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Halifax regional council explores taking a bigger role in housing

Council votes for new housing needs assessment

3 min read
caption Joseph Howe Manor in Halifax is a social housing facility for seniors.
Drew McConnell

Halifax regional council has directed the municipality’s chief administrative officer to develop an affordable housing strategy as outlined in a staff report presented on Tuesday.

The staff report was requested by Coun. Waye Mason in a January 2018 motion.

The report highlighted some of the significant challenges faced by governments in trying to solve the housing crisis, such as a growing population and low vacancy rates.

The notion of transferring housing responsibility to the municipality was not endorsed by the report. Staff cited Ontario’s experience with downloading responsibility to municipal governments such as affordability and wait-lists for social housing.

Mason proposed an amendment that would explore the idea of the municipality completely taking over housing from the province. That item was defeated.

“What we have now is not working,” Mason said Tuesday, referring to the region’s housing strategy. “The focus is still on the market providing below-market housing, the market will not provide below-market housing.”

The staff report concluded that a municipal takeover of housing responsibilities would not be a prudent decision. Despite this, Mason says more government involvement is needed to ease the crisis.

“We will not see shelters, we will not see transition and supportive housing (built by the market), those things will only happen if there is a state intervention,” he said. “State intervention may be the only way to get enough units on the ground fast enough to address some of the concerns we’re seeing now.”

Coun. Sam Austin agreed.

“Government once saw its job as a core responsibility to build housing,” he said. “And that all kind of stopped about 20 years ago.”

Austin said that government needs to take a more active role in ramping up the housing supply to deal with the current crisis. It’s a change that he hasn’t seen take shape yet.

“Nobody wants to build anything,” he said referring to social housing. “The market will not work for a lot of people who really need it. It just won’t.”

This view was far from unanimous, however. Several councillors had reservations about supporting the motion.

“I can’t support most of this,” said Coun. Paul Russell. “Housing is not our mandate. It is not what we do.”

Russell also highlighted financial considerations for his objection to the motion.

“It’s not something we can afford,” he said. “We would need all new money for that.”

The fiscal implications of a municipal takeover of affordable housing were a common refrain from council. Many cited the costs of maintaining much of the province’s dilapidated public housing stock as being a significant barrier.

“I too am very reluctant to step into this pool, we don’t know how deep it’s going to be,” said Coun. David Hendsbee.

“We’ve heard about the conditions of some of the co-op housing, provincially and federally that have been set up over the years,” he said. “It’s going to be an astronomical amount of money to repair them and bring them up to standard.”

Mayor Mike Savage lauded some of the progress made but stopped short of endorsing a full-fledged municipal takeover of housing.

“I’m a little bit careful. We do have a role, we need to be there and I think we have the opportunity,” Savage said. “But I would be very careful about taking over housing and the bureaucracy that would go with that.”

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