proposal that takes up the bulk of the PC housing plan.
Neil Lovitt said the variation is at least partly because the housing problem is wide-ranging, and each party focuses on different areas.
"There's more than one housing crisis," said Lovitt, vice-president of planning and economic intelligence at Turner Drake & Partners, a real estate consulting firm.
One, he said, is felt mostly by those with the lowest incomes "who have been ignored and underserved for a long, long time."
That crisis, though not new, became undeniable in the past couple of years as the number of people experiencing homelessness surged across the province, exemplified by the tents and sheds that have popped up in some of Halifax's public spaces.
The other crisis that Lovitt described is one that's been developing more recently, now affecting people in middle income brackets who are feeling stretched by rising rents and may be writing off the possibility of home ownership in an increasingly pricey and fiercely competitive market.
New builds promised, but could be hard to deliver
Lovitt said increasing the supply of housing is undoubtedly part of the solution.
In Halifax alone, he estimates a shortfall of between 20,000 and 25,000 units has developed over the past five years. He arrived at the figure while doing data analysis for the province's Affordable Housing Commission earlier this year.
Every main party platform acknowledges the need to build more housing. The New Democrats have promised to build 1,000 new non-market units — a to-be-determined mix of public, non-profit and co-operative housing.
The Liberals say they would incentivize new private market builds by rebating HST if the developer includes affordable units.
The PCs say they would sell or lease public land for developers to build on, also with the caveat that a portion has to be affordable.
But no matter what approach the next government takes to growing the housing stock, correcting the shortfall will be tough, Lovitt said.
"There's been a number of years now of sustained high levels of demand. And the home-building and construction industries are really at capacity in a lot of ways that aren't just based on government restrictions or government bottlenecks," he said.
"There's construction material availability and cost issues, labour and equipment shortages … All across the supply chain [there are] a lot of constraints that are really going to be difficult to grapple with as a government because they're in many ways outside the government's control."
In the meantime, Lovitt said he expects the rental market to get tighter. The best available metric for the state of the market is the rental vacancy rate, which the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation releases retrospectively at the start of each year. In Halifax, the vacancy rate hit a record low one per cent in 2019. It rose to nearly two per cent in 2020, but Lovitt thinks that's a blip.
As pandemic restrictions subside, he said he expects the population to start growing more quickly again and the vacancy rate to dip back downward.
'I could solve any other problem'
When the market is tight, the people with the smallest budgets are squeezed out first, and they might end up working with Ashton Stephenson or someone else like him.
Stephenson is an intensive case manager with MOSH Housing First, a project based out of the North End Community Health Centre in Halifax.
His clients are people experiencing chronic homelessness. In addition to helping them find accommodations, he said a big part of his job is helping them secure other basic needs including food, clothing and medical care.
"The hardest thing to solve is the housing piece. I feel like I could solve any other problem."
Stephenson said it's no surprise there's a growing number of people living in tents and sheds around Halifax.
"I know people who are living in the tents and I know people who reach out to me for supports for people who are living in the tents. It's tough to see that that's somebody's home," he said.
Municipal and provincial responsibilities overlap when people make a home of public property. Halifax Regional Municipality has taken the position that the sheds have to go, but it's the province's job to find somewhere else for the people using the sheds to live.
CBC News asked each of the main party leaders for their thoughts on the municipality's handling of the situation and how a government under their leadership would handle the matter.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said "every openness and flexibility" should be afforded to those living in public spaces, and an NDP government would encourage the municipality to be more lenient.
PC Leader Tim Houston said he "hadn't gotten into the details" of the municipal decision to remove the sheds.
"But I know this: that as premier, I understand the crisis and will be looking for solutions that actually address it as opposed to just short, Band-Aid talking points," he said.
Rankin didn't say directly what he thought of the municipality's approach, but he said his party was committed to providing hotel rooms to anyone willing to accept one as a short-term solution until more housing could be built.
He said he expected 100 new supportive housing units to be available by September.
Different regions, different problems
Halifax is not the only part of the province that needs more housing. Dawn Ferris said there's a crisis of availability and affordability in her part of the province, too.
Ferris is the executive director of the Cumberland County Transition House Association, which runs a women's shelter in Amherst, N.S., called Autumn House.
In the four years she's lived in the region, she said she's seen rents and home prices skyrocket. Typically, women stay at Autumn House no more than six weeks, but Ferris said lately she's been regularly extending the time limit because it's taking women longer to find their next home.
At surface level, the problems in different regions may seem the same, but drilling down a bit reveals important differences.
In Cumberland County, for instance, Ferris said the lack of public transportation is exacerbating the housing crunch. Lately she's helped some women move to Moncton, N.B., or Halifax, instead of staying in their home community.
"It's a housing crisis everywhere, but when you've got public transportation to get yourself around, it's sometimes easier for people to land," she said.
Rural public transportation isn't an issue that's been taken up by any of the main political parties this election, but Ferris said it could be part of the solution in Cumberland County.
"Even if it was just three buses that ran the whole gamut of the county in the morning and then three buses that ran the gamut backwards late in the afternoon."
That isn't the only fix Ferris is looking for. She said it's clear her community needs more housing built. She's also in favour of rent control — something the NDP has been pushing hard this campaign.
The Tories and Liberals differ on that point and have said they will not extend rent control beyond the COVID-19 state of emergency.
But there's one thing they all seem to agree on. Like Ferris, every political party in Nova Scotia has used the word "crisis" to describe the state of housing. Voters will decide on Aug. 17 who among them gets to test their solutions.