Halifax’s unprecedented rental crisis

HRM spokesperson says council recognizes the need for more affordable housing.

A rental crisis has led to the lowest vacancy rate Halifax has experienced in decades. The issue has resulted in increased rent prices, precarious living and an absence of affordable housing in the city. 

After three years of record-breaking population growth in the city, Halifax’s vacancy rate for apartment rentals hit an all-time low this year at 1.6 per cent, raising the average cost of rent in the HRM from $1,027 to $1,066 per month (compared to 2018), according to a report from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).  

The provincial government amended the Nova Scotia Residential Tenancies Act earlier this year in hopes of “making the Act fairer and more balanced for both tenants and landlords,” according to Sharon Ishimwe of Communications Nova Scotia. 

Amendments to the Act focused on tenants’ abandoned personal property, agreements between landlords and co-signers and ending a lease when a tenant passes away. It also introduced rules, rights and responsibilities related to subletting and assigning leases. 

“Some of the changes had been requested by tenant groups while others had been requested by landlord groups,” said Ishimwe. 

Changes took effect in early June. 

Crisis will take several years to resolve 

Halifax South Downtown Councillor Waye Mason said he recognizes the gravity of the situation, noting the city likely hasn’t seen a rental crisis as “unprecedented […] since World War II.” 

Mason said improvements to Halifax Transit over recent years have given students more access to housing across the municipality. However, renovations, new condos and AirBnB rentals have caused increased rent and a demographic change away from students towards new professionals. 

Mason noted that council can provide density bonusing for affordable housing and could fund more affordable housing initiatives. This means there could be more benefits in terms of neighbourhood amenities if the density of the population increases.  

Brendan Elliott, Senior Communications Advisor for HRM, said in a statement: 

“While the municipality has no direct involvement in the creation of, or maintenance of, affordable housing, the mayor and council recognize the need for more affordable housing options. As such, council and staff are exploring ways to perhaps provide incentives to developers to include affordable housing options when designing and building new inventory in the municipality.” 

Mason predicted the crisis will take time to sort out, as “we don’t have the supply to keep up with the demands.” He said the building process can take several years.   

Rent control should be a priority 

While municipalities in Ontario and Quebec are responsible for delivering housing to constituents, the provincial government in Nova Scotia controls that responsibility.  

Premier Stephen McNeil wrote in a statement, “I’ve always believed housing is one of the single biggest issues facing people on low incomes. 

“We have seen a reduction in the public housing waitlist and will continue working to improve access to safe and accessible housing across our province.” 

On the other hand, Michael Noonan, Communications Director of the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services, wrote in a brief email “in Nova Scotia, rental rates are set by market conditions and government has no plans to change that at this time.” 

Krista Higdon, Media Relations Advisor for the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing, noted the Liberal government provides rent supplements to 2,300 low-income individuals and families in an effort to reduce the public housing waitlist and increase the number of affordable housing units in the province. 

“In 2018-19 [in HRM], housing support workers served 1168 households,” wrote Higdon, “providing support to transition from homelessness to housing to 338 households and providing eviction prevention services such as landlord mediation and connection to community supports for 307 households.” 

Provincial Conservative Leader MLA Tim Houston said in a statement, “a person’s home is their sanctuary and everyone has the right to expect to be able to find housing that provides safety and security. We all want that.” 

Houston noted he is happy with the current Liberal government’s acknowledgement of the issue and efforts to provide affordable housing, while adding “the government can’t lose track of the larger issues,” focused on the economy and Nova Scotians being unable to make ends meet. 

Gary Burrill, Leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, said the two core issues surrounding the crisis revolve around the lack of rent control legislation and regulation regarding short-term rentals like AirBnB.  

“At the moment, people who convert properties for rental into AirBnBs, don’t have to pay any property tax on that,” Burrill said, “they don’t have to pay any fees, it’s entirely unregulated and this is plainly not what we want.” 

A private bill drafted by the NDP Caucus last September aimed to implement rent control, restricting rent increases to 0.8 per cent in the first year. However, it has not been brought forward to the Legislature by the McNeil Government. 

Hugh Fraser, Director of Communications at the Nova Scotia Department of Business, wrote in an email statement that the legislation regarding short-term rentals (the Tourist Accommodations Registration Act) was unanimously passed in the provincial legislature in March of 2019. According to Fraser, the government will be consulting with the public and “changes are expected to take effect in time for the 2020 tourism season.” 

The subjectivity of “affordable housing” 

While the Canadian Government recognizes housing affordable at rental or housing costs under 30 per cent of an individual’s income, Michelle Goats, a housing support worker and anti-poverty activist, emphasized that this depends on being above low-income. “What affordable housing means to me might be different from what it means to you,” said Goats. 

As an organizer for emergency winter shelter Out of the Cold Halifax, Goats is concerned about the loss of affordable housing in HRM.  

“When I’m talking about affordable housing,” Goats said, “I’m talking about housing that is affordable for low-income people, so people that live on low-income wages, […] people that live on income assistance. Income assistance has really inadequate rates of shelter so it’s pretty hard to find adequate housing.” 

Goats believes “invisible” homelessness is a byproduct of the rental crisis. Invisible homelessness refers to people who are essentially homeless but do not realize it. She said some may be couch-surfing or staying at an apartment where they have no key, lease, or tenant rights.  

Those in precarious living situations, Goats said, are more vulnerable to living in unsafe or unhealthy rentals. They may be unable to advocate for their tenant rights. She points to some apartments in Dartmouth North, available for as low as $595, that are unsuitable for living.  

Goats said she has even seen bedroom doors being used as front doors – endangering the safety and security of tenants. 

While the rental crisis has generally been framed as a housing crisis, Goats believes it’s really a tenancy rights crisis. 

Legal literacy essential to tenant tights  

Lisa Cameron, a labour activist in Halifax, recently moved from Toronto and said she immediately realized the distinction between Ontario and Nova Scotia tenants’ rights. Having taken over a fixed-term lease, Cameron was ineligible for rights and protections that would normally have been provided under a year-to-year lease. When she reached out to Dal Legal Aid for assistance, she said the service was unfamiliar with fixed-term leases.  

Cameron believes landlords are taking advantage of fixed-term leases and that legal literacy is essential to combating this crisis and giving more rights back to tenants. 

The Dalhousie Legal Aid Tenant Guide offers a template laying out people’s rights as a tenant in Nova Scotia in an effort to make the Residential Tenancies Act more comprehensible.  The legal clinic provides students and low-income community members with assistance and resources for knowing their rights.  

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