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“We’re in a serious crisis” – NDP MLA Susan Leblanc on rising rents, renovictions and the shortage of affordable housing

Susan Leblanc. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The problems aren’t new, but lately landlords raising rents, renovictions, homelessness and the underlying acute shortage of affordable housing in Halifax and elsewhere in the province have been getting a lot of attention.  

In 2019 the Nova Scotia NDP proposed private member bills that would reinstitute rent control, regulate Airbnb properties, and make apartment hunting a little easier. The party is also calling for a first right of refusal policy for residential housing units being sold in the province, driven by the urgent need to increase the non-market housing stock and protect tenants of these buildings.

I spoke with Susan Leblanc, MLA for Dartmouth North, a constituency with lots of low income residents and hard hit by renovictions and unmanageable rent increases. 

What are you hearing about housing issues in your constituency?

Issues around rent and rising rents were among the top things I heard when I campaigned in 2017. One of my top priorities after I was elected was to try to table legislation on rent control, which I did in the first session. 

By July or August 2019, almost every single issue that constituents brought to our office was about housing in one way or another. People told us, I can’t find a place to live that’s in my price range, or my rent is increasing by an amount that is just completely unmanageable, or my place is falling apart, and my landlord won’t do anything about it. And more and more we were hearing about rising rents. 

All of the other constituency offices in our caucus were hearing the same things, even to the point where Gary Burrill’s riding, Halifax Chebucto, which generally doesn’t have all that many rental properties, began hearing about it as the number one issue. That to me was a real sign that this has permeated all of central Halifax. 

In addition, we’re hearing that for people all across the province housing is becoming among the top issues. It’s also not just the lowest income people who are affected, but people who are spending $1500 in rent. On top of all of that, we hear about these buildings where everyone is getting rental increases of exorbitant amounts, basically to get them kicked out so that they can renovate the building and then raise the rents much higher. All that is a long winded way of saying, we’re in a serious crisis.

People often suggest that rent control will stop landlords from improving their properties or keep them in a good state of repair.

Rent control is only one part of the puzzle. My response is that we also need to bring in landlord licensing, so we compel landlords to keep their places safe and up to snuff. 

Our proposed legislation also specifically gives landlords an opportunity to raise rents more than the prescribed rate per year if they can prove that they need to. So if they have to do a big renovation they can apply for an exemption and raise the rents, which is, in my opinion, totally fair. So if there are major renovations landlords will be able to make that work for themselves. 

What we’re trying to do is stop these limitless rent increases, and we’re trying to stop renovictions, kicking people out in order to renovate.  

We also have to protect the existing stock of housing. One of the things we are pushing for here is the first right of refusal for the province to buy rental properties that are put up for sale. The province could then convert them to public housing, or hand them over to non-profit housing organizations or co-op housing.  

The government has focused on rent subsidies. What about that approach?

That approach is problematic for a couple of reasons. Housing subsidies are basically putting public money into private landlords hands. And it doesn’t do anything to increase not-for-profit and public housing stock.

How bad are things, have we reached a breaking point?

There’s a number of social issues and health issues that come into play.. One is that people are choosing to spend their limited income on their rent, as opposed to food, medications, all of the other things that folks need to live a good life. People’s health will suffer, and that’s a big cost in the healthcare system, not to mention the human suffering.

Some families are being broken apart. When people are facing homelessness, then families considered at risk in terms of child protection will have children removed because there’s no stable housing. I’ve seen a number of cases like that, they’re just heartbreaking. 

Also, for people with mental health issues, obviously, these mental health issues are exacerbated by the stress of not having a stable and safe place to live. That’s happening a lot. 

See also: News brief: NDP calls for first right of refusal to protect affordable housing options

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