Poverty sprawl | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Poverty sprawl

Councillors, city planners and community support workers say the spread of poverty into the suburbs is a growing problem in Halifax.

click to enlarge Poverty sprawl
Eric Jonsson works with Halifax Housing Help.

For a "long time now," housing options for people on income assistance have either been too expensive, too far away or in too poor a condition for people to live in, says Eric Jonsson of Halifax Housing Help.

Since 2008 the Metro Non-Profit Housing Association program has tried to find homes for at-risk individuals and those who have a difficult time finding and retaining housing stability. The problem hasn't gotten any better, he says.

Gentrification is causing rents to go up "more and more in circles from the downtown core." Landlords today recognize they can get "more rent from people who are wanting to live as close as they can to downtown."

They raise rents knowing that more affluent tenants will move in, which drives out the previous renter who can't afford the higher price.

"Those people have to move further away from the downtown, which is where all the services are," says Jonsson, which in turn makes it more difficult to get help and support to the people in HRM who need it most.

Given increasing property values, the city's ongoing poverty sprawl is something government officials, planning experts and community support workers fear will only get worse.

"We're just starting to see now a lot of rent eviction and rent increases that are driving some people out of what have traditionally been modestly priced rentals," says Halifax South Downtown councillor Waye Mason.

According to Mason, in recent years the areas of HRM that have become the most likely to be inhabited by low-income earners are in the city's veteran subdivisions like Fairview, and "older phases" of Clayton Park, Sackville, Cole Harbour and Colby Village. Places where sale and rental values haven't kept pace with the rest of the market.

Halifax's 2015 Housing Needs Assessment study found that average house prices in HRM have increased "year-over-year" between 2004 and 2014 by 3.7 percent—bringing the average sale price of existing homes to $279,264, and the average price for a new home at $375,847.

These increases are also found in the statistics on rental prices, which show that prices went up by 48.6 percent between 2011 and 2014.

Kasia Tota, principal planner for Halifax Planning and Development, says HRM doesn't have the income disparity of Canada's larger cities, but she does acknowledge "there are signs" the suburbanization of poverty is happening here. It's just difficult to prove.

"It's very difficult to trace how many households are being forced to move due to increases," says Tota.

The 2015 assessment shows the largest concentration of lower-income households is still in the regional centre rather than the suburbs. But that's counter-intuitive. The majority of affordable housing stock remains in the urban core, along with virtually all of HRM's subsidized housing support services.

Yet many of that survey's respondents also stated they were moving to areas away from the regional centre in search of more affordable longterm housing, which is exactly what Jonsson, Mason and Dalhousie planning professor Jill Grant says is happening in greater numbers today.

"It's become increasingly clear in recent years that because of a loss of opportunities for affordable housing in the city centre, that people looking for less expensive housing have had to move farther from the city centre to do that," says Grant.

She points to 2013 census data that indicated the percentage of low-income residents in Halifax's downtown core from 2006 to 2011 dropped by nearly two percent, while the percentage in four separate suburban zones increased by an average of 4.6 percent.

"People go where the opportunities are better to find something more affordable," says Grant, "and unfortunately nothing is very affordable anymore."

Right now, city planners are eagerly awaiting the latest long-form census data from Statistics Canada to see if the suburbanization of poverty has definitively worsened in recent years.

As they wait, HRM continues to try and implement strategies—such as a recently approved housing and homelessness partnership with the United Way—to improve the lives of those pushed towards the municipality's economic and geographical margins.

"Not only are people being pressed out of the downtown core...but they're also pushed further away from the social connections that have helped them survive and live," says Jonsson.

"They have been pushed into places where the housing is cheap, but that's about the only thing that is going for them."

Correction: An earlier version of this story wrote Eric Jonsson's surname as “Johnston.” The Coast apologizes for the error.

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