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Public housing in Halifax needs more maintenance

HRM may take over public housing responsibility from province

Jodi Brown doesn’t remember exactly when she got sick — it was either seven or eight years ago — or why.

But she does know that, all of a sudden, her world was off balance. She couldn’t walk on a treadmill, she couldn’t drive and she couldn’t even look through a windshield if the wipers were moving. She was too nauseous to walk, let alone work.

Brown now knows she had sensory mismatch caused by inner ear damage, which caused several other problems. Before her illness, she was an aircraft maintenance worker with Air Canada Jazz, but had to leave her job. In 2015 her benefits were cut and she applied for social assistance. She got her first assistance cheque in July 2015. That same month, she submitted her name to Housing Nova Scotia, an agency in the Department of Community Services that controls almost all of the public housing in the province.

Eventually, in November 2015, Housing Nova Scotia found her a home in Spryfield, which is where she wanted to live.

There was just one problem — she was told by Housing Nova Scotia she would have to view the property first, because it wasn’t in the best shape.

That may have understated it.

“When I went in it was stinking … it was nasty,” she said.

The unit reeked of animal urine. Brown later learned the previous tenant owned a pit bull that would defecate in the house and Eastlink once refused to work in the unit because of the smell.

That wasn’t the only problem.

“So October, November, when the other tenant left, they went in with full (hazmat) suits on,” she said. “That’s the house they moved me into.”

Brown moved into the house in January 2016. On top of the smell, there were water leaks and mould. She spent months arguing with the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority, the arm of Housing Nova Scotia that manages public housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality. At one point they told her the leaks had been fixed, but she recorded a video of them continuing after the repair crew left. Another time, they were supposed to replace the walls when she was out of town, but they merely papered over the problem.

Finally, in August 2016, Brown moved to a new unit.

“They kept me there for so long; that was the thing,” she said, acknowledging that others have it worse.

“There’s people with rats in their couch and you can see the couch moving … so I got a clean home for myself, so now I’m just fighting for everybody else, right?”

Stalled and sinking

Brown’s situation isn’t unique.

Housing Nova Scotia tenants across the province face similar situations: neglected repairs, ancient heating systems and inadequate accommodations are all characteristics of units belonging to Housing Nova Scotia. They’re a byproduct of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance.

In response to the situation, Halifax Deputy Mayor Waye Mason introduced a motion to regional council to commission a staff report investigating how Halifax could take control of its public housing stock from the province.

“We are stalled and sinking. I am not blaming anyone, but the emperor has no clothes,” Mason said at the Jan.18 meeting of the Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee, in which he first introduced the motion.

“Housing is not working right now. We are not building the housing we need to address urban poverty and workforce housing in Halifax. We need to take action and change the paradigm. To continue as it is and expect different results is the definition of madness.”

At the Jan. 30 regional council meeting, Mason statements were similar to those from Jan. 18.

“I believe that we need to take more responsibility for housing,” he said. “The amount of affordable housing being built since the service swap has plummeted to almost nothing.”

Waye Mason
A screenshot of Deputy Mayor Waye Mason speaking to the motion at a regional council meeting.   Alex Rose

Councillor Lorelei Nicoll echoed Mason’s concerns, though she voted against the motion.

Until the staff report is complete, however, council won’t know what strategies would be best or most plausible.

At the meeting Mason knew many councillors would be wary of his motion. This is why he made sure to stress the near-critical state of social and affordable housing in the HRM.

According to a Halifax housing needs assessment from 2016 the municipality needed to create and preserve 5,000 affordable housing units in the ensuing five years, including 1,000 public housing units. In the months since the assessment’s publication, not only has the HRM failed to reach its target, the availability of affordable housing has actually declined, said Mason.

Cutting corners costs money in the long run

A lack of public housing is partly due to the deferred maintenance. Deferred maintenance is any maintenance an entity puts off completing; the cause of deferment is usually financial.

In the HRM, there was currently roughtly $16.3 million necessary maintenance that had been deferred as of July 2017, according to documents obtained through a freedom of information request. That figure represents the estimated deferred maintenance for a little more than half of the buildings owned by Housing Nova Scotia, specifically those that contain three or more units in one building. The figures have a margin of error of plus or minus 20 per cent, according to the FOI documents.

According to the same documents, the MRHA spent almost $8 million on regular maintenance and nearly $1.5 million more on vacant units last year. This comes to a total of about $9.5 million.

That figure will only rise, if maintenance continues to be put off.

“Projects that are put on hold, repair that is neglected, or maintenance that is ignored adds up to a costly and complex problem. The cost of deferred maintenance could potentially be 30 times that of the early intervention cost,” wrote Ann Geissler Timme in her article for facilities.net titled The Real Cost of Deferred Maintenance.

In her post, Geissler Timme, a marketing manager for security product provider Allegion plc, said neglected repairs can quickly turn into replacements. Replacements could cost more, as more time and money would be needed to get a unit back to the baseline level.

These issues only compound the social housing crunch the province faces.

Unfinished floors
These floors in unit from the Greystone community in Spryfield were supposed to be fixed over 15 years ago.   Alex Rose

“Over the last 20 years, due to policy changes, there was a steady decline of non-profit housing units,” said Claudia Jahn, the program director for the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia.

“Non-profit organizations had to sell off units in order to maintain the rest of the inventory. The same with the social housing stock; the quality of the units of course declined, issues became apparent in the social and non-profit housing stock and the co-op housing stock.”

As the population in Halifax increases, public housing stock is declining, making the situation less than ideal.

Aside from the material costs, there are also hidden costs associated with deferred maintenance.

Negative consequences

Many tenants understand it’s not realistic to expect their units to be maintained or repaired as soon as they put in a request. What they don’t understand is waiting an unreasonable amount of time for repairs that would affect their quality of life, safety or health.

Melodie Munroe has faced similar issues since she moved into a unit off Bayers Road in August 2009.

Munroe, her husband and son originally shared the unit with her in-laws, who had been in the Bayers-Westwood community since 1993. When her father-in-law lost his leg to diabetes, he and his wife moved to a seniors’ complex. Now it’s just Munroe, her husband and their two children.

“We’ve been fighting non-stop for repairs,” said Munroe.

Occasionally, repairs have occurred, but there are still issues.

“It took us five years almost to get a new drawer bank,” she said. Before that repair, knives would fall out on the children when they opened the kitchen drawers. “I fought housing for … at least three to four years for our roof. We had clear bags of shingles that were flying off the roof every storm, and pretty well threatening to go to the tenancy board was the only thing that got (a maintenance crew) here.”

A few years ago the faulty roof led to a crack in her son’s bedroom ceiling. Housing said it tested positive for asbestos, but not a dangerous level. Munroe said they left it exposed with tape over it for a few months, and instead of replacing the three walls that the housing inspector deemed necessary, contractors simply patched them.

On top of that, the windows in both her son’s bedroom and the living room are broken and the floors are so old and worn that they’re impossible to clean. The furnace fan is too small, which makes her daughter’s room freeze and her son’s room overheat, and the bathroom’s exhaust fan is too far away from the shower, so the ceiling is covered in black mould.

Black mould on bathroom ceiling
Melodie Munroe standing in front of her mouldy bathroom ceiling   Alex Rose

Munroe and her husband work hard to keep their place in good condition. They spent $300 of their own money refinishing the downstairs floors.

“We’re not asking you for paint. We’re not asking you to come in and change light bulbs or anything like that. Anything we can do ourselves, we do. We’re asking for the major things,” said Munroe. “The big excuse we get is there’s no money in the budget … We’re not seeing no repairs getting done. So where is this money going?

“I’m just tired of hearing that excuse over and over again. Or you get the whole, ‘oh, we’ll put it on the list’ … as I said to them before, I know there’s going to be more top priorities than what mine are and I don’t disagree with that. Like if someone’s basement floods, of course I want that taken care of first. But how far down the priority line does a person have to be pushed?”

The issues Munroe is complaining about are not cosmetic. She’s concerned about her family’s quality of life, with one child sleeping in freezer-like conditions and another in sauna-like ones; safety due to the asbestos and general health, as her her daughter gets croup about twice a month because of mould. Additionally, all of the money and time the Munroes spent on repairs could have been used by the family to move out of the unit, but it wasn’t.

Munroe is back in school for the first time since 2005, studying office administration. She’s trying to make enough money to allow her family to move into their own place. In the meantime, she’s fighting for repairs and improving her unit any way she can, so she can leave it in a better condition for the next tenant. 

Shortage of units

If a family is in public housing for a long time, that’s a unit that is not available to others.

As of September 2017, there were approximately 1,646 eligible applicants on the MRHA’s public housing wait-list and only 1,546 MHRA units.

And the list doesn’t tell the whole story.

“First of all not everybody knows about the wait-list. Or, if I hear there are 1,000 people on the wait-list, why would you go on the wait-list?” said Jahn. “So for us the wait-list is not really a measure of need of housing.”

But for those who are in need of housing, the wait-list is the only way they can get it. Before Brown moved into her first apartment, underwhelming as it was, she had to wait months on the list after applying in July.

“At the end of August I still didn’t hear anything back from housing or anyone else. Then they told me there was a five year waiting list,” she said. “There’s no other options. Your options (are) low income housing, or the streets, or (a) shelter.”

Brown didn’t want to move herself and her children into a shelter, so she rented an apartment. But she knew it was only a temporary solution as she only had $326 in her bank account and would soon be unable to pay rent. To help bring attention to the situation Brown was active on social media in early 2016, calling out the government for the situation she was in. Eventually she was moved into a home that was not suitable for her to live in.

Homes that are vacant are because they are in need of maintenance or repairs, like Brown’s first one, is a home wait-listed family can’t live in. Every family that is wasting money, time or health maintaining an inadequate unit as opposed to moving out of it represents another family stuck on the wait-list.

Public housing wasn’t made to be permanent, or even long-term, said Jahn.

“They were designed very poorly. They were built from the standard already very cheaply. At the time, the idea for public housing was that people will be there for a brief time, just to give them an arms up, and then they will move out. Well, everybody stayed because there was no way to move out. So you will see often tenants describe they are really stuck there, like a ghetto … it’s isolating, it has a bad reputation, all these kinds of stigmas attached to public housing,” she said.

In Nova Scotia, the average family remains a tenant of public housing for 7.7 years, according to the Halifax Housing Needs Assessment Final Report from 2015. This is longer than originally intended, but still not as long as in Halifax. For units owned by the MRHA, families stay for an average of ten years, the assessment said.

“(The province) talks a big game about how we should have a single cookie-cutter solution for the entire province, a one-size-fits-all policy framework that is gonna address all the issues,” said Mason. “Ten thousand people in the North End … 83 per cent of them are renting and half (of) those are on social assistance. Nowhere else in the province has that level, that concentration, of people who are facing income challenges. And so I think urban poverty requires a completely different response and structure.”

Other systemic issues

One of the biggest areas of concern for homeowners and renters in Halifax is something called shelter-to-income-ratio, or STIR. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, housing is considered affordable it “if it costs less than 30 per cent of a household’s before-tax income.” In 2011, among renters in Halifax who made between $10,000 and $40,000, only a quarter of them had an STIR of 30 per cent or below.

“In terms of pervasive issues, that’s one of them,” said Susan Leblanc, MLA for Dartmouth North and NDP spokesperson for community services. “Housing prices are not in line with people’s income in this province. People are unable to pay rent, then they get evicted. That’s the kind of cycle that happens. Or, more and more of their money is going towards the rent and so they’re not able to buy food.”

To compound those issues, costs are rising faster than income and the population is growing.

“Demand is outstripping supply. People think we’re building a lot but we’re not, and even out of that none of it is affordable,” said Mason.

Brown said some people also resort to an alternative means to supplement their income. That can range from babysitting to selling drugs. No matter what it is people are expected to report all the money they make, which will in turn make a dent in the social services they receive.

“A lot of the way things are the way they are because people are doing things they’re not supposed to be doing to survive. So they’re not going to draw any attention to them … those people aren’t gonna kick up a stink,” said Brown.

Many people become accustomed to substandard living conditions, or never even realized their conditions were substandard, Brown said.

“A lot of people, they don’t even know they have any rights, they don’t even believe in themselves. They wake up in the morning and don’t get dressed. They ain’t gonna say nothing,” said Brown.

The culture is perhaps the first thing that has to change before any permanent improvements can happen, said Jahn. From the very beginning, public housing residents haven’t been treated with the same respect as those of private housing. If there’s an issue with a private unit, the landlord has to fix it quickly or risks losing the renter. With public housing, the province knows tenants will generally keep quiet and take advantage of that, Jahn said.

“Then all of a sudden, you’re a trouble maker,” said Brown, speaking from personal experience. “But then all of a sudden, when they can’t shut you up, you’re all of a sudden a hero.”

Brown got her first house because she complained about her situation and was able to bypass the wait-list. She recognized it was her willingness to do what others wouldn’t that landed her the spot in public housing, but knows that’s not a reasonable solution for everyone.

If everyone did it then public housing wouldn’t work for anyone. Priority goes to families; seniors 58 or older, according to the province and those in life-threatening situations, according to Leblanc. But, she added, even prioritized people can only start so far up the list — there are usually thousands of people ahead of them.

If a person ends up running out of money to pay their rent, their only options are shelters or the streets.

To compound the wait-list issue, Jahn said many units in undesirable areas remain vacant. This is because the people at the top of the list don’t want to move into them, and those below them are ineligible.

What can be done?

There is no quick and easy fix for the issues that plague public housing in the HRM. Changing the culture is an important start, but it won’t eradicate the mould in Munroe’s house or make Derry’s apartment accessible. There are other key ways both MRHA, and Housing Nova Scotia can better serve its tenants.

More money

The government allotting more money for public housing could help this overtaxed system. However, it’s unclear at this time where this money could come from, as Housing Nova Scotia and MRHA already operate at a loss.

“Right now the province owns both sides of it is so the province only pays, in a lot of cases, $170 a month to metro housing authority instead of the $375 or $535 that they would pay to anybody else,” said Mason. “So they’re hiding the real cost of running income assistance by putting people at a subsidized rate into housing, which means that housing doesn’t have enough rent coming in to recapitalize its buildings.

“You’re basically subsidizing income assistance by running down the capital investment made in the ’70s and ’80s in housing, right? Like, every dollar you quote save by putting someone in social housing is a dollar not being put into maintenance in that housing, which is pushing us closer to that housing being not functional and coming off the market and being not available to anybody. It’s a robbing Peter to pay Paul scenario. So to me that’s the biggest issue with social housing; (it) is the province is inappropriately hiding the real cost of income assistance in Halifax by not paying income assistance rates on the majority of those 4,000 units, maybe any of them.”

Documents obtained through a freedom of information request show the housing authority indeed loses money: the MRHA spent over $48 million in expenditures in 2016/17, compared to revenue of just over $20 million.

The federal government is planning on making a big investment in public housing across the country, but Jahn said those contributions are too unpredictable to plan around.

Local administration

If Halifax does take on more of a role in its public housing, it could more effectively diagnose problems and administer solutions at a local level.

“The province has very little ability to know what’s happening on a grassroots level in communities. No rec centre programmers, librarians, beat cops, etc. I just don’t see the kind of virtuous feedback loop; people really embedded and involved in the communities who understand what the issues are and then able to give that up to the management structures to where there’s funding and decision makers, say we really need to build this housing over there. That doesn’t happen here,” said Mason.

Until local communities have more of a say in administering their public housing, it’s impossible to know exactly what changes would occur.

Accountability

Munroe said the system often fails her, but there doesn’t seem to be any consequences. For example, she often submits maintenance requests that go unanswered. She doesn’t understand why, even after numerous phone calls and visiting the office multiple times, the administrative assistant can’t find a record of her requests.

Bruce Nunn, media contact for the Department of Community Services, said maintenance requests are usually completed within one to five business days.

This hasn’t been Munroe’s experience.

“Tossing money at a problem is just not going to fix it if the underlying issues are not being taken care of,” she said. “There’s no accountability. And that’s where it starts.”

Co-op housing

Leblanc said here should be more support for co-operative housing, which means the people living in a building or community save costs by collectively managing that property.

Ren Thomas, an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie’s School of Planning, agreed, saying co-ops are a viable option because they provide affordable housing to people who can’t buy their own homes or rent at market rates.

Thomas said that co-op members receive lots of training and help, and can outsource certain problems. In that case, the co-op shouldn’t be at risk of failing due to under-qualified management, which, she said, is a common misconception.

“I know that when I’ve looked for housing for myself, I’ve often thought ‘I’d love to get into co-op.’ Because you contribute to the community, you do your share of the maintenance work, but then your rent is much lower. And no one’s getting rich off the backs of low-ish income people,” said Leblanc.

Holistic solutions

While it may help, public housing isn’t the solution to every single problem a person has. It addresses one issue, having shelter, and even that is sometimes inadequate. Other social problems, if unaddressed, can compound a person’s problems. These include providing adequate health services, both general and mental, as well as other support services, all of which would go a long way in alleviating some of the pressure on social housing.

For example, if someone contracts a debilitating illness and there’s not a sufficient safety net in place, they could end up on social assistance and in public housing. If a person doesn’t realize their dog should do its business outside, or understand the basic standard of living their landlord owes them, then the unit will need to be repaired before the next tenant can move in.

If a person isn’t making enough to provide for their family, they might take babysitting jobs and pocket the money and be too scared to ask for adequate upkeep of their unit.

If there were better systems in place to help people, like Brown who get sick and can’t provide for themselves and their family or people who can’t afford to declare any more income because it would impact social assistance, then many of Halifax’s public housing problems — long wait-lists, deferred maintenance, budget shortfall — might be lessened.

Editor's Note: This story was completed in fulfillment of requirements in the King's MJ program. The reporting was completed between January and April 2018.

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