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A growing city with growing unaffordability: How Halifax’s cost of living is ‘affecting everyone’

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WATCH: How people in the Maritimes are being impacted by the rising price of gas prices this month. – Mar 18, 2021

The past couple of years have seen an explosion in the cost of housing, food, and, more recently, fuel.

There hasn’t been, however, a similar spike in wages — and now, even people who make a so-called “living wage” in Halifax are struggling.

The rising cost of living in Nova Scotia’s capital city, which once had a reputation for its relative affordability, is quickly outpacing its residents.

“It’s affecting everyone at this point,” said Hailie Tattrie, a PhD student and organizer with the activist group Justice for Workers.

Read more: New report shows minimum wage in Halifax area needs to be nearly $10 more

“There are folks who make minimum wage and they’ve been struggling, so of course they’re the hardest hit by this rising cost of living and stagnant wages.

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“But we are starting to see more and more folks who would make what we consider a decent wage … they’re struggling too.”

Justice for Workers is a new name for an old movement.

The Fight for $15 and Fairness movement recently rebranded after conversations about how they’ve been fighting for a $15 minimum wage for so long, it’s no longer enough to keep up with the rising cost of living.

Hailie Tattrie with Justice for Workers says wages have not kept up with the cost of living and many people are struggling. Submitted by Hailie Tattrie

Nova Scotia does plan to increase its minimum wage to $15 — by 2024. That’s not nearly enough, said Tattrie.

“That’s another two years away, and by that point, goodness knows how expensive housing will be, groceries, the price of fuel,” she said.

“($15) is not enough now, and it’s certainly not going to be enough in 2024.”

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Read more: N.S. government accepts recommended minimum wage increase to $13.35 per hour

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates the living wage in Halifax to be $22.05. The living wage is what a person would need to earn to support their family and pay for all basic necessities, with the current cost of goods and housing considered.

Tattrie said she is fortunate to be making more than a living wage, but she still struggles sometimes to make ends meet.

“Wages are not matching the rising cost of living. Not even close. I don’t know how they expect folks to survive,” she said.

“I cannot begin to imagine how someone who’s on minimum wage is making this work.”

‘When people are pushed financially, they’re worse off’

Lars Osberg, a professor of economics at Dalhousie University, said the rising cost of living is especially hard on people who are on low and fixed incomes — but people from multiple income levels are struggling to keep up.

“People who are looking at rent, food and fuel are looking at expenses that they find really hard to avoid, and those costs are going up,” he said.

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These challenges are not unique to Halifax. Factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have affected the cost of goods and services worldwide.

Click to play video: 'The Rising Cost of Living: What is inflation?' The Rising Cost of Living: What is inflation?
The Rising Cost of Living: What is inflation? – Mar 7, 2022

As a whole, Osberg said Canada is faring better than other, poorer countries, but many people are still struggling to keep up with the cost of living.

One of the major issues is that of housing. Osberg said while increased housing costs are being seen across the country, Halifax has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates.

“Not that it’s great in other parts of the country,” he acknowledged, “but it’s worse here than it is in many other places.”

Read more: Halifax rental vacancy rate drops to 1%, among lowest in the country

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He said that having a population under economic stress leads to a “whole bunch of social problems” — not just in an economic sense, but in a personal and familial sense as well.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘economy,’ in a sense, because it’s really about people,” he said. “And when people are pushed financially, they’re worse off.”

While discussing the cost of living, Osberg said people often focus on the prices of the things they purchase, rather than the income with which they can buy those things.

The crux of the issue is due to inadequate incomes, he said: the majority of money being made is going to those at the top of the income distribution spectrum, while “hardly at all” is going to those in the middle and bottom.

“If your income is going up faster than the cost of living, then you’re OK, right?” he said. “So the real issue is distribution of income.”

Read more: Halifax outreach worker expecting ‘huge jump’ in numbers in upcoming homelessness survey

Tattrie agreed.

“It’s not that the money’s just disappearing and going into thin air,” she said of why many people are struggling to get by.

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“Our money’s, in a way, being stolen from us under this capitalistic system — as we see these CEOs, these billionaires making massive amounts of money while the rest of us struggle.”

She said it can be easy for people to feel anxiety and despair over their economic situation, and encouraged people to use those emotions by joining groups like Workers for Justice and advocating for better working conditions.

“Take that anger, take that sadness, all those feelings you’re feeling — channel it into action,” she said.

“It’s time to do it now. People are frustrated, so get involved.”

Growing pains

In an interview Tuesday, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said he is concerned about the rising cost of living in the city, and said he recognizes the “burdens that people face.”

“On a more positive note,” he offered, “the economy’s going well, jobs are at an all-time high — but that doesn’t help people who are struggling to get by.”

Savage noted that Halifax is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. It’s also the capital city of one of the fastest-growing provinces: in the last five years, the province’s population grew by five per cent to reach 969,383 residents.

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Read more: ‘Remarkable turnaround’: Census figures show the Maritimes are growing rapidly

This growth has led to more businesses opening, and more jobs being created, he said. But still, there are growing pains.

“We want to grow as a city,” he said.

“We also want to deal with the challenges of growth – which are better than the challenges of not-growth – but they do create challenges and we have to be aware of those.”

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage says the city’s growth is a good thing, but acknowledges it’s created some challenges.

In terms of dealing with those challenges, he said Halifax has been working toward that for “a long time.” The city’s centre plan should help make it easier for housing to get built and “drives affordability through the process,” Savage said.

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He also said the city is taking “unprecedented” action to build emergency housing and has given land to not-for-profit organizations. Transit is also free for eligible income assistance clients.

“So we’re trying to make those things over which we have control more affordable for people who are really struggling,” he said, adding the city will release an economic strategy “very shortly” which would focus on inclusive and sustainable growth.

“Taking into account the importance of both the environment, and the fact that we need to create more opportunities for more people, and not just for those who were doing well already,” said Savage.

Read more: ‘Significant moment’ as Nova Scotia’s population surpasses 1 million

In terms of the wage issue, he said he encourages local businesses to raise wages, “keeping in mind that a lot of businesses that have been hurt by the pandemic as well.”

“I certainly encourage people, but we have businesses that in some cases are just hanging on as it is. They can’t be expected to carry the whole burden of the recovery,” he said.

Savage said despite the challenges of the last two years, he believes 2022 will be a “good year” for the city — especially with the return of tourism and the economic advantages that brings.

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“My hope is that everybody will be able to make the kind of income that they need to survive in a growing city at a time when it’s difficult for all cities in Canada,” said Savage.

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