During the recent municipal election, affordable housing was cited as a top priority for nearly everyone running.
For those who work in the housing sector, it comes as no surprise. With just a one per cent vacancy rate across HRM, many consider the municipality to be in the middle of a housing crisis.
“We’ve always had a problem with rent levels being on par with what people below the poverty line are making and have for household income,” said Charlene Gagnon with YWCA Halifax.
“But now we’re even seeing it affect some entry-level professionals and folks who are even low- to middle-income earners who are having trouble paying the rent because of the housing market pressures.”
The housing issue was brought to the forefront during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, where people were encouraged to stay home, which was especially problematic for those without a home.
“The pandemic has amplified vulnerabilities. We’re really getting a sense of the depth of the homeless problem in Halifax,” said Gagnon.
In previous years, single-day counts of the homeless population were around 200 people, but this year when the count was completed on Oct. 9, the homeless population was 493.
“So a lot of people became homeless where they were homeless before, but they became visibly homeless,” said Gagnon.
The problem is not exclusive to Halifax, and to help cities across the country with affordable housing, the federal government is putting $1 billion towards a Rapid Housing Initiative.
Half of that is being split up among 15 major cities where affordable housing and homelessness has been identified as an issue. Among them is the Halifax Regional Municipality, which is receiving $8.7 million.
“It’s both a challenge and an opportunity,” said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.
The challenge is that municipalities have just a month to submit their proposals to the federal government for how they’re going to use the funds, and then the projects must be completed within a year.
“They are very tight timelines, but on the other hand, the need is pressing so let’s do it,” Savage said.
Diana Devlin with Welcome Housing and Support Services says one way to meet the quick turnaround time is to invest in modular housing, where units are built off-site, and then brought into a vacant or newly vacant property.
“Given that there’s so little land still free to be developed, being able to take a small plot or building and wipe it out and put in modular housing (is an option),” said Devlin.
“Between the time a site is identified and (when) people can move into their units, those projects can get built in six months’ time.”
But Devlin admits that it can be a challenge. While modular homes have been successful in places like Vancouver, Nova Scotia doesn’t have the same kind of companies that specialize in modular housing.
“But I do know there are some companies in Atlantic provinces that are eager to get involved in this kind of modular development,” said Devlin.
Regardless of how the city decides to proceed, Devlin says the funding won’t solve the housing crisis.
“This is a drop in the bucket — it’s nowhere near what we’re going to need.”
But there is still an opportunity for more funding. In addition to the $500 million being given to the major cities, the federal government has set aside an additional $500 million for project streams, which will be based on applications from provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous governing bodies and organizations, and non-profit organizations.
“It’s a good start,” said Gagnon.
“It’s definitively not going to cover everybody, but it’s definitely a good start in terms of an injection into the infrastructure.”
While it is ultimately up to the municipality to decide how to spend the funding, Savage says he will be working closely with those in the housing sector to figure out how to proceed.
“There’s a number of organizations that, in my view, know how to do housing so I don’t think there will be a shortage of projects,” said Savage.
“We want to make sure the money isn’t tied up in bureaucracy.”