On Tuesday, Halifax Regional Council met to discuss a motion on whether the municipality should do more when it comes to housing, among other things. The four-part motion originated from a report council requested back in January 2018 by downtown Halifax councillor Waye Mason.
Two city staff, Jill MacLennan from planning and development and Scott Sheffield from government relations, gave a presentation to council before its hour-and-a-half-long discussion on the matter.
As MacLennan introduced the motion, she told council that the HRM Charter says the municipality should provide “housing that meets the needs of a variety of households in the low-to-moderate-income range.” The charter also defines “affordable housing” as equivalent to no more 30 percent of the renter’s income.
Staff said the current municipal role in housing involves several things: land-use regulations (like the decision to allow backyard suites), giving financial support, administering surplus land and partnerships with groups that provide housing.
But Mason’s motion from 2018 requested council look into doing more, and Mason even went so far Tuesday as to make a fifth proposal that the city request an actual takeover of housing from the provincial government.
“Do I think it’ll be easy? No. I think it’d be actually really really hard,” Mason said, adding that the system would remain broken for “at least two more election cycles” either way.
But staff didn’t recommend HRM do that. “Experience in Ontario suggests that municipal direct-delivery of social/public housing has not resulted in improved housing outcomes,” the report says. “And has placed considerable pressure on the municipal tax base.”The four recommendations staff did support were:
- To update the 2015 HRM housing needs assessment, and commit to doing so every five years
- To direct the CAO to develop an affordable housing strategy and evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs
- To direct the CAO to prepare a report exploring municipal housing organization models
- To direct the CAO talk to the deputy minister of municipal affairs and housing, Paul LaFleche, about this mandate letter.
Staff said Mason’s suggestion to take housing over from the province would mean a full transfer of assets, including managing provincially owned rental units (public housing), running grant and loan programs and providing financial assistance to landlords and developers.
“There are significant financial risks associated with the transfer of social housing assets from the province to the municipality,” said Sheffield, listing mortgages, repairs, operating costs and “stagnant” rent revenues as just a few.
Before councillors entered into discussion, Mason said the housing crisis was “obviously more evident than ever, certainly more evident than in 2018 when I made the motion in the first place.”
Councillors were divided on the issue. “I can’t support most of this,” said District 15’s Paul Russell. “Housing is not our mandate, it is not what we do.”
Many councillors said they were wary of dipping their toes into the waters of housing. “I too am very reluctant to step into this pool,” said David Hendsbee. "We don’t know how deep it’s going to be.” Lisa Blackburn used a similar analogy: “I am willing to support some of this, but I’m not sure how deep we should be getting.”
But other councillors felt that the city had already waded too far into the issue to turn back.
“While I understand, on one hand, this is the mandate of the province, I have to say it is our mandate to build a great city,” said councillor and newly-selected deputy mayor Pamela Lovelace. “I think we either recognize—this regional council, this city, as a group of individuals, as a society that believes—that housing is a human right. Or we don’t. And I do believe housing is a human right.”
“The province alone isn’t doing it. So do we just continue to sit by and let it happen the way it’s happening, or do we step in?” asked Shawn Cleary. “I’m not sure we want to take it over, although I’d be happy to investigate that to see what it looks like.”
Councillors also questioned whether the joint housing task force developed by the province would ever come to fruition. The members of the task force were announced by the province two days later and are set to have their first meeting in January.
“We’ve had discussions in the past, prior to this government, with the deputy minister,” said CAO Jacques Dube. “Those discussions didn’t lead to any conclusion by them or us, ‘cause I was sort of just feeling them out, I didn’t have any direction from council.”
Blackburn wanted more communication with the province, saying “I need to see more willingness from the provincial government before committing HRM to any more responsibilities than we already have with regards to housing.”
CAO Dube agreed taking on housing would cost a significant amount, and said “there’d have to be a financial framework around that.” This caused councillors to worry that property taxes would jump even higher.
“What that would do is take the 5.9 percent tax increase we were talking about this morning and raise it to 10 percent,” said Russell.
Hendsbee worried if the city took over public housing, it would be in a similar state to the "dilapidated" roadways HRM recently acquired oversight of. “It’s going to be an astronomical amount of money to repair them to bring them up to standard,” he said.
Almost every councillor spoke on the issue, save for Lindell Smith, Cathy Deagle Gammon, Trish Purdy, Iona Stoddard and Kathryn Morse. Even mayor Mike Savage spoke to how housing discussions had changed over the years he’d been in office, but still had a long way to go. “We have had successive provincial governments that have not invested in housing, they just haven’t,” said Savage. “Of all parties.”
Savage said it was important for the city to determine its role, but partnership with the province and service providers was also crucial. “There's no point in us putting up modular units if the province doesn’t say they’ll do the wrap-around support. We have that from the province,” he said. “We found in the last six months, not having housing coordinators and social workers is a heck of a problem when you’re dealing with people who are unhoused or ill-housed.”
An hour into discussions, the general consensus of the room seemed to be that the municipality should further the work it’s currently doing.
“The public out there doesn’t care whose job it is, they’d just like somebody to do it. And that’s not what’s been happening,” said councillor Sam Austin, adding “I do think we would do a better job of this, in my heart of hearts.”
“I can see how taking over housing can seem like an overwhelming task ahead of us, and it would be,” said councillor Patty Cuttell. “And I don’t think what we’re looking for is to take over everything, I think we’re looking for options on what we can do.”
Staff said this could include actions like “building and managing affordable housing, developing or making land available for development, research and sector capacity building,” but another staff report would be required with more research.
The final vote saw all four parts pass. The first was unanimous, the second passed with Russell and Purdy against, the third with Kent, Hendsbee, Stoddard, Russell and Savage against, and number four passed with Blackburn and Outhit against.
Mason’s amendment to request a full takeover was struck down in a 10-7 split, with the supporters being Austin, Mason, Cleary, Morse, Cuttell, Stoddard and Lovelace.