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Public Housing Goes Private

by Samantha Chown

Future site of Gottingen Terrace - "affordable" condominiums by Creighton/Gerrish Development Association. Photo: Samantha Chown
Future site of Gottingen Terrace - "affordable" condominiums by Creighton/Gerrish Development Association. Photo: Samantha Chown

Fourteen million dollars will be invested in social housing in Nova Scotia, according to an announcement last month by the federal and provincial governments. Due to deteriorating housing in Halifax, the majority of those funds will go towards repairs, maintenance and upgrades of existing units instead of the creation of new units. Only $3 million will be used to build 18 new units.

The serious shortage of affordable housing in Nova Scotia and a limited provincial budget have led to a new trend in social housing: privatisation. Partnerships between the government or non-profit organisations with private businesses and developers have become a common solution to the housing crisis in recent years. Not everyone agrees that applying market solutions to a dearth of affordable housing is wise. It does, however, provide the social housing market with much-needed additions to the housing stock.

“Privatisation of housing has been something that has built our country,” says John Hartling, Director of Community Initiatives at Community Action on Homelessness (CAH). “The private sector does have a place in providing affordable housing and it’s important to recognize that and work with them.” CAH has partnered with the St. Leonard Society to build affordable housing at the corner of Cunard Avenue and Gottingen Street. The building will have 18 units specifically for men making the switch from emergency and shelter living into housing. Hartling says the design, with a business area at ground level and a rooftop garden, will provide affordable housing to the community and stimulate local business.

“The private sector has been helpful in identifying property for non-profit groups. Non-profits may not be experts in developing housing but they’re experts in providing social services,” says Hartling. “So the private sector has contributed a wealth of knowledge to support non-profits getting good properties. They’re a very vital link.”

Melissa Phillips, Director of Homelessness and Housing at Saint Leonard’s says the new development will remain affordable homes indefinitely.

Fiona Traynor, a Community Legal Worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid Services, is skeptical of this alliance. “I think we [need] more critical analysis of what it’s going to look like when we leave it up to business people to provide social services,” she says.

Traynor is concerned that privatised social housing will not operate in a tenant’s best interest but rather be a cash cow for developers and landlords. She says Nova Scotians are letting the government off the hook by not holding them accountable to provide social services to taxpayers.

“When you work directly on the front line with people, when you see people suffer because they pay too much rent...it is infuriating that we are accepting [this approach] without critically analyzing the outcomes of this shift to the privatisation of social services.”

In order for the government to be held accountable, Traynor says Bill C-304, a petition for a National Housing Strategy, needs to be passed and enforced by all provinces and territories. Housing has been deemed a human right by the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Canada is currently the only industrialized country without a National Housing Strategy. It also has one of the smallest affordable housing sectors of the G8 countries. Only 1.2 per cent of housing stock in Nova Scotia is considered affordable housing.

According to the Halifax Report Card on Homelessness 2010 by CAH, a total of 352 self-contained affordable renting units have been added to Halifax’s housing stock since 1999. Metro Regional Housing Authority has 14,047 applications on its wait list. Some people have been on the wait list for more than seven years.

Many of Traynor’s clients face barriers to renting such as under-education, poverty, physical disability or mental illness. She says that landlords tend to have a bad attitude towards these tenants and take advantage of them.

While not all landlords can be “painted with the same brush,” Traynor says that even big companies are not following the law or the Tenancies Act. Landlords charge too much rent for substandard housing, evict residents illegally and keep damage deposits.

“I see all those things every single day in my practice,” she says.

The privatisation of affordable housing has taken several forms in Nova Scotia, with varying levels of success.

Capital District Health has partnered with Killiam Properties and Atlantic Living Property Management to give former and existing patients of the Mental Health system the opportunity to rent their own apartments and experience independence. The program is already considered a success by CAH.

The government has also partnered with private developers. Depending on the contract, developers must agree that an allotted number of units will remain at affordable market value for between 10 and 15 years. Hartling says it is important to be wary of timeframes associated with private partnerships. Traynor agrees. Since Nova Scotia has no form of rent control, developers are free to raise rent to whatever price they deem fit when their contract runs out. Traynor says this is a raw deal for tenants who – quite literally – could be left out in the cold.

“If the housing that’s being developed has a timeframe on it, then we’re investing in something that will not be there in the future. That’s a cautionary thing,” says Hartling.

Creighton/Gerrish Development Association (C/GDA) has been one of the frontrunners in private affordable housing. It owns three properties in the Gottingen area. Gottingen Terrace Condominiums, C/GDA’s project currently under construction, is a 48-unit building on donated land. The prices of the units, starting at $120,000, are intended for low-income earners branching into first-time homeownership.

Traynor says those prices are not affordable and are “geared towards people who have enough money to have a down payment, people who have stability of income to be able to get approved for a mortgage, [and] people who have the ability to pay increased taxes.”

“Buying a home is one thing; being able to afford it is another,” she says.

According to CAH, as of 2005, 17,465 households in Halifax paid more than 50 per cent of their income on housing. CAH defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs 30 per cent or less of a household’s income. A single person in Halifax would have to work full time at a wage of $13.30 in order to afford the average rent of a bachelor apartment.

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