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Affordable housing advocates call on HRM to create social housing strategy

Click to play video 'Advocates call on municipality to invest in a social housing strategy' Advocates call on municipality to invest in a social housing strategy
WATCH: Non-profit organizations are calling for the municipality to invest in a social housing strategy that will focus on increasing affordable housing stock and reduce barriers to safe and accessible housing. – Oct 7, 2020

Three non-profit housing support organizations recently hosted a mayoral debate on the topic of affordable housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Two candidates participated, Mike Savage and Max Taylor. Matt Whitman sent his regrets to the organizers.

The overall goal of the forum was to have the affordable housing crisis be top of mind for municipal election candidates and voters.

Front-line workers use the word ‘crisis’ to describe the lack of affordable housing stock in the municipality because that’s the reality they see their clients deal with every day.

“It’s not a surprise that people are living in overcrowded housing,” said Miia Suokonautio, the executive director of YWCA Halifax.

“It’s not a surprise that women stay with their abusers because they can’t afford to leave…”

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“It’s not a surprise that families are paying huge portions of their incomes on housing because they have no other options.”

READ MORE: Number of people sleeping outside growing in Halifax due to lack of affordable housing

The forum opened with Kevin Hooper, the manager of partnerships and community development with United Way Halifax, describing what the current state of affordable housing access is in the municipality.

“Rental rates are increasing by the year at about three per cent and our vacancy rate is about one per cent now which is a historical low,” Hooper said.

According to an October 2019 Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation [CHMC] report, the Halifax Peninsula is expected to see average rents continue to increase through to 2021.

The report states that’s partly because new units that are higher priced continue to inundate the rental market. Low vacancy rates are also part of why rental costs continue to rise.

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Click to play video 'Halifax homelessness rates at an all-time high, no affordable housing' Halifax homelessness rates at an all-time high, no affordable housing
Halifax homelessness rates at an all-time high, no affordable housing – Sep 11, 2020

Suokonautio says it’s important for government to separately address challenges around homelessness and struggles around housing insecurity.

While the two are connected, she says thousands of people can be dealing with housing insecurity, who aren’t necessarily experiencing homelessness.

“Those who are in either deep-housing poverty, or housing poverty. Spending anywhere from 30 to 60 per cent of their income, or more, on their rent,” she says.

READ MORE: Halifax’s rental vacancy is now below Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver: study

Suokonautio says it’s time for the municipality to create a social housing strategy that would include the purchasing of surplus land and the refurbishment of existing buildings to increase affordable housing stock.

Suokonautio says part of that strategy would mean, “the municipality waives all property taxes, waives development fees, makes land available for free, with the intention of expanding the affordable housing supply,” she said.

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During the virtual forum, Suokonautio says people were able to pose questions and share comments. She says there is a disconnect between the urgency required to address the crisis people are facing and the pace at which bureaucracy moves.

“As civil servants, there’s a sense of, ‘things take time, we’re engaged in this process.'” And, in the comments there’s people like, ‘I’m losing my place, I can’t afford my place anymore, there’s nowhere I can live,'” Suokonautio said.