Nova Scotia

Population boom squeezes Halifax vacancy rate back to 1%

The big influx of people to Nova Scotia from other provinces is being identified as a major reason for a further tightening of the rental market in Halifax. The city's one per cent vacancy rate is among the lowest in the country.

Vacancy rate is among lowest in Canada and matches the city's 2019 rate

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says interprovincial migration in 2021 to Nova Scotia was the highest it's been in more than 30 years, creating even more competition for rental units. (Robert Short/CBC)

The big influx of people to Nova Scotia from other provinces is being identified as a major reason for a further tightening of the home rental market in Halifax.

The city now has a one per cent vacancy rate, which is one of the lowest in the country, according to a report released Friday by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

"If I were moving to Halifax right now looking to rent an apartment I would expect to be put on a wait list to be honest," said Chris Janes, a senior analyst in economics with CMHC.

While the vacancy rate was 1.9 per cent in 2020, it was one per cent the year before that.

The CMHC rental market report says interprovincial migration in 2021 to Nova Scotia was the highest it's been in more than 30 years, creating even more competition for apartment rentals.

Senior CMHC analyst Chris Janes says the bulk of people moving to Nova Scotia from other provinces are from Ontario and Alberta. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

"If we look at the details of the interprovincial migration, over half is that 20 to 49 group, which is considered core working age in Canada," Janes said. "Primarily I think it is people who are remote workers and have the ability to sit at a computer screen anywhere in Canada and do their work."

Nova Scotia's high COVID-19 vaccination rates and low COVID case numbers also made the province appealing to people from bigger and more crowded cities, Janes said.

The average monthly price of a two-bedroom apartment in Halifax jumped by 4.8 per cent to $1,335.

'It's beyond what I can afford,' says renter

None of the findings are a surprise to 53-year-old Tim Lewis, who until recently had been looking for a place to rent for more than three months.

"Availability for affordable places for somebody like myself on a minimum wage is nil," he said. "One-bedroom apartments are going for $900 plus utilities, it's beyond what I can afford."

Lewis looked for a room to rent instead, but found those were also getting snapped up quickly.

He unsuccessfully searched Kijiji for rentals daily, but said he recently managed to find a room for rent on March 1.

Janes said 1,600 new apartments were completed in Halifax last year.

"We need to see much more new apartment construction coming to the market than what we have seen to help alleviate that issue and make it more easy for prospective tenants to find an apartment," he said.

Rent cap not helping, says property owners association

An organization that speaks for property owners in Nova Scotia says while new buildings are being completed, a much bigger supply is needed to address the pressure on the market.

But it warns that's going to be difficult under current conditions.

"The government policy, like the three-year rent cap, will discourage people from building more rental housing and even worse, many small landlords are looking to get out and sell their properties," said Kevin Russell, the executive director of the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia, which has about 160 members.

He said rising inflation and higher insurance costs are significantly increasing expenses.

Russell said the two per cent rent cap in place until 2023 makes it a "hostile" environment for developers.

Government working to address 'housing crisis'

In a statement provided to CBC News, the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing said it knows the only way to improve affordability in the market is by increasing housing supply but that it also needs to protect tenants during the current housing crisis.

The rent cap, it said, means people will be able to afford their rents while work on increasing the supply continues.

The department acknowledged the report highlights factors it recognizes and is working on.

Investments in affordable housing units are already happening, the statement said, alongside other measures such as the creation of the HRM Housing Task Force.

Calls for more social housing

There are renewed calls for greater investments in social housing following Friday's report.

Mark Culligan with Dalhousie Legal Aid service was part of the Housing For All Working Group that made 95 recommendations to the provincial government last year.

Culligan, who represents tenants in legal disputes with landlords, says the current crisis pre-dates the rent cap and in part is the result of several governments failing to address the issue.

He wants to see a plan to build at least 33,490 social housing units over the next 10 years at an estimated capital investment of $531 million. 

"That's the difference between a healthy vacancy rate and an unhealthy vacancy rate, between an affordable and unaffordable rental market," Culligan said. "That's what we need to balance out the market conditions for the people who are most vulnerable."

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