Renters in Halifax are getting a bad deal. Elected officials neglect them, vacancy rates favour their landlords and worldwide crises expose their vulnerability. It’s time to put that to an end.
Forty percent of Haligonians rent–10 percent higher than the national average. Yet, somehow, even the direst of circumstances–a literal pandemic–isn’t enough to inspire elected officials to step up. While love and attention are bestowed upon the favourite child–homeowners–renters are support starved.
In Sherbrooke and Montreal, renters are more supported: These cities build municipally owned apartments, take the lead on providing housing and write protective legislation. In other words, elected officials there recognise the importance of protecting their base. The outcome is renters are able to spend less on rent.
Not in Halifax. Although city hall has been signing off on projects as fast as its wrist will allow, they’re not as quick to write legislation. To be fair, it’s not entirely their fault. They lack both the power to do so and support from the provincial government.
Cooperation is key. Montreal, for example, coordinates with its provincial government to deliver housing through joint grants and subsidies. It’s allowed to limit condo conversions and set affordable housing requirements. The city is supported by the province, not stunted.
If the Nova Scotian government is intent on neglecting Halifax in addressing housing problems, maybe city councillors should get a chance to take the lead.
In the meantime, renters are left scrambling. Our declining vacancy rate – which hit one percent in 2019–and rising average rent–now $1,113–point to failure. Too bad magically appearing new apartments isn’t one of our options to get more available units on the market.
While it all seems a little hopeless, there’s one option we should explore: Haligonian renters can sway officials using the power of their vote.
Nationwide, renters are typically less important to political campaigns: They make less money on average and spend higher percentages of their income on housing than owners, so they have less disposable income available to donate. Political campaigns rely on donations. So, the focus is on the other 70 percent: owners with more disposable income. It’s clear then why politicians make sure to first shield owners from any instability.
That ratio changes on a city level. In the Halifax CMA, two of every five Haligonians rent, and officials need to pay more attention to them. We don’t even have a limit on how much your rent can increase each year. On top of a low vacancy rate, no limit means renters are at their landlord’s mercy.
Add a pandemic to that equation. It exposes how little renters are cared for. When unemployment began rising in Canada due to COVID-19 lockdowns, government at all levels rushed to ensure homeowners were protected, providing mortgage deferrals for up to six months. Renters, eyes wide in confusion, screamed, unheard, “what about us?”
The Nova Scotian government’s “policy” to protect renters during this pandemic consisted of a ban on evictions, just until June 30. This is laughable–and terrifying. Chances are slim to none that anyone unable to make rent from April to June would suddenly have three months’ rent in July. Your best bet is to work something out with your landlord–at their discretion of course. No other provisions exist. As we quickly move to the end of June, these renters face the likelihood of eviction.
As we step into July, restrictions are easing but the economic shocks are not. Many renters are still vulnerable and we need a change. Provincial elections are due in two years and the next municipal election is October 17, 2020.
Going forward, we need to demand officials work together to prioritize housing–for everyone, not just homeowners. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that everyone should have a place to live.
Samiya Dottin is an urban planning researcher and renter living in Halifax. She’s spent the past two years focused on rental housing approaches in Canadian cities and the opportunities for better housing delivery.