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Fewer Affordable Housing Strategies, More Affordable Housing

Activists question effectiveness of Community Services proposal

by Robert Devet

Site of a proposed development on Gottingen Street criticized for offering 'affordable' rents as high as $780 for a bachelor apartment. A recently announced provincial housing strategy will actively support similar developments in the future (Photo: Simon de Vet).
Site of a proposed development on Gottingen Street criticized for offering 'affordable' rents as high as $780 for a bachelor apartment. A recently announced provincial housing strategy will actively support similar developments in the future (Photo: Simon de Vet).

Late in 2012, the Department of Community Services announced that it was launching a series of public consultation events to help shape a provincial housing strategy.  Some affordable housing advocates are critical of the strategy, however, arguing that it favours private sector development, could promote gentrification, and will not provide affordable housing to those most in need.

Affordable housing in Nova Scotia has been lacking for decades.  Roughly 43,000 households (12 per cent of all households in Nova Scotia) are in housing crisis mode, meaning that shelter is either inadequate, unsuitable or unaffordable.  

In 2011 the number of public housing units in all of Nova Scotia increased by a mere 80 units.

Evan Coole, North Dartmouth organizer for the low income advocacy organization ACORN, went to the Dartmouth consultation meeting.  Coole believes that the sessions were structured in such a way that Community Services could easily ignore what it didn't want to address.

"For [ACORN] what matters are rent control and having quality housing. These are the areas where the government should really intervene," says Coole.  "We badly need housing standards with teeth ensuring that people [won't] be living in slums. Our members are living with rats, mould, structural damage, plumbing issues.

"I don't think that these priorities were reflected in the discussion paper or in the summary after the meeting," says Coole.  

Central to the discussion paper that was presented as part of the consultation is the notion that we must leverage private developers to close the affordable housing gap.  The proposal is to offer government loans to private developers who include some affordable housing units in their developments.

The notion that private sector initiatives will solve a problem that has been festering for decades does not sit well with some affordable housing advocates. Many fear that the true motivation of the provincial government is to save money.   

“We are dealing with a federal government that is cutting the funding [for affordable housing], says Community Services minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse, defending the strategy.  "Poverty advocates should be excited. This is not to reduce our housing budget but to fill the gap created by the federal government.”

Claudia Jahn, program facilitator at the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, thinks too much reliance on the private sector is misguided.

"The private sector is in the business of housing development  for profit and they do that job very well," says Jahn.  "Whenever the private sector develops affordable housing it is always time sensitive," meaning the units do not have to remain affordable, she says.  "The rent level has to be affordable for, say, 15 years. After that, the units are lost again.”

In addition, what private developers call affordable is questionable, says Jahn.  "The affordability level typically is just below market rent, so that it is very helpful for certain segments but completely useless for the people in the lower income margins, the working poor, people on income assistance.”  

Rather than rely on private developers, Jahn thinks that the government should seek out and empower non-profits and housing co-ops.  She worries that once the private strategy is there, it may stifle initiatives that do not fit the party line.

Jahn's solution runs counter to the proposed strategy. “Any affordable housing policy you see internationally only works when the government becomes the biggest and the best housing provider.  This is why we are in this situation: ageing housing stock, maintenance deferrals, nothing has been done in 25 years.  Cheaply built, poorly managed, poorly maintained.”

Jahn also worries that the strategy will become a distraction to actually building affordable housing: “It's really important to realize that a strategy on paper is nothing.  It doesn't mean anything. It just feels like you are doing something … People who have been in this business for a long time, they have seen exactly this before. The government may even run out of time with the next election, and then we start all over again.”

Another concern is that, unless very carefully managed, the introduction of market value rental and condo units will drive up rents and push the very poor out of their neighbourhoods.  

The Community Services strategy does not address these worries. It praises the resulting diverse and socially mixed communities unreservedly and never mentions any potential downside of gentrification.  For instance, it refers to the Regent Park redevelopment in Toronto as an inspiration and shining example of what it wants to accomplish for Nova Scotia.  

Regent Park is a Toronto neighbourhood once almost exclusively made up of social housing but now fast becoming a socially mixed neighbourhood of subsidized housing, up-scale condominiums and market value rental units — exactly like the Community Services strategy envisions.         

Martine August is an academic who has studied the effects of gentrification on Regent Park and many other urban neighbourhoods. Unlike Community Services, she is not convinced that the Regent Park redevelopment has been an unqualified success.

“Sometimes you see very tense situations developing in these communities," says August.  "You may see the political mobilization of higher income people towards the kinds of projects that aren't necessarily socially just.  So maybe people living in a new condo will get together and try to prevent there being certain social services (e.g. methadone clinics, homeless shelters, etc.) in the neighbourhood.”

A major theme in Community Services' discussion paper is the perceived benefit of  “social mix,” where well-off home owners and people living in public housing are all sharing the same neighbourhood.

For August, the popularity of the notion of socially mixed communities and the enthusiastic support of private developments are just symptoms of much broader neoliberal trends in society.  “The role of cities is now looked upon as one where cities need to be competitive, trying to compete for tourism, compete for consumers who have money to spend, the middle class, the creative class too, and also trying to compete for businesses.”  

“The idea now is to create a sort of superficial city that is attractive, that is non-threatening, sanitized, and so gentrification, which is seen in academic circles as a problematic negative process that is socially unjust, is now perceived to be a positive urban strategy that governments are actively seeking.  This is why I come out as such a strong critic, especially also because social mix retains so many progressive connotations. ”

Which is not say that strategies encouraging socially mixed communities and the use of private developers cannot ever be appropriate. August explains: “The idea of social mix can be used in a socially just direction if it is leads to the production of brand new affordable housing in neighbourhoods where there was none before. But social mix is never used that way, it is always used to justify gentrification.”

The final strategy is set to be revealed sometime in the spring of 2013.  

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Topics: Housing
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