The Housing Continuum in 2022
When we first introduced the idea of the housing continuum, it was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Even though we updated it slightly in 2020 when we launched our new website, it was a still a time when we were seeing some challenges in affordable housing, but also some opportunities. The federal government’s National Housing Strategy was still fairly new, and the acute labour shortage we’re seeing now hadn’t yet begun making the news. It’s time for an update. Let’s look at the realities of today, and how they impact potential housing solutions.
Homeless in 2022
In the last few years, homelessness has become increasingly visible throughout the municipality. We saw the creation of crisis shelters, an increase in tents in municipal parks, and more people being temporarily housed in hotels. As of March 22, 502 people in Halifax were experiencing homelessness, with 382 of those people are considered chronically homeless.
Each person’s story of how they became homeless is different, but there are common threads. Some folks have fallen on hard times and are unable to keep up with all of the increases in rent, groceries, and heat. Some have moved here from other locations, experienced a change in their family status, or are dealing with a mental illness. Others still have left an institution like a hospital or incarceration, or experienced intimate partner violence or conflict with fellow residents.
Shelter spaces have been in high demand in Halifax for years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some shelters had to limit their intake to allow for more distance between users. This resulted in fewer available spaces, so the provincial government partnered to create more. The municipality also recently partnered with the province to offer a temporary winter emergency shelter. Currently, there is very little capacity in any of the emergency shelters, and many folks are instead spending time in hotels, sleeping rough, or couch surfing. Also, as we know, emergency shelters don’t work for everyone, so this is a very difficult situation.
There have been some big changes in this space. In 2021, HRM committed to opening modular housing at two sites, one in Halifax and one in Dartmouth. This transitional housing allows people to have a space of their own and access supports from a service provider. The Dartmouth units are being served by Out of the Cold. The Halifax units are not yet open.
Other housing projects funded through the Rapid Housing Initiative between the federal government and HRM, will also serve as transitional housing for several organizations. Through two rounds of funding, the creation of 137 units of supportive housing is now underway.
It is important to note that transitional housing is usually meant to lead to other, more permanent housing. Tenants move on when they reach a point where they no longer need support. Many organizations that already have transitional housing programs are struggling to help their tenants move on to other housing opportunities. There are just too few rentals that are affordable enough.
This housing is for people on a low-income who can’t afford market housing. Thousands of people across Nova Scotia are on the wait list for community housing, also known as social housing or public housing. There hasn’t been any new community housing built. However, the province has increased the number of rent supplements available for low-income households. With a rent supplement, tenants can have a portion of their rent covered each month.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Halifax was already experiencing a low vacancy rate, which was driving up the cost of rentals. Many of the most affordable rentals were older buildings, some of which had fallen into disrepair. We started to see larger companies purchasing these older buildings. Often they’ve evicted tenants so the buildings could be gutted, renovated, and rented out for higher rents. This process is well known as renoviction, and the province later banned renovictions during the state of emergency. That ban has now ended.
Since the province introduced a 2% rent cap in place until 2023, those living in affordable units have some security. That is, as long as their building isn’t being renovated. But rents are still high, and the demand for affordable units continues to outweigh the number of units available. Housing support workers report spending much more time trying to find affordable units. It’s one of the top requests for support at 211, neighbourhood hubs, and libraries across HRM.
The provincial government has also announced funding for several affordable housing projects. These units will be fulfilled by developers, who are required to rent the unit affordably for a period of time. How affordability is defined depends on the location.
Affordable Home Ownership
Affordable home ownership refers to housing programs, such as Habitat for Humanity, that allow someone to own their home while paying a mortgage equal to 30% of their income. Habitat for Humanity recently got $200,000 from the province to help build 70 more affordable homes in Spryfield. Five homes will be completed by the end of 2023, so it’s slow work. Otherwise, not much has changed for affordable home ownership. Supply chain issues and labour shortages are bringing up the cost of new development. However, there are opportunities for affordable home ownership on the horizon, including the possibility of tiny home ownership. A community land trust model is also being explored for Halifax.
Market Rental Housing
In Halifax, there is a 1% vacancy rate in market rental housing. Even with a 2% rent cap in place, the average rent for a two-bedroom unit increased by 4.5 per cent last year. While the rent cap protects tenants in existing rentals, it does not extend to new rentals. This, plus the addition of brand-new units, is driving the cost up further. With the population of Halifax growing significantly in the last two years, the demand for market rental housing has continued to increase. Developers are also facing a labour shortage that is slowing down the pace of new units.
Similarly to market rental housing, there is a high demand for market home ownership and little inventory. During the pandemic, many families from across Canada chose to move to or move back to Atlantic Canada. In fact, Halifax was the fastest growing city in the country. This higher demand for housing saw a hot real estate market in 2021 and huge increases in the value of home sales. Now in 2022, there is much less inventory but still a high demand, causing a lot of competition for a small number of homes. Many homes are selling for tens of thousands of dollars over asking.
The provincial population surpassed one million in late 2021, and the province is aiming to double that by 2060. Without an increase in housing inventory, these housing issues will persist and grow.
As you can see, Halifax’s housing continuum has changed significantly over the past few years. There’s still substantial work to be done by every order of government, as well as community partners. We’re hopeful that there’s more positive change to come. With a greater focus on housing, the needs of our community’s homeless population will be better met in the next two years.