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Housing advocates applaud HRM’s secondary suite approval but want more government action on affordable housing

Halifax council allows backyard suits to increase vacancy rate
Housing advocates say secondary suites vote is step in the right direction but want more action from government

Halifax Regional Council approved a motion Tuesday to allow homeowners a streamlined and barrier-free approach to building secondary or backyard suites at their homes.

It’s a move that is being applauded by housing advocates, who suggest it could provide some immediate help to bring in more affordable rental options across the municipality.

The vacancy rate in Halifax has sat at one per cent for more than a year.

Diana Devlin, executive director of Welcome Housing and Support Services, says it’s at a crisis point and there’s no indication it will change anytime soon.

Read more: Secondary and backyard suites approved by Halifax council

“If you are on the verge of an eviction we’ll definitely help you but if you’ve actually got some housing, stay where you are put,” said Devlin, which is her best advice to tenants right now.

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Devlin says council’s approval of the secondary suite motion will help but is calling on the provincial government to take a more proactive approach to address the housing crisis.

She said there’s a vacuum of sorts when it comes to leadership around the affordable housing portfolio and after Premier Stephen McNeil announced he’s stepping down there’s no indication where the government sits on its housing priorities.

“What’s on the short term horizon for housing in Nova Scotia? I’m not really sure what that is given the fact that the premier is stepping down and there’s new leadership there,” said Devlin.

Coun. Lindell Smith, the representative for Halifax Peninsula North, believes the council’s decision to adopt the secondary suites motion will provide some immediate relief to the rental crisis and points to other municipalities that have already adopted a similar policy.

“It showed in other cities that it does make it affordable if done right,” said Smith.

“So that’s the biggest thing we have to figure out now, is how to make sure that when this happens we are not just opening it up to short term rentals or landlords who are going to charge market rates for smaller units.”

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Smith agrees this is a small step at the municipal level and says more needs to be done, from all levels of government to address the lack of affordable rentals options in Halifax.

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“We need to see more government support put directly into creating affordable housing units,” said Smith. ”

For the past decade, the Housing Trust of Nova Scotia, a not-for-profit that aims to bring affordable housing options to the peninsula, have been trying to build a 115 unit housing development, that would feature a blend of market and affordable rent apartments at its property at 2183 Gottingen Street, a vacant lot sitting next to Alteregos Cafe.

Housing Trust of Nova Scotia president Ross Cantwell says 58 or the 115 units would be affordable apartment units.

“The profit we make on the market rate ones helps to subsidize the affordable ones over the long term,” said Cantwell.

But as the development project stalled through the planning and approval phases, the cost of construction materials has increased-drastically over the past decade.

“When this was initially proposed it was a $15 million project, now it’s a $25 million project,” he said.

Read more: Rally outside Nova Scotia legislature calls for extension to coronavirus eviction ban

Accessing funding from federal and provincial governments has been a challenge.

The not-for-profit needs more cash in hand to qualify for the government subsidies and so they’ve been forced into a corner and must now sell its second property at 2215 Gottingen Street, another vacant lot at the corner of Gottingen and Prince William Street.

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“It’s the same old story,” said Cantwell. “You have to spend money to make things happen.”

When the property sale is complete, the Housing Trust of Nova Scotia hopes to have the government funding in place quickly and from there Cantwell says the development project could take two years to complete.

Currently, there are 73 active permits for multi-unit residential builds in Halifax with more than five units.