The start of Tuesday’s city council meeting was spicy. Councillors came in hot. Councillors like Tim Outhit, Sam Austin and Lisa Blackburn were all visibly upset about the growing scale of human suffering that’s being caused by government inaction on housing. Council got an update about just how badly Haligonians are being failed by all levels of our government.
Make no mistake, we have been failed—catastrophically so.
Max Chauvin, the city’s director of housing and homelessness, told council that there are 30,000 households in the HRM that are spending more than they can afford on housing. Those 30,000 households are spending at least 30% of their income on housing, with some spending over 50%. Chauvin told council in no uncertain terms that there is no private solution to the crisis—that it can only be solved by a massive public investment in housing. All the city can do, he lamented, is apply immediate and imperfect band-aids.
Councillor Shawn Cleary pointed out that for other emergencies the city dips into its reserves and spends millions to get people out of the emergency they find themselves in. He pointed out the city doesn’t do that for housing, and the tiny amounts of money the city does kick in—tens of thousands of dollars at a time—don’t have any effect. Cleary doesn’t think the city should be spending good money after bad just to put people outside in time for the start of a climate changed hurricane season.
“We have to embarrass them into doing something,” said councillor Lisa Blackburn at the end of her time, which was filled with latent anger directed at the province. She proposed that the HRM put everyone on the Common, declare a disaster and get the Red Cross to come in and deal with it—because maybe, just maybe, if the Red Cross came to town, Houston might do his “bloody job.”
“If we’re not going to do this, then what?” asked deputy mayor Sam Austin. He pointed out that if the city doesn’t do anything, people will suffer. Austin wants to force Houston’s hand and make the province do its fucking job: “It’s time to sue them.”
In an emergency—fires, floods or hurricanes—the city opens up its arenas and community centres until people can go back to their homes. If councillors genuinely believe the housing crisis is an emergency, they could treat it like one.
Instead, council voted to direct the CAO to start trying to lease private buildings for shelter space, put encampments on available municipal land, allow non-park land (like parking lots) to be used for people to live in cars—and they wrote a strongly worded letter to Houston (who they previously established doesn’t care about them).
Council is also looking at buying a bunch of mini-homes or prefabricated shelters. But the city has no money, so this idea will likely disappear at some point during municipal budget season when councillors realize the city’s flat broke due to generations of bad, low-density development.
Make no mistake, we are being failed—catastrophically so.