Today the city’s promise to provide 73 units of modular housing for unhoused residents officially fell through. The city had sourced some units locally and made an announcement in September that they would soon be ready for habitation, but according to documents discussed at council today, sometime between then and now “it was determined that none of the units were deemed to be suitable for the municipality’s use.”
The six-page report only mentions the September modular units once, and the city gives no date for when it first inspected the 20 buildings that comprise the 73 units. In an investigation that went live first thing this morning, The Coast tracked them down at a Halifax construction yard just 14 minutes outside the city.
District 7 Downtown councillor Waye Mason said on Twitter today that he didn’t “believe HRM staff knew they were in Halifax.” But HRM’s emergency management coordinator Erica Fleck told The Coast on October 8 she was aware the units were in the province.
An article with details given by Fleck was published by The Coast on October 14. The public was not told that the units in question were used and originally were built in 2011.
Most of today’s report for council details the new plan recommended by staff, which includes buying a different set of modular units for the total price of nearly $3.2 million dollars from a company in Quebec. That money would be on top of the $500,000 already designated for the issue, which was supposed to cover the $240,000 cost of the old units plus some temporary hotel stays.
The report doesn’t say where the units will come from specifically or whether they will be custom built and brand-new, but the price indicates they are. A budget breakdown says the Dartmouth units would total 24 beds and the Halifax units would total 36 beds.
“Housing and homelessness is not a core municipal mandate,” says the report, prepared by Erica Fleck as well as Paul Johnston, Halifax’s director of external affairs. This reminder from the city that housing is technically a provincial responsibility is a standard deflection at this point.
The final page of the report is a map that shows the Dartmouth location, which has been selected off Alderney Drive between Church Street and Flotilla Lane, a spot that can connect residents with a wide array of “wrap-around services.” The service provider for the Dartmouth side has also been confirmed as Out of the Cold, which currently oversees the converted Gray Arena shelter.
“The Province of Nova Scotia is working to secure funding to deliver the services required for the clientele moving from Gray Arena to the Dartmouth site,” says the report. “HRM will purchase the units and provide all normal municipal services, such as garbage pick up, as well as cover the cost of utilities and maintenance on site. It is expected that the Province will release details of the funding and service model in the coming days.”
The Halifax site hasn’t been found yet, but the report says it could house “many of the people living in tents and other structures including those currently living in Meagher Park,” AKA People’s Park.
The staff report says there was an option to only proceed with the Dartmouth site, cutting the cost by $1.69 million, but council didn’t discuss that. Each site will also have operating costs of about $20,000 next year—a drop in the bucket for the city.
The report also notes that even if these modular units do work out, there will be a delay of between two and four weeks to get them set up. There are also more than 400 documented unhoused people in the city, about seven times more than the number that will fit in the modular units. It’s recommended council ask to receive regular updates “monthly until the end of the fiscal year and then quarterly at minimum.”
Council came out of an in camera meeting around 3pm on Tuesday and discussed the housing motion for about 30 minutes. Chief administrative officer Jacques Dube addressed the councillors to explain that the old units “would not meet our needs.”
“As our population grows this issue will grow along with it,” said Dube. He also indicated a provincial announcement would be made about housing later this week. (A release from the province actually came just minutes later at 4pm, confirming Out of The Cold would receive $2.7 million from the province to run the modular units)
Councillors spoke in turn, with Waye Mason calling the further delay “heartbreaking and crushing.”
“I commend staff for realizing what we were originally going to purchase wasn’t correct,” said councillor Tony Mancini, whose district includes the Gray Arena.
Similar to the meeting announced by councillor Lindell Smith for north end Halifax residents living near People’s Park, Mancini says he’s meeting with residents tomorrow night, November 10, who “don’t want a shelter across the street” to discuss their concerns.
Some councillors expressed concern about the details once the modular units arrive, and how residents would be able to access services once living there.
“‘Wrap-around services.’ It’s a lovely little catch phrase, but what exactly are we going to be doing?” asked councillor Lisa Blackburn. Erica Fleck gave council some details about which services would be on site, including everything from water and electric to snow clearing and cleaning to Mainline needle exchange. Councillor Cathy Deagle-Gammon wanted to ensure service providers were “ going to be able to meet the commitment that they made to the province.”
Most councillors though, praised how staff had handled the issue so far, as well as their own actions and response to the problem.
“We cannot walk away from this, I know we’re all caring individuals,” said councillor Becky Kent. “I know there’s some governments that would not, they would just dig their heels in, but we’re not doing that.”
In the end, the vote to purchase the 60 new units for $3.2 million was passed unanimously.
Councillor Sam Austin, who will have the modular units built in his district, says he’s going to work with all parties to ensure the units are safe and secure.
“You can’t stuff this out in some industrial park. You have to meet people where they are,” he said. “I look forward to trying to work with residents and the community as we try to figure out how this will work. This should be a good thing for everybody and I think it can be.”
A statement from the municipality says the units will be “ready by the end of November.”