HALIFAX – A temporary rent cap will be legislated as part of a wide-ranging government plan to address Nova Scotia’s lack of affordable housing.
The Progressive Conservative government introduced a plan Wednesday that also includes nearly $35 million to build new affordable housing across the province – a figure that adds $10 million to the $25 million called for by the province’s affordable housing commission in its report earlier this year.
“Addressing the housing crisis is truly critical,” Premier Tim Houston told reporters. “It (the plan) is a first step. It’s a big step with many parts … and more steps will certainly be necessary.”
The proposed rent cap will protect tenants once the province’s COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted and limit residential rent increases to two per cent per year until Dec. 31, 2023.
Former Liberal premier Stephen McNeil set a two per cent cap on rent increases in November 2020. The cap was retroactive to September of that year and was set to expire in February of next year or when the COVID-19 state of emergency in the province is lifted.
Despite what amounts to an extension of the cap, Houston, who opposes rent control, continued to maintain that it’s not the long-term solution to the housing crisis.
“The only answer is more supply to meet the market demands,” he said. “In the short term we must extend the rent cap. It simply must remain until the supply issue can start to be addressed.”
Whether the two-year extension will see enough housing stock created is an open question, but Houston said he believes progress can be made.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill called the inclusion of the two-year rent cap “a victory” for tenants, community organizations and housing advocates who fought hard to keep the measure.
“The majority of Canadians live in jurisdictions where they would have protection and people have looked to their government and said we need that protection too,” he said.
He called it an important start to addressing the many challenges involved in solving what is a complex problem.
To that end, the government said the housing funding announced Wednesday is to support the building of more than 1,100 new affordable housing units, although no exact timelines for their construction were provided.
There are also plans to immediately provide 425 new rent supplements for affordable units and to build three new student residences at Nova Scotia Community College campuses, including two in the Halifax area and one in Pictou County.
The plan also includes $10.1 million over two years to provide more supports and shelter for those experiencing homelessness.
As well, the province is identifying a list of properties it owns that can be used for housing and aims to work with community groups and municipalities to get projects underway on those lands as soon as possible.
Housing Minister John Lohr said inclusionary zoning _ also recommended by the affordable housing commission – will be implemented for municipalities across the province. The “planning tool” can either require or encourage affordable housing in new developments.
Lohr said new legislation would also create a planning task force to focus on faster planning and development approvals for large residential projects in the Halifax Regional Municipality. A regional group will also be created to formulate a master transportation plan for the municipality to ensure the system is set up to accommodate rapid residential growth.
Mayor Mike Savage praised the government’s overall plan and in particular the intent to allow inclusionary zoning – something he believes will result in more affordable units being built.
However, Savage reserved judgment on the task force and transportation group, saying more details are needed.
“We look forward to consultation,” he said. “HRM has good plans in place now to prepare for the growth for many years to come which we hope will be part of those discussions.”
As well, the government introduced legislation Wednesday that would change the Residential Tenancies Act to bolster protections for renters.
The proposed changes include protections against renovation evictions, including a requirement for written consent to terminate a lease, more notice before eviction and automatic compensation for eviction.
The compensation would be three months’ rent in buildings with five or more units and one month in buildings with four units or less.
“It won’t be impossible for a rent eviction to happen, but there will be significant protection for the tenant,” Lohr said.
The changes will also prevent landlords from charging different amounts of rent for tenants who rent month to month rather than yearly, as well as protections around the recovery of damage deposits.