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On the Brink: How Nova Scotia’s affordability crisis was years in the making

This story is part of an ongoing Global News series called On the Brink, which explores how Nova Scotians are being affected by the rising cost of living and housing.

As more people are falling into poverty in Nova Scotia, many are wondering when – and if – things will get better.

But another question to ask is: how did we get here?

While the onset and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic was a driving factor, experts say the issue has been years in the making following decades of austerity, and a lack of investment in social housing.

A United Way report from last month indicates that Nova Scotia has the highest provincial poverty rate in the country, and more than one in 10 people in Halifax are living in poverty.

A few days later, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released their own report stating that more than one in five children in Nova Scotia were living in poverty in 2021.

Both reports highlighted the necessity of financial supports, such as income assistance, in helping Nova Scotians make ends meet.

But Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston has been resistant to the idea of increasing income assistance and introducing more universal programs, instead touting the province’s “targeted supports” that are available to those in greatest need.

“I think a lot of those reports just look at the income assistance rates as kind of a blanket thing and I don’t think they give, really, if I’m being frank, proper attention to a number of the targeted supports that are in there to support people,” he said last month.

“So I think we’ll continue with some of the programs we have there.”

Poverty a ‘political choice’

But targeted supports in a time of increasing poverty and desperation isn’t the way to go, according to one expert.

Alec Stratford, executive director and registrar with the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, said using targeted approaches means the province is “choosing deserving poor versus undeserving poor.”

“That, holistically, is not sufficient or effective in tackling the widespread issue that is poverty,” he said.

“Keep in mind that poverty is a political choice … When the government says, ‘We’re taking targeted approaches,’ what they mean is, ‘We think that some people deserve to live in poverty but others don’t.’”

Stratford said increasing income assistance to the poverty line, minimum wage to a living wage, and providing social housing as a right would have a substantial impact on the well-being of Nova Scotians.

This would also take the pressure off other systems that react to the consequences of rampant poverty in our society – such as health care and education, he said.

“We cannot have good health if we have 10 per cent of our population suffering in poverty,” said Stratford.

“We cannot have good learning outcomes if kids are going to school hungry, if kids are going to school without the right clothing.”

He added that the province froze income assistance rates last year, “in the middle of an affordability crisis.”

Over the years, governments of all stripes have failed to adequately address poverty, he said.

“So, on top of the fact that we’ve seen rising inflation – which is predominantly rooted in corporate greed – we have not seen investments into programs and services that allow people to live with dignity and respect,” Stratford said.

Both of the poverty reports noted that poverty rates dropped sharply in 2020, in large part due to temporary pandemic relief programs that have since ended.

“When those measures wrapped up … of course the poverty level rose. And again, the desperation rose, the suffering rose,” Stratford said.

“All those are political choices that are being made. And it doesn’t need to be that way.”

No more tinkering

Stratford also said that there needs to be “massive” investments in social housing programs, rather than the “tinkering” and overreliance on the private sector that we’re seeing now.

The province announced in September 2023 that it will build 222 new public housing units – the first investment in public housing in nearly three decades.

But those units won’t be enough, said Stratford.

“The reality is that housing is one of the major indicators of both the social determinants of health and a major cause of affordability issues right now,” he said.

Notably, in the province’s most recent capital plan, there were no major announcements about housing supports.

About $15.5 million will be used to construct the new public housing units that were already announced, and about $11.8 million will be earmarked toward new modular housing units. Another $27.1 million will fund Nova Scotia Community College student housing projects.

A May 2021 report from the Housing for All Working Group published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recommended the province build or acquire 33,490 non-market rental units by developing and funding a 10-year plan to expand the stock of permanently affordable, non-profit and co-op housing.

Stratford acknowledged it would be expensive – the report recommends spending more than $500 million on social housing units each year for the next 10 years – but it must be done to increase housing affordability.

“The only way that we are going to see the cost of housing stabilize or come down is through the provision of social, co-operative or non-profit housing,” he said.

‘We really did not take housing seriously’

It’s not just social housing that hasn’t kept up. Nova Scotia’s housing supply in general has fallen far short of what’s needed to address the province’s rapidly rising population.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporations latest rental market survey, 2,842 new units were added to Halifax’s market in 2023.

Meanwhile, net migration to Nova Scotia increased by a record-breaking 33,249 that year – many of whom ended up in Halifax, the province’s largest population centre.


The shortage in housing is translating to higher rents. According to the report, the average price of rent rose by 11.9 per cent last year, “the highest single-year increase and four times the average historical growth rate.”

“The long story short is we just don’t have enough supply to keep up with the growing demand that we’ve seen,” said Kelvin Ndoro, a senior analyst with the CMHC.

The issue, said Ndoro, has been “years in the making.”

While the city’s rental vacancy rate has been at record low of one per cent for the last three years, it’s been below two per cent since 2017 – before the pandemic started.

Ndoro noted that up until 2015, Nova Scotia’s population had been on the decline. The issue prompted the release of the Ivany Report, which recommended ways for the province to boost its population through immigration.

“But I think one of the things that the report failed to address was where those people that we were trying to attract were going to live,” he said.

“So, we really did not take housing seriously until it had become a crisis.”

Taking into account existing rental vacancies, and the new rental completions that are coming onto the market, the city has still been about 2,500 units short each year since 2017.

“As a result, we have seen that consistent decrease in the vacancy rate,” he said.

Ndoro said there are many factors contributing to the housing crisis.

Some could have been addressed sooner – like the lack of new housing developments, and the failure to prepare for the population growth that the province had been chasing after for years.

Others, like the pandemic, and the economic challenges that came with it, were unprecedented.

“These are some of the things that no one could have prepared for,” Ndoro said.

“But they’re here, and we have to deal with them.”


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