Nova Scotia

Province says it knows little about its public housing stock, but promises reform

Nova Scotia’s deputy minister of housing acknowledges the government has little information about the public housing it owns, but he’s committing to address that as his department tries to reduce a wait-list of more than 6,000 applications.

Legislation to overhaul public housing governance is a year or more away, says deputy minister

Paul LaFleche, the deputy minister of housing, was a witness at Wednesday's public accounts committee meeting at Province House. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Nova Scotia's deputy minister of housing acknowledges the government has little information about the public housing it owns, but he's committing to address that as his department tries to reduce a wait-list of more than 6,000 applications — almost half of whom are seniors.

Paul LaFleche and other provincial housing officials appeared before the legislature's public accounts committee on Wednesday. The meeting followed an auditor general's report last week highlighting a lack of proper oversight and governance of provincially-owned housing.

LaFleche said his department is working on a governance overhaul for public housing, but it will require legislation and dealing with 10 collective agreements across five unions connected to the five housing authorities in the province.

Although that work could take up to a year and a half, LaFleche said his department is doing everything else it can without legislation to act on recommendations in the auditor general's report. That includes creating a uniform application process and understanding the true nature of the wait-list.

'Things, hopefully, are changing for the better'

Of the 6,000 applications, LaFleche estimated that only about half are in immediate need. Of those, he said, the department must develop new approaches for prioritizing people based on need.

"If people really need housing for emergency reasons, we've got to do our best to get them in," he told reporters following the meeting.

Work is also happening to gather better data about the stock the province owns, he said. That includes the quality, type, when it becomes vacant and how long it takes to renovate it.

"We've not known these — apparently — for a long, long time," said LaFleche, who was appointed to his current role in September. "Things, hopefully, are changing for the better."

Lack of data a surprise for opposition

NDP housing critic Suzy Hansen said it's both a problem and surprise that the department would know so little about its own properties.

"You're running a housing corporation," she said in an interview. "How do you not know when someone is moving out? How do you not know when you need to renovate it? Like, these are all major pieces in why we're slowing down the units and why we don't have units for people."

The auditor general's report found up to 1,500 public housing units are being used by people who could use smaller units. The government has committed to addressing that, as well as taking less time to process applications. The province also recently announced swaths of land across the province it's making available for development.

Liberal MLA Derek Mombourquette said he's watching to see whether recent steps announced by the government to spur housing development and support organizations will help cut into a housing crisis gripping all parts of the province.

"They've made a number of commitments," he told reporters at Province House. "The question will be, will they follow through on them?"

Although LaFleche and Housing Minister John Lohr have talked about using the private and co-op sectors to develop as much new housing as possible, Hansen and Mombourquette said the demand is so great that the province must also be prepared to add to its own housing stock.

Looking at the level of need

Hansen also wants to see the government immediately begin using a first-right-of-refusal approach for surplus buildings that become available or other properties that hit the open market.

"We have tons of buildings and tons of spaces that we could be, you know, retrofitting to create homes for people that need it now while we're waiting two to three years to build that housing for those families."

On Wednesday, the department released a breakdown by housing authority of applications and average wait times for public housing:

  • Metro: 2,531 applications; 2.42 years on wait-list.

  • Western: 1,737 applications; 2.18 years on wait-list.

  • Cape Breton: 751 applications; 2.12 years on wait-list.

  • Cobequid: 650 applications; 2.15 years on wait-list.

  • Eastern Mainland: 482 applications; 2.36 years on wait-list.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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