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Long-standing housing problems becoming crisis: advocates

Community Featured

NEW GLASGOW — Mary Richards knows the struggle of finding housing.

For the last year or so, she’s been trying to find a home for herself and her three teenaged grandchildren. She legally adopted them in 2010.

“Some of the landlords, they don’t want children,” said Richards. “Even when they find out they’re teenagers, the landlords don’t want to rent to you.”

Living in New Glasgow, Richards doesn’t have the option of moving outside town limits. She doesn’t own a car; she doesn’t even drive.

“I’ve been trying to get into housing for quite some time now, but for most places, it’s a three- to four-year wait to get in. There are so many places sitting empty, I don’t see why the government and housing people can’t go in to these places, clean it up and make suitable for people to have a safe roof over their heads,” she said.

She has been offered a two-bedroom place, however, that won’t work for her and her grandchildren, aged 16, 17, and 18.

When she first saw the home she currently rents, Richards told her landlord it was a great long-term home for her family. She had been renting through the same landlord prior to, and called the landlord “fantastic” to rent from.

She estimates it was about six months after moving in that a ‘for sale’ sign was erected; however, she was assured she wouldn’t have to move if the building sold.

But when Richards asked someone while the house was being shown, she was told she may have to vacate within two months if the building was purchased.

“Two months,” said Richards. “You can’t get a place in New Glasgow in two months.”

It turns out, Richards’ landlord didn’t sell the house, however, the woman and her grandchildren have been given notice to vacate by March.

“I’m just thinking about these three kids,” said Richards. “What’s going to happen in March… I don’t know.”

It’s stories like Richards’ that Margie Grant-Walsh is all too familiar with.

“Lately, it’s been really exaggerated,” said Grant-Walsh, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pictou County (BBBS). “It’s a situation that’s always been around, but since COVID-19 happened, it seems to be much more of a crisis.”

In Pictou County, Grant-Walsh says rent has increased from five to 10 per cent lately and for some tenants, they just can’t afford it.

“When you’re on social assistance or a subsidy, what can you get?”

The provincial government recently announced protections for renters under the Emergency Management Act. Under the protections, rent can’t be increased by more than two per cent per year, and landlords can’t evict a tenant in order to carry out renovations. The protections are in place until Feb. 1, 2022, or until the state of emergency is lifted.

Grant-Walsh doesn’t think that will have much impact on the issue.

“When we look at our community, a lot don’t think many are homeless,” Grant-Walsh said. “But that’s not true. There are homeless people in our community. There are a lot of youth that are couch surfing, going place to place. It’s a huge challenge.”

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Lack of available units

a big issue

Stacey Dlamini, executive director of the Pictou County Roots for Youth Society, says the lack of available units is a big problem, especially for those on assistance. Single individuals on assistance, with no disability, receive $580 each month.

“There just aren’t places to rent at that price,” she said.

Dlamini says one of their clients has been able to find employment and has the income, but the lack of housing has meant the individual hasn’t been able to find a place.

“He’s been here for six weeks with fulltime employment. That’s never happened,” she said.

The increase in rental prices in Halifax recently has also put added pressure on Roots for Youth, Dlamini feels.

“I know of people in their 20s that had been working in the city and they just can’t do it anymore, so with their education and experience in the city they’ve moved home,” she said, adding most of those individuals are able to pay the $650-$750 per month rent in Pictou County. “They’re potentially competing for housing.”

In the five years Dlamini has been with Roots for Youth, there hasn’t been a waiting list. The emergency shelter operated by the non-profit organization normally has four beds for women; however, pandemic distancing guidelines eliminated one.

“These women are in here for longer periods. It’s harder for us to help them in moving along. We now have a waiting list of 11 people for those three beds.”

The organization is potentially turning a sunroom into another bedroom, and they were just approved for funding to construct two rooms and one bathroom onto the emergency shelter building.

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Look toward the future

For the last two years, Kailee Brennan, the director of Rural Settlement for the Pictou County Regional Enterprise Network, has helped find accommodations for families immigrating to the area.

“It’s really impossible to find something,” she said. “There are quite a few bachelor or one-bedroom apartments, but there’s a real lack of options for families.”

To try to combat the issue, Brennan has been meeting with a number of organizations, including BBBS and Roots for Youth, for discussions.

“This is something I’ve been interested in for a really long time,” said Brennan, who has looked at various cities in Canada and how housing situations are handled. Moose Jaw, she says, has a housing authority that works with residents to only pay 30 per cent of their income on housing.

“One of the challenges (in Pictou County) is there is no real ownership over the issue. There’s no one organization with a mandate on the issue. There are funding streams and opportunities available, but a lot of that is staying in HRM. They have the people who have been able to look at this successfully over time. Here, there isn’t a clear path forward.”

Brennan hopes discussions will continue, and that a more formal structure can be created.

“Any type of solution has to be a multi-level partnership involving municipal and provincial governments, and even the private sector. It’s about bringing together the right partners with the right reasons in mind. The public sector also needs to be involved,” said Brennan.

“To me, affordable housing is a human rights issue.”