When Dalhousie University student Katie Cheslock and her roommates were coming up to the end of their one-year lease on their Jubilee Road-area apartment last August, they took comfort that, in re-signing, they would be covered under Nova Scotia’s temporary 2% rent cap. Introduced in November 2020 under then-provincial housing minister Chuck Porter, the temporary measure had been extended by Tim Houston’s government in 2021, in response to a housing crisis “never seen before in our province.” Halifax’s vacancy rate was among the lowest of anywhere in Canada. (It still is.) The average two-bedroom Halifax apartment cost nearly $200 more per month than the national average. Renters deserved “certainty and peace of mind,” Service Nova Scotia minister Colton LeBlanc said in a statement at the time. Instead, Cheslock says her landlord offered them another fixed-term lease with a 6% rent increase—three times what the province’s legislation permitted. Facing what felt like limited options, they signed it.
“My roommates and I didn’t feel that we really had much of a choice,” she says, speaking by phone with The Coast.
“And I think that's been the experience of a lot of people that I know in my community… who have either had to contend with really, really large annual increases in their rent or be faced with having to find somewhere else to live, which isn’t exactly an easy thing to do.”
A co-founder of the Dalhousie Mutual Aid Society, a student-led awareness group focusing on housing and food insecurity in Halifax, Cheslock is among a group of more than 40 students and community members who rallied outside of Province House on Tuesday afternoon. They’re the latest in a line of housing advocates calling on Houston’s government to extend its rent cap past the end of December—and to amend its fixed-term lease legislation, which they say leaves tenants in the lurch.
3% of all Halifax rental units deemed affordable to lowest-income Haligonians, per CMHC report
Minister LeBlanc’s assessment of “never seen before” housing affordability issues reads as true in 2023 as it did two years ago: As of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s latest report, released in January, the average two-bedroom Halifax apartment is $191 more per month than the Canadian average. But the discrepancy isn’t just playing out across the median range of rental prices: Halifax’s surge in pricing is also affecting its supply of its most-affordable housing—and that, in turn, is putting more Haligonians at risk of losing their housing altogether.
By the CMHC’s definition, just 3% of all Halifax rental units are affordable to the lowest-income Haligonians, households earning less than $28,000/year. (By contrast, that same share in Quebec City is 25%.) And fewer than two in five Halifax rental units (37%) are considered affordable if you’re earning less than $46,000/year.
That tends to leave students like Cheslock in a difficult position: Either take on greater debt in student loans to pay rent and tuition, juggle demanding studies with full-time or part-time work, or cram enough roommates into a house to cover the monthly rent.
“I think a lot of young people who are currently living in this province feel quite a bit of anxiety about their ability to stay here,” she says. “I love living in Halifax, and I would love to be able to stay here, but the cost of living is a significant barrier that makes it a really intimidating—and perhaps unlikely—outcome for myself and a lot of other students. And just people in general.”
For those who can navigate Halifax’s rental market, there are still other challenges. Cheslock says her landlord has already asked her to decide whether she’ll re-sign another fixed-term lease for the following year, 10 months before the next term would begin—“which is sort of crazy in and of itself,” she adds.
Calls to extend rent cap beyond Dec. 31, 2023
Nova Scotia’s current rent cap has been in place since November 2020, when it was introduced by former premier Stephen McNeil’s government as a form of COVID relief—but in its two years of operation, it has never been made permanent. Premier Houston’s government has announced that the rent cap will remain in place until the end of 2023—but Nova Scotia’s ruling Progressive Conservatives have been mum on whether they’ll offer any extensions beyond Dec. 31.
Dalhousie Mutual Aid Society is calling for the rent cap to continue “until more affordable housing options are available”—but that doesn’t necessarily mean a hard-and-fast 2% limit, Cheslock tells The Coast. Other provinces, including British Columbia and Ontario, have experimented with tying allowable rental increases to the rate of inflation, she says. (Former BC premier John Horgan opted to cap his province’s rent at 2% last fall, citing the “debilitating” effects of another inflationary increase.)
What Cheslock would like to see is an end to fixed-term leases being used to sidestep the province’s rent cap by landlords raising rates between tenants.
“Ideally,” she says, “we would like to see legislation that would restrict their use much more heavily than it currently is in Nova Scotia.”
Advocates call for loophole’s closure
A fixed-term lease is defined in Nova Scotia’s Residential Tenancies Act as a rental agreement with a predetermined end date, as opposed to periodic leases which roll over on a monthly or annual basis. While the contract type is not a new phenomenon, evidence suggests that it’s becoming more prevalent.
“Due to changes in the Tenancy Act, the industry has moved away from month-to-month leases and moved to fixed term so that both tenants and owners are on equal footing in regards to the terms and options of the lease,” one property manager told The Coast by email.
But some housing advocates argue the lease option has become a “loophole” for landlords to circumvent things like rent control. That’s because, while the current rules bar landlords from raising the rent on current tenants by more than 2% in any single year, they don’t limit landlords from raising the rent between tenants. And unlike periodic leases, which roll over when they reach their term end (say, at the end of a month or year), fixed-term leases don’t offer tenants security of tenure. If a landlord wants a tenant to leave at the end of a fixed-term lease, “they’re not obligated to have a reason,” Dalhousie Legal Aid’s Katie Brousseau told The Coast in October.
“So it makes it very difficult for folks on a fixed-term lease to know whether or not they'll have a continued tenancy.”
“We’re seeing [lease agreements] being, frankly, exploited.”tweet this
While Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia have varying bylaws that convert fixed-term leases into rolling month-to-month leases after the first year, or require a landlord to prove, in good faith, that they or their relatives either intend to occupy a unit, demolish it, convert it to something other than residential use or make repairs “that are so extensive that they require a building permit and vacant possession of the rental unit” in order to end a tenant’s fixed-term lease, none of those requirements exist in Nova Scotia.
That level of flexibility works out well for property managers, but comes at the expense of tenants, Brousseau argues: “We’re seeing [lease agreements] being, frankly, exploited.”
Will incoming short-term rental bylaws free up housing supply?
Fixed-term leases aren’t the only contributors to Halifax’s current housing crisis, advocates argue. In the wake of a crowded public hearing last month, HRM councillors overwhelmingly voted in favour of restricting how short-term rentals—homes, apartments or condos rented for 28 days or less at a time—can operate in the region going forward. As of September, Halifax homeowners who run Airbnbs, VRBOs and the like will only be able to run those short-term rental units if they meet one of two conditions: Either those homes, units or bedrooms must be in the owner’s primary residence if they’re in a residential area, or the units must be in a commercial zone where hotels already exist. The new rules also mean residential homeowners with backyard and secondary suites won’t be permitted to lease those suites as short-term rentals anymore.
Council’s hope with these changes is to free up housing in its supply-starved long-term rental market. At HRM council’s Dec. 13, 2022 meeting, councillor Waye Mason argued there are “hundreds if not thousands” of units that would return to the rental market with tighter short-term rental restrictions.
Those regulations won’t come into effect until the fall, however. Council opted to implement its short-term rental changes on Sept. 1, in order to give property owners time to prepare. Regional staff expect that of Halifax’s roughly 2,000 short-term rental listings, about 1,350 will fall under the new residential restrictions.