What is the housing continuum?

Affordable housing is getting harder to find for thousands of people in our community. The housing continuum helps us better understand the challenges we face.

If you’ve never heard of the housing continuum, you’re not alone. But this simple concept helps illustrate one of the biggest challenges facing Halifax.

The housing continuum is, at its simplest, the range of housing types available in a community — from emergency shelters on one end, all the way to homeownership on the other. In between lies an assortment of housing options and types, each critically important for different people at different times.

Let’s break it down:

Emergency Shelter

Some people find themselves at this point in the continuum after losing their home due to eviction, domestic violence or a family dispute. Others end up here after exiting some type of institutional housing, such as foster care, a hospital or incarceration. An emergency shelter is designed to offer short-term crisis support. But there are people in our community who are dependent on them for longer periods of chronic homelessness.

United Way Halifax supports shelters including Bryony House, Alice House and YWCA Halifax’s program, Supportive Housing for Young Mothers. We have also supported shelters in the community through our COVID-19 response and through our role on the Housing and Homelessness Partnership.


Transitional Housing

Transitional housing is a temporary solution that aims to bridge the gap from homelessness to permanent housing. Many of the people who live in transitional housing use it for support, structure or treatment. Examples include addiction treatment or mental-health support. We support some of these too, including Marguerite Centre and Freedom Foundation.


Community Housing

Community housing is also known as social housing or subsidized housing. This is housing for people living on low incomes who can’t afford market-rate apartments. Community housing can include purpose-built low-income housing developments, subsidized units in market-rate buildings, or market-rate apartments paid for in part by provincial rent supplements.

Unfortunately, a lot of the social housing stock in Canada has fallen into poor repair, and hasn’t expanded at the pace that’s needed. Rent supplements, allowing people to rent market-rate apartments, have helped ease that burden (tenants pay an amount of rent proportional to their income, and a provincial subsidy to the landlord covers the rest).

However, landlords aren’t required to accept rent supplements. Also, a shortage of affordable and non-profit housing has become a growing issue in Halifax. With more than 2,500 households on the public-housing waiting list in Nova Scotia, some people end up waiting years. That means they may find themselves struggling for too long at one end of the housing continuum, or paying more than they can afford.


Affordable Rentals

What counts as affordable housing? It’s pretty simple, actually: According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a household that spends less than 30 percent of pre-tax income on shelter is considered to be in affordable housing. Housing costs above that threshold eat into income that can be spent on other necessities like food, transportation, a phone, and personal savings. The definition of affordability is different for everyone and depends on their income. As cities like Halifax become more expensive, affordable rentals for low-income earners are harder to find.

In the past, rooming houses were a major source of affordable rentals, and today, inexpensive basement and studio apartments continue to provide some affordable rental stock. But even these are getting more expensive, and in many cases being turned into short-term rentals for platforms like Airbnb.

That means we need more creative answers to providing more affordable rental stock.


Affordable Home Ownership

Just as with affordable rentals, affordable home ownership costs should be less than 30 percent of income — which makes it hard for low-income earners to own their own home. But there is help out there, including non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and government programs to assist with down payments. There are also programs to help low-income homeowners make their home more energy efficient.


Market Rental Housing

Market rental housing is where landlords choose what they want to charge. There is no subsidy or discount for those who have lower incomes. Halifax’s market-rental rates remain relatively affordable by Canadian standards — but they continue to get more expensive every year.


Market Home Ownership

Market home ownership is un-subsidized. Owners are responsible for paying for and maintaining their properties. As with market-rate rentals, Halifax’s home-ownership costs remain relatively affordable in comparison to other big cities across Canada. However, those rates have been climbing quickly in the past few years.

People need to move along the housing continuum to make sure everyone’s needs are met. And a healthy city needs to have plenty of options available at all points on the continuum. Imagine a city without enough affordable rentals to help people make the leap from crisis housing to more permanent arrangements. That’s exactly what’s happening in cities across Canada, as cities grow more expensive and vacancy rates decline. Unfortunately, we can expect that trend to continue, which means that our work in the community is more important than ever. Take a look at all of United Way’s housing supports here. Please consider making a donation to continue this work.