No Vacancy

Halifax’s rock-bottom vacancy rates are making housing harder to find for our city’s most vulnerable. Here’s how we can fix it.

In June 2019, the federal government passed Bill C-97 — the National Housing Strategy Act — and declared that housing is a fundamental right for all Canadians. The announcement was accompanied by long-awaited funding for the National Housing Strategy. For many, it felt like a watershed moment in the movement to ensure all Canadians have safe, affordable housing.

But across Canada and right here in Halifax, Canadians are still facing more barriers to decent housing than ever. How do we know? Because we’ve got the numbers.

In 2018/19, Halifax was one of the fastest growing cities in Canada. It grew by 2.2 per cent, adding nearly 10,000 new residents — mostly new immigrants or Canadians from other provinces. But according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), that growth also put an unprecedented strain on housing. Vacancy rates for rental apartments plummeted to 1% citywide (down from 1.6% in 2018 and 2.6% in 2017).

How does this effect rental costs?

Low supply and high demand has sent rents soaring. The average monthly rent in HRM was $1,113 in 2019, up 3.8% from 2018. At the same time, a couple with two children, surviving on income assistance, receives only $1,193 per month. A single person with no dependents receives $850. That makes obvious the challenge of providing not just housing but food, clothing, transportation, and more.

And minimum wage in Nova Scotia, at $12.55 per hour, is far below what’s considered a living wage ($19.17 per hour) in Halifax. This means many low-income earners are forced to live farther and farther from their work. That can disconnect them from important services, and lead to longer, more expensive commutes. Young people, female-led lone-parent families, newcomers and marginalized populations are particularly likely to struggle.

What can we do?

Fortunately, there’s a lot that we as a community can do to help make safe, decent, affordable housing accessible to everyone. Here are some:

Businesses and Employers
  • Firstly, Halifax needs more housing, plain and simple. All those cranes in the sky mean more places to live, but construction is still not keeping pace with demand. And very little newly built, private-sector development is affordable for those on low incomes. The non-profit sector could take advantage of government programs and funding to create new units if it had more capital and support. Non-profits often are concerned about taking on more debt. Developers and businesses related to housing could provide capital to better support those organizations.
  • Employers can offer more livable wages. As mentioned above, the living wage in Halifax is far above the legal minimum wage. Other efforts employers can make include supplementing the cost of transit passes for commuting employees, or a mobile phone for jobs that require it.
Government Support
  • City council can make it easier to add “gentle density,” such as backyard suites and secondary suites. Putting them in established residential areas could add more housing options throughout the city. The city’s upcoming Centre Plan will allow more flexibility for property owners in the regional centre to add these kinds of housing options. This isn’t the case in many suburban parts of Halifax, though.
  • The province and city can do more to regulate short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb. Many building owners are converting apartments into short-term vacation rentals, reducing our rental housing stock further. It’s also putting upward pressure on prices. A study released in November 2019 found that at that time, short-term rentals had removed 740 apartments from the Halifax market — mostly in the city’s urban core, where the affordable-housing need is particularly great. Some cities in Canada, including Ottawa and Toronto, have made it illegal for individuals to purchase multiple properties for use as short-term rentals, creating what are sometimes called “ghost hotels” that reduce rental housing available to locals.
  • Finally, the provincial government can take the lead to build more affordable public housing, and better maintain what already exists, rather than rely largely on rent subsidies. When there is a high demand for rental units, it’s considerably harder for non-profit housing-support workers to find suitable, stable homes for people relying solely on subsidies.
Do you have ideas?

We know these ideas aren’t the only ones for increasing housing availability in our city. If you have ideas, and you think we could help, please reach out. We’d love to hear your thoughts!