Late in September, Halifax announced a plausible, partial alternative to the unhoused population living outdoors this winter—a set of 73 modular housing units that cost $240,000 total and would be ready for habitation “before the snow flies.” Then came weeks of silence on the subject, followed by the admission at last Tuesday’s meeting of Halifax Regional Council that these particular units weren’t “suitable” after all. Council approved a recommendation to instead spend $3.2 million on 60 brand-new units, 24 of which are supposed to arrive by the end of the month.
When it comes to shelter options, modular housing isn’t the only one. Halifax Mutual Aid Society built one of its crisis shelters in less than two hours recently, and at the other end of the cost and permanence spectrum is an actual house. Including both types of modular units, we briefly outline the pros and cons of the four approaches below.
If you were in city council’s shoes, what would you do? While you’re deciding don’t forget—more than 400 real unhoused people with emotions, feelings and needs are sleeping in precarious situations in HRM every night as the weather gets colder and colder.
HMA crisis shelters
Cost per unit: $1,400
Pros: Readily available, warmer than tents, insulated. Supplies can be purchased for $1,400 and each one can be constructed with the help of about a dozen volunteers in under two hours. HMA has a volunteer workforce in place, and for a large-scale building effort more help could doubtless be recruited from a citizenry that clearly wants to support unhoused people. If HRM paid for these supplies, the cost of building 73 units would be $102,200.
Cons: HRM says the crisis shelters aren’t up to code and aren’t supposed to be built on municipal property, or private property. They have no electricity or plumbing and there is the ongoing threat of evictions for any residents who occupy these, as well as HRM’s admittedly valid safety concerns. Partnering with HMA to construct 60, 73 or even 400 shelters without paying the crews could expose the city to accusations of exploiting volunteer labour while creating friction with the city’s staff workers. And HRM says it won’t communicate with HMA, because the organization is largely anonymous.
Used modular units
Cost per unit: $3,288
Pros: At a total cost of $240,000 for 73 units, this option offers a lot of bang for the buck. The units are already located just 14 minutes from City Hall, and have plumbing and electricity when they are fully installed.
Cons: This is a unique situation, involving a set of used units that happens to be sitting in Halifax. The city couldn’t buy another 73 units at this price, and like many old things for sale on the web, the units are not in mint condition. Making them ready for living in will require what could be serious interior and exterior renovations, including mould remediation, raising the per-unit price. The city has not disclosed an estimate on the cost of renovations.
Brand-new modular units
Cost per unit: $53,333
Pros: The units are expected to be new, clean and safe for habitation. Halifax recently announced a location for the Dartmouth site, and that Out of the Cold will be the service provider. The city says the 24 Dartmouth beds will be ready by the end of November, with plumbing and electricity.
Cons: The price—nearly 20 times the cost of a used unit. For that $3.2 million, there will only be a total of 60 units, not the 73 in the original modular plan. And the promise of 24 units in place in November is just a promise at this point, with 36 units coming at some later point. The snow may be flying before a single person is living in a unit.
Cost per unit: $485,642
Pros: There’s a certain logic to the idea that most permanent solution to homelessness is to buy people homes. The Nova Scotia Association of Realtors says the average cost of a house in the province is currently $360,558 but in Halifax-Dartmouth the price rises closer to half a million dollars.
Cons: The cost. The outrage. The destabilizing effect on the housing market. But the cost—almost $200 million to get a house for every unhoused Haligonian.