N.S. government to consider proposal that includes new public housing

Senior housing officials are preparing a presentation for the Nova Scotia government on ways to address the province’s housing crisis, and one of those options will be to build new public housing.

Deputy housing minister Paul Lafleche told members of the legislature’s public accounts committee on Wednesday that the level of need for market rate housing and affordable units is such that all options must be considered.

That could mean the provincial government building new affordable housing stock for the first time in years.

“We probably need some new public housing,” Lafleche told the MLAs.

For years, the housing file has suffered from a lack of consistent people in leadership roles and being shuffled between government departments, Lafleche said.

Making housing the responsibility of a single provincewide agency, which recently happened, should help address long-standing needs that have gone unaddressed by previous governments, he said.

But the deputy minister also cautioned that no single approach is going to solve the issue and fixes will not come quickly.

Other options the cabinet will be asked to consider include further partnerships with the private sector, buying new buildings to be repurposed, and assessing what existing provincial stock can get by with renovations and what situations would require new builds.

Lafleche said an ongoing challenge has been trying to renovate existing public housing buildings to make them more accessible.

“You can renovate an old unit but, fundamentally, the structure doesn’t take the renovations well. It’s taking way too long … it’s just not good. It’s very expensive, it’s very slow and it’s blocking units from getting online, on stream.”

Officials said Wednesday that such renovations can take nine months or more, and units are not available during that time. Another option for dealing with accessible housing could be a special kind of rent supplement geared to specific types of buildings, said Lafleche.

Long wait times, long wait lists

A federal program intended to help with the cost of renovations will only produce 90 units over 10 years.

For context, there are 11,200 public housing units in the province and about 6,000 people are on a wait list. Currently, the average general wait time is more than two years, while the average wait for a priority placement is 1½ years. 

Since the Tories came to power in 2021, the primary focus in addressing the need for housing has been to increase the number of rent supplements and speed up the process to get private sector developments approved sooner in the Halifax Regional Municipality, where there is a deficit of about 20,000 units.

Although Premier Tim Houston and Housing Minister John Lohr have so far shied away from talking about building new public housing, Lafleche said that’s because the immediate focus has been on what could be done to help as soon as possible.

New public housing would take at least two years to build, he said. But as the new housing agency gets its footing and prepares to hire a new CEO in the next six months, Lafleche said Lohr is “totally focused on public housing.”

The upcoming presentation to cabinet is intended to set the future course of the new provincial housing agency, said Lafleche.

New Democrat MLA Susan Leblanc and her caucus have long called for the Nova Scotia government to build new public housing stock. (Robert Short/CBC)

Past governments did not pay a lot of attention to housing “for probably legitimate reasons,” he said, but the issue must be addressed now as the province’s population booms and people continue to face cost-of-living pressures.

“There’s a lot of work to be done and I think the work has just accumulated until … the iceberg has risen above the surface and you can see it.”

New Democrat MLA Susan Leblanc, whose caucus has long pushed for the creation of new government-owned public housing, said she hopes Lohr and his colleagues take that step.

“I say let’s do it — let’s do it quickly,” she told reporters following the committee meeting.

Housing should be “a No. 1 priority” for the government and if having a standalone entity helps make that happen, Leblanc said that’s great. People with stable housing situations tend to live healthier lives, she said.

‘We’re going to step on toes’

Lafleche said the province needs “net new” units across the spectrum of housing options.

That means pushing ahead with building more units and sometimes doing it in ways that are going to make people uncomfortable, such as putting up taller buildings near low-rise residential neighbourhoods.

But with increased cost-of-living pressures, an increasing population and rising construction prices, Lafleche said meeting the demand will require changes not everyone will like.

“We’re going to step on toes. We’re going to make people uncomfortable in some areas and that’s just going to happen. Change is always difficult. This province is changing rapidly.”

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