There’s a long-running joke about Nova Scotia’s coastal counterpart: BC stands for “Bring Cash.” But a recent survey of rental rates in Canada’s priciest housing markets might soon turn NS into “Need Savings.”
According to the latest Rentals.ca report, which compares asking prices of vacant units across Canada, Halifax is the most expensive Canadian city to rent a one- or two-bedroom apartment anywhere outside of Greater Toronto or Vancouver. Haligonians in search of a one-bedroom apartment could expect to pay $2,089/month in April. That’s a near-25% jump from the same time last year, and the second-highest year-over-year leap of any of the 10 most-expensive Canadian cities listed in the report. The increase is only marginally less for two-bedroom apartments, which climbed by 21% to an average of $2,483/month.
And while both Halifax and the province have pledged to address a widening housing crisis through rent caps and short-term rental regulations, some Haligonians are finding themselves without any options they can afford.
Unhoused with a full-time job
Rae-Leigh MacInnes did not expect to find herself couchsurfing in her mid-forties. A Halifax-based registered massage therapist making well over Nova Scotia’s median income—$36,400—for a single-person household, she had plans of opening a home-based clinic in the Annapolis Valley—until her business partner got sick, and she couldn’t afford to fund the clinic on her own. She’d been renting an apartment in Halifax before then, but she’d handed the lease over to her adult son, who had finished school and found a roommate. Suddenly, she was scanning Halifax apartment listings for the first time in eight years. Things had changed.
Back then, she told The Coast, “rental units were offering incentives for you to come—you know, they’d offer a month free or they’d offer you a free TV if you went with them. You don’t see that anymore.”
MacInnes figures she’s looked through “every single place” on Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji. None matched her budget. (A common affordability benchmark is 30% of income going toward the cost of housing. For a massage therapist earning in the neighbourhood of $50,000 a year, as MacInnes is, that would work out to roughly $1,250/month for an “affordable” rent—$750 shy of the going rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Halifax based on Rentals.ca’s report, and nearly $500 short of the provincial average for a bachelor suite.)
“The only thing I could do was just keep refreshing [online],” she told The Coast last month. “As soon as the place would come available, try to get on top of it… I was used to having a long-term home. So this, to me, was very disruptive to my quality of life.”
Halifax is the most-expensive Canadian city to rent a one- or two-bedroom apartment anywhere outside of Greater Toronto or Vancouver, per the latest Rentals.ca report.tweet this
MacInnes tried living in Truro, where she found a one-bedroom unit for $1,195/month, but she couldn’t get enough work. So, she came back to Halifax and lined up a job. By day, she goes to work. By night, she crashes in spare bedrooms and looks for somewhere—anywhere—to rent.
MacInnes wants to stay in Halifax—it’s the city she was born and raised in—but she’s increasingly discouraged. She feels the HRM and province aren’t acting quickly or decisively enough to stanch an affordability crisis that Service Nova Scotia minister Colton LeBlanc described in 2021 as “never seen before in our province.”
“I think COVID kind of put us in that mentality of ‘Well, you know, this is a situation where we can’t predict anything,’” MacInnes said. “‘So we have to kind of sacrifice and give and take here and there.’ And now we’re doing the same thing with this housing situation: We're like, ‘Well, it is what it is. So, you know, you have to take what you can get.’
“But I think that's a dangerous path to go down,” she added. “It's not wise.”
Home ownership increasingly out of reach
Aspiring first-time homebuyers in Halifax are hardly better off than their renting counterparts. A recent RBC report on housing affordability found that for Haligonians to qualify for a mortgage on a benchmark-price Halifax home in the third quarter of 2022 ($577,700) required a household pre-tax income of $116,415. That’s a 44% jump from the same time in 2021. It’s also assuming those Haligonians can muster a 20% downpayment that averages more than $115,000—hardly pocket change in a province where the median income for all households is $71,500.
Province extends rent cap, but raises it from 2% to 5%
Nova Scotia’s governments, for their part, have tried—successively, if not successfully, under premiers Stephen MacNeil, Iain Rankin and Tim Houston—to stem the tide of soaring rents by introducing a rent cap in November 2020 and extending it on an interim basis every year since then. By law, landlords in Nova Scotia with ongoing tenants are barred from raising rents by more than 2% in any 12-month span. There are two caveats to this: The rent cap doesn’t apply to vacated units (a loophole which some landlords are exploiting with fixed-term leases), and it’s set to expire at the end of 2023.
Starting January 1, 2024, rent increases will be capped at 5% annually. For a tenant renting a one-bedroom Halifax apartment for $2,089/month this year, that amounts to an extra $104.45 every month if their landlord were to raise their rent by the maximum allowable amount next year.
That can be a stretch on its own, but many Haligonians—and students in particular—say a tight rental market and a lack of enforcement for breaches of the Residential Tenancies Act mean they’re pressured into signing leases that exceed the current rent cap, even if they’ve maintained tenancy of a unit. That’s what Katie Cheslock, co-founder of the Dalhousie Mutual Aid Society, a student-led awareness group focusing on housing and food insecurity, says happened to her and her roommates last August. They were coming up to the end of a one-year fixed-term lease of their Jubilee Road-area apartment. By rights, they were protected by a 2% rent cap. Instead, Cheslock claims, their landlord offered them another fixed-term lease, along with a 6% rent increase.
“My roommates and I didn’t feel that we really had much of a choice,” she told The Coast in March.
“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.”
Short-term rental regulations coming—are they enough?
As the province loosens its rent cap, the HRM has been working on another prickly piece of the housing puzzle: Short-term vacation rentals. As of September 2023, Halifax homeowners who run Airbnbs, VRBOs and the like will only be able to operate 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 impetus for the changes is to free up housing in the HRM’s supply-starved long-term rental market. The HRM had a 1% vacancy rate in 2022, per the latest CMHC rental report—a figure that ranks among the lowest in Canada. According to AirDNA, which tracks active vacation rental listings on AirBNB and VRBO, there are more than 1,800 units across the HRM currently listed as short-term vacation rentals. More than three quarters of those listings are for entire homes.
At HRM council’s Dec. 13 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. Even if the former is far likelier than the latter, the numbers suggest Mason is right: A 2019 McGill report found short-term rentals had taken as many as 740 housing units off the region’s long-term housing market.
The HRM’s soon-to-be-introduced rules will govern any leases lasting 28 days or less. But some Halifax housing advocates say that doesn’t go far enough. Bill Stewart, a spokesperson for Neighbours Speak Up, a self-described “group of concerned neighbours” advocating for stricter regulations of short-term rentals, worries that instead of seeing an influx of long-term rental listings, Halifax will begin to see short-term vacation rentals pivot to 30-day or 60-day leases—longer than 28 days, sure, but far from stable, long-term housing. Stewart also sees flaws with the HRM’s approval of short-term rentals in mixed commercial zones, if those zones are poorly defined.
“It’s a lot of potential housing that could be affected,” Stewart says, speaking by phone with The Coast. “Robie Street, Isleville, Gottingen, Quinpool… these are all areas that could be impacted… It maintains the issue of impact on housing in neighbourhoods.”
Even the short-term rental companies that Stewart would like to see regulated agree with his assessment that the HRM’s efforts haven’t solved the underlying housing issue. In the same March episode of the Halifax Real Estate Podcast where Avery Birch, founder of Dartmouth-based vacation property management company 365 Experience Inc., states that commercial properties “pump out a mint if you’ve got good ones,” he downplays the looming short-term rental bylaw changes:
“We’ve watched everything move from the residential zone into the commercial, and then we watched the people who want to live move to the residential. It’s just a transition. There’s no housing problem solved. We just moved from here to there and put a different hat on it, called it ‘Tuesday.’”
In the absence of more drastic housing measures—or the sudden influx of thousands of new and vacant units—Haligonians are left to navigate a tight housing market and hope they’ll find something stable. Many haven’t. Speaking with The Coast in March, Dalhousie Mutual Aid’s Cheslock said her landlord had 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 added.
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 told The Coast, “we would like to see legislation that would restrict their use much more heavily than it currently is in Nova Scotia.”
Like many other students, Cheslock will face a choice when she graduates—stay in the city that has become home, or look for greener pastures elsewhere.
“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 said, speaking by phone with The Coast. “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.”
—With files from Matt Stickland