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In the face of what advocates say is a growing housing crisis that includes ballooning rent costs forcing people out of their homes, the Nova Scotia government is stepping in with a cap on increases and a ban on so-called renovictions.

“Too many Nova Scotians are struggling to afford a place they call home,” Housing Minister Chuck Porter said Wednesday.

“Now is not the time for people to be worrying about keeping a roof over their heads or being forced to find a new home for their family, but unfortunately that is exactly the situation many people are in.”

Effective immediately, rent increases are capped at two per cent per year without exception. The change is retroactive to September 2020 and will remain in place until Feb. 1, 2022, or whenever the COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted. Porter said anyone whose rent has already gone up within the defined time period would receive the difference as a future credit.

Landlords will be banned from evicting tenants for the purpose of renovating their buildings. Porter said unless an eviction order has been issued by the residential tenancy board, it will not be enforceable, and that includes notices already provided.

Marites Sumat was thrilled by the news.

“I’m so thankful,” she said.

Sumat recently received six months notice that the Clayton Park apartment she shares with her husband, three children and mother was going to see the monthly rent go up from $850 to $1,250, a 47 per cent increase that would have priced the family out of their home.

The new cap is “a big help for renters,” she said.

COVID-19 has exerted a major toll on many people, said Sumat. While she’s been fortunate not to have her hours reduced at work, she said the pandemic has made what was an already difficult situation for many people all the more challenging.

She’s still waiting to speak with her landlord, but under the rules announced today the increase scheduled for March 2021 would not be permitted.

Change in tune

The rent cap is a stark departure from previous assertions by Premier Stephen McNeil and his government that rent control is not an effective tool for combating housing challenges.

For months, there have been a litany of stories about people being forced from their homes due to renovictions or rent increases as high as 90 per cent. Porter acknowledged it took time to arrive at Wednesday’s announcement, but said the government was trying to find the most effective way to deal with the situation.

Although he said the main problem is one of supply, the minister noted that cannot be addressed quickly.

“It is incumbent on us as government to enact something in the interim,” said Porter.

Two of the candidates vying to be the new Liberal leader and premier recently proposed forms of rent control. Porter, who has endorsed candidate Iain Rankin, said those plans had no bearing on Wednesday’s announcement.

Affordable housing commission struck

Wednesday’s announcement also included the creation of the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission, which is charged with making recommendations about affordable housing strategies and actions. Their first list of recommendations is due in six months.

The commission includes:

  • Catherine Berliner, Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing (co-chair)
  • Ren Thomas, Dalhousie University (co-chair)
  • Chief Sidney Peters, Tawaak Housing Association
  • Karen Brodeur, Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada
  • Fred Deveaux, Cape Breton Community Housing Association
  • Jim Graham, Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia
  • Mike Dolter, Association of Municipal Administrators Nova Scotia
  • Jeremy Jackson, Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia
  • Alex Halef, Urban Development Institute
  • Gordon Laing, Southwest Properties
  • Kelly Denty, Halifax Regional Municipality
  • Michelle MacFarlane, Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services
  • Joy Knight, Department of Community Services

Representation will also include people to be appointed from the Cape Breton Regional Municipality and the justice and health departments.

Another measure Porter announced is $1.7 million to replace 30 beds removed from the homeless shelter system as a result of changes required by Public Health protocols for physical distancing.

The minister said meetings are imminent with service providers to determine how to get as many people off the streets as soon as possible. Advocates estimate homelessness numbers in the Halifax Regional Municipality have more than doubled in the last year and Porter said the government is committed to finding ways to address the issue.

Should have come sooner

Officials with the housing advocacy group ACORN issued a news release calling the government’s decision “an overdue first step” that comes following prolonged lobbying.

“We would not have seen any movement on rent control if it were not for the tireless work of our members, tenants across Nova Scotia and activists who have been fighting for our communities for years — organizing works,” said the release.

NDP housing critic Lisa Roberts said her party has put forward multiple pieces of legislation in recent years intended to address the issue, none of which received support from the governing Liberals.

“This is good, but, frankly, it shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic for us to recognize the housing crisis,” she said.

Roberts said she hopes the new commission spends time looking at rent control on a longer-term basis and helps bring in some kind of permanent check, be it through new legislation proposals or use of the existing Rent Control Act, which was passed in the 1990s.

Industry concerns

Kevin Russell, executive director of the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia, said the size of the cap is a concern because it falls “well under” the operational cost of rental buildings.

He predicted it would have the biggest effect on people who rent in older buildings, which make up the majority of housing stock in Halifax and are nearing “the end of their life cycle.”

“It will have an impact on operations,” he said. “To what degree, that will be up to each individual landlord. It may put off some repairs and maintenance, it may affect other areas of operation.”

Russell said he’s optimistic about the affordable housing commission and what it could do. Whatever changes come must be long term, he said.

“We’ve been trying to talk [about] affordable housing with the government for over 10 years and now it takes a crisis for everybody to come to the table. I guess that’s how it works.”


Story by: CBC