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Activists Express Doubts on Affordable Housing Strategy

by Robert Devet

The newly launched Nova Scotia Housing Strategy has received both praise and criticism from stakeholders
The newly launched Nova Scotia Housing Strategy has received both praise and criticism from stakeholders

On Monday May 6th Denise Peterson-Rafuse, minister of Community Services, together with Premier Darrell Dexter and with six local MLA's also in attendance, released the Nova Scotia housing strategy at the Woodside Community Centre in Dartmouth.

Prominent representatives of the social housing sector such as Claudia Jahn, of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, and Don Spicer, of Shelter Nova Scotia, were also around to say some kind words about the strategy.

Much along the lines of the discussion paper released last fall, the newly launched strategy champions alliances with both private developers and non-profit organizations in order to increase affordable housing for renters. As well, the document supports home ownership for people who otherwise would not be able to afford it.

Critics of the strategy earlier voiced concerns about the potential negative effects of gentrification on low-income people. These same critics talked about what they consider to be a misplaced confidence that the private sector is capable of creating affordable housing for people most in need. 

The private sector, with government's help, may create housing just below market rent, but it will never be affordable for people on social assistance, or for working people on low incomes, they argue. 

Yet, as in the earlier discussion paper, the notion that rich and poor, disabled and abled, would all harmoniously share their diverse and vibrant  community remains a dominating theme. And the idea that private developers have a very large role to play in the affordable housing sector remains as prominent as before.

The strategy announces a new structure for the Nova Scotia Housing Development Corporation, still very much a part of Community Services. But, according to minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse, it would also have an advisory committee with a bit of a new mandate: “generating revenue and putting it back into housing, or putting it back in other social programs.”

Which brings us to the final component of the announcement: money.  $500 million over 10 years has been announced for a variety of programs, not all directly related to social housing, but also including support for home ownership, and community development opportunities. Community Services is careful to point out that this is all new money, not a redirect of federal transfer payments.

However, Wayne MacNaughton, long-time poverty activist, is one person who doesn't believe that the document deserves to be called a "strategy." He points to the vagueness in terms of activities the department will take on, even in in the next two years.

“The challenge is that [a lack of detail] turns this into a matter of trust,” says MacNaughton. “It puts the power in the hands of  bureaucrats; it becomes a framework, not a strategy.”

Even the $500 million over the next decade fails to convince MacNaughton. “That doesn't mean $50-million a year, it could mean anything. It's very much a pre-election document.”

Minister Peterson-Rafuse is eager to dispel these suspicions. “This is the first time that you are seeing this as a collaborative effort. There is a very strong difference here. That kind of philosophy and culture was not built into the housing programs before,” says Peterson-Rafuse.

“This is a true partnership, so the non-profit is as much a partner as is the private sector. We are not doing this in silos, and we are doing this as a coordinated collaborative effort.  We will be identifying together what the needs are in particular communities.  With the municipal councillors, with the community, we will involve the non-profits, and we will involve the private sector,” Peterson-Rafuse argues.

Don Spicer, Executive Director of Shelter Nova Scotia, was strongly supportive of the new strategy.

“I am pleased that the new strategy recognizes the need for the province of Nova Scotia to partner with the private and not-for-profit sectors. We all play a vital role in ensuring that people have a safe place to call home,” said Spicer. “I am pleased to see that the strategy employs a multi-pronged approach by focusing on several key areas to address the needs of many sectors of our communities.”

Spicer singled out the concept of mixed tenure, and the intention to develop new infrastructure in close proximity to resources and public transit as especially praiseworthy. 

“Also important is to revitalize our existing housing stock which will allow people to age in place and remain in their home communities,” said Spicer.

But for other poverty advocates it will take more than words to restore the current lack of confidence.

Michael Leblanc is an outreach worker for Navigator Street Outreach, where he works both with homeless people and people who are at risk of being evicted. He sees on a daily basis the devastating effects of welfare payments that keep recipients struggling far below the poverty line. Social assistance rates, and in particular shelter allowances,  are not addressed in the strategy document.

“The strategy completely misses the boat for people who are homeless or at risk of eviction,” says Leblanc.  “I haven't seen anything that increases these dollar amounts [for shelter allowances] at all. And nobody that I deal with will ever in their current situation be able to afford a mortgage or an affordable home. It just will not happen,” Leblanc concludes.

Paul O'Hara, social worker at the North End Community Health Centre, summarizes a feeling that is prevalent among at least some social justice activists. 

“The launch gives an impression that there is action, but really there is nothing to suggest that that action is real”, says O'Hara.”The strategy is very non-committal on specific action, they are still talking and not doing, and by now it is four years on in their mandate.”


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