Keys to tackling the affordable housing crisis in Nova Scotia

Like access to food, clean water, and health care, access to housing is a fundamental right to which all people are entitled.

We all agree that there is an affordable housing crisis in Nova Scotia. We may, however, disagree on what causes the crisis and thus the solutions needed to address it.

To illustrate this point, we compare the Housing for All report we released (May 25) and a report released a week later by the government-appointed Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission.

One major difference between the two reports is the starting point.

The Housing for All report seeks to provide recommendations to ensure that everyone has meaningful access to safe, permanently affordable, secure, supported, and adequate housing in Nova Scotia—as a right. We conclude that this requires governments to massively invest in non-market housing (co-operative, non-profit and public/social).

The priorities in the Housing for All report are, first, to address the crisis facing many thousands currently without any place to call their own and who are living on the streets, couch surfing or staying in shelters.

To prevent further homelessness, we prioritize providing housing and income support for those in accommodations that they cannot afford, or which are not safe, adequate or properly maintained.

For people with disabilities who are unnecessarily institutionalized, there is a double human rights obligation to urgently address the lack of accessible housing that accommodates their needs to live barrier-free.

As housing becomes even more unaffordable in areas located close to employment, services, and amenities, it pushes many out of their communities, isolating them because they don’t have access to affordable public transportation or jobs that pay enough or because income assistance is too low. We prioritize housing and housing supports for them.

While we commend the commission for acknowledging that housing is a human right, its recommendations do not have the scale, nor the urgency required to make this abstract principle into a concrete commitment. Instead, it seeks to balance housing as “a human right and an economic driver” while leaving out critical issues around who owns and controls assets, profit-seeking and long-term affordability.

In contrast, the Housing for All report underlines that one of the causes of the housing crisis is that the rental market in this province has become very attractive to financialized landlords due to the lack of regulatory protections for tenants, such as permanent rent control, which is why we recommend regulating the market(the commission does not).

Where a market approach to housing, like the one employed by the commission, puts the ability to pay for a home above the need for homes for all, a rights-based approach puts the health and dignity of Nova Scotia residents first.

Where a market approach to housing, like the one employed by the commission, puts the ability to pay for a home above the need for homes for all, a rights-based approach puts the health and dignity of Nova Scotia residents first. A shelter is not a home, nor is an apartment in which tenants are provided inadequate infrastructure or forced to spend over half their income to remain housed.

This commitment, as the Housing for All report recommends, must be made in a legislative framework that recognizes the right to housing and which works to end homelessness (excluded from the Commission report) and ensure that every Nova Scotian has a place to live which is affordable (defined as shelter costs equal to or less than 30% of total before-tax household income), as well as secure, safe, adequate and supported, over an achievable timeline (we recommend 10 years). This would make the province’s commitment concrete and protect this important rights-based approach against election outcomes and changes in political priorities.

Such an approach not only needs clear targets to end homelessness and achieve affordable housing for all, within a given time frame, but regular reporting to the legislature. We recommend oversight by a provincial Housing for All Council, to include no more than one private sector developer or business interest but would consist, instead, of community-based housing providers and tenant representatives from across the province.

The Housing for All report, unlike the commission, prioritizes tenant protections, which are necessary if, as the commission concurs, we approach housing as a human right. So many Nova Scotians are housing insecure: they have very little protection to support them to stay in their current housing in the face of evictions and rising rents, or even to move to a more suitable location. Unlike the commission, the Housing for All report makes recommendations for specific, immediate actions needed to protect renters. One immediate action is for fixed term leases to convert into month-to-month leases, another is for the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) to include a compliance and enforcement division, which would include employing staff across all regions of the province to ensure that minimum health, safety and accessibility standards, as well as rent control, are established and enforced.

Another major difference is the level of investment needed, with the Housing for All report recommending a $531 million capital investment this year, as well as every year for the next 10 years, as well an average of $161 million each of these years in operating spending. The report also set specific targets for how many new units of housing should be created and provides a road map for how to cover these costs. These include cost savings from de-institutionalizing those with disabilities (as living in community is far less expensive), by eliminating the Energy Rebate program, and allowing for new revenue by, for example, augmenting the capital gains inclusion rate from 50% to 100% (because a dollar should be a dollar for all tax purposes). Of course, providing safe and affordable housing is an upstream approach that also decreases expenditures in policing and emergency health services, and this investment can and must be done even without any revenue changes.

The commission recommends that government spend $25 million within 100 days to increase the supply of, and access to “affordable housing”—a term which they did not define. It is troubling, however, that the premier has said he is not even ready to commit to this. Does he not see the urgency?

Government inaction has a cost; housing insecurity affects people’s health, and it also downloads the costs onto individuals who are forced to go further into personal debt themselves.

Government inaction has a cost; housing insecurity affects people’s health, and it also downloads the costs onto individuals who are forced to go further into personal debt themselves.

The government’s harmful obsession for getting back to balance is a political choice, not an economic or fiscal imperative, and is irresponsible given the need in our community. Moreover, this kind of infrastructure investment helps support the economy as we come out of the pandemic, and with such low interest rates, it is a missed opportunity.

The Housing for All report concludes that what is needed is to build or acquire, with public and community ownership, more than 30,000 units of affordable housing—enough to respond to those in core housing need. Co-operative housing has a long-standing history in our province and should be supported to expand, as more units are built and acquired.

We disagree with the commission’s approach to offer financial incentives and partnerships with the private sector to operate and own affordable housing units. Also contrary to the commission, we do not think that public housing should be sold to the private sector, because this will spell loss of a major public asset that all Nova Scotians own.

There is a need to ensure public housing neighbourhoods are adequately serviced, that units are kept in good repair, that tenants have meaningful opportunities to participate in decision-making in their buildings, neighbourhoods, and housing authority levels. The evidence tells us that selling these public assets to the private sector, employing ‘business-like' practices, charging higher rents, and using ‘mixed-model’ developments with time limits for ‘affordable’ units will end up displacing low-income tenants and result in a net loss of permanently affordable units.

The Housing for All report maintains that the affordable housing crisis is not just about the lack of affordable housing, it is also about a lack of income—almost one quarter of all renters have household incomes below $20,000. The affordable housing crisis is also about a lack of services, and discrimination. We recommend: substantially increasing income assistance to bring people to the poverty line, raising the minimum wage, and ensuring addictions and mental health services are available. African Nova Scotians have faced dispossession of their land and we owe, as an act of reparations, the assurance that housing solutions address continuing racism as well as the legacy of enslavement. Similarly, Indigenous renters living off-reserve lack affordable housing, in good condition, and safe and appropriate supports.

A final area of difference between the two reports concerns the emphasis the Housing for All report places on social inclusion. Housing not only involves the creation of units, but also supports for people who need them, provided by staff who earn living wages. As a second example, community-based, affordable housing for individuals with disabilities provides opportunities to participate in everyday opportunities versus what is experienced in institutionalized environments. Third, making sure refugee claimants are eligible for public housing means they are welcome in our province, rather than excluded.

Like access to food, clean water, and health care, access to housing is a fundamental right to which all people are entitled—our housing policies should reflect that principle.

It is time we ensure that everyone in Nova Scotia has a housing secure future, which is critical for their health and our collective community’s well-being.

Catherine Leviten-Reid, Cape Breton University and Christine Saulnier, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-NS are co-leads of the Housing for All Working Group.

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