Affordable housing advocates, students point to gaps in Nova Scotia housing plan

HALIFAX — Advocates for low-income renters and students in Nova Scotia are pointing out gaps in the province's plan to avoid a potential shortfall of 41,200 residential units by 2028.

The plan was announced at a news conference in Halifax on Monday.

Hannah Wood, chair of the Halifax Peninsula chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, says the province's decision not to commit to additional publicly owned homes is an "extremely weak" element in the document.

The province has previously said it will work with Ottawa to build 222 publicly owned and operated units over five years, but the advocacy group notes there's a wait-list of more than 4,900 households.

"When we have thousands of people on the wait-list ... 222 units is such a piddling amount compared to the need on that front. That's disappointing," said Wood.

She praised some of the strategy's initiatives, such as funds to train and retain more skilled tradespeople to build homes, and the intention to use provincial land to attract community and non-profit projects.

In the announcement Monday, Housing Minister John Lohr said more than $1 billion would be spent over five years on various programs. However, in an email Tuesday, his department changed the number, saying provincial spending would actually total almost $1.7 billion.

The plan says the mix of programs will help create 17,250 housing units that will be "more affordable" over five years, stating that it will support "the construction of new affordable and supportive units with housing partners."

Still, Wood said many of the partnerships "were actually the idea of not-for-profit organizations ... and are already underway or completely planned. So (the government) is not really giving us anything new about not-for-profit partnerships."

Wood also pointed to elements unlikely to bring results, such as the government's statement it will "encourage" tenants with disabilities to team up with their landlords to apply for funding to make their apartments accessible. She said unless the government forces landlords to take these steps, it's highly unlikely they would voluntarily spend time and money applying for the funding.

A housing needs assessment, also released Monday, indicated that the current pace of housing construction in Nova Scotia is about 6,000 units per year, or 30,000 over five years, less than half of the 71,000 units that will be needed by 2028. Wood questioned why there aren't measures requiring private developers to ensure a portion of the 30,000 units are affordable housing.

Georgia Saleski, director of Students Nova Scotia, said she's glad the province's plan identifies a need for a separate student housing strategy, but wants that document delivered soon.

The provincial plan noted, "Through the province's first multi-year student housing strategy, we will create new housing options for students and collaborate with institutions to identify solutions to advance construction of new on and off-campus housing units."

Saleski noted the province's housing assessment showed that the student housing situation is dire, with about nine per cent of student respondents to a public survey saying they're "unhoused." It also says that close to half of students had gone without groceries in order to pay their rent.

Given these figures, she argued a specific set of measures for the province's 59,000 post-secondary students is urgent. "We are often told that it will be coming out soon. But at this point there has been no new information in the past few months," she said.

The students' group has already made a series of recommendations to the province, including calling for each of the province's campuses to create a housing plan, and for the creation of an information system, where support to find housing is provided to students before they arrive at classes.

The government’s housing strategy took up the bulk of the 50-minute question period.

Minister of Advanced Education Brian Wong drew fire on the student housing strategy in the legislature Wednesday, but he didn’t directly address questions on when it might be released.

Lohr was asked by reporters Wednesday about the large discrepancy between the initial estimate of the cost of the plan Monday and the $1.7-billion figure provided a day later.

“I said (at the time) that I believed it was in excess of $1 billion and when we went through the numbers carefully it was,” the minister said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.

— With files from Keith Doucette.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press