Public Housing & the Single, Non-Senior

Editor’s Note: This is an article I’ve been working on for over a month now and it barely scratches the surface of the issue it deals with, namely, the housing problems faced by single, non-seniors in the CBRM. If you have information to add or angles you’d like to see explored, let me know as this won’t be the last I will write on the subject. Also, if you’d like to read about these issues from the point of view of people experiencing them, I recommend Robert Devet’s Nova Scotia Advocate, in which people navigating Nova Scotia’s social assistance program frequently speak for themselves.

A Spectator reader contacted me a few weeks ago about what she felt was an unusually high number of empty public housing units in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM).

I emailed Heather Fairbairn, spokesperson for Nova Scotia Community Services, which oversees public housing in this province, to ask about vacancy rates in the CBRM.

She told me that the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority has 3,254 units housing 5,200 people and as of the first of June, 155 of these were vacant – a vacancy rate of 4.7%.

Of the 155 empty units, 62 are already “allocated to applicants from the eligible wait list” and are either “ready for occupancy or will be very soon.”

Ten units are currently available but either “have no applicants on file for the unit or no applicant has accepted the unit at this time.”

Of the remaining 83 units, roughly half are “currently in the process of being refurbished between tenants and will be re-rented once the work is complete.” Fairbairn said the CB Housing Authority “refurbishes/prepares” about 460-500 units each year or 38 to 42 per month. Those 83 units should, in theory then, all be ready for re-renting as of end July.

The difference between “refurbishing” a unit and “preparing” a unit is basically the difference between work that must be tendered and work that is completed by CB Housing Authority staff. Said Fairbairn:

The work undertaken to prepare or refurbish a unit between tenants varies depending on the unit. For some units, the work may include cleaning, painting or repairs performed by housing authority staff and/or through standing contracts. Others may require scheduled maintenance, renovations or other work that may involve a tender.

I went through the housing authority’s tenders from 2012 to 2017 (the period accessible online) and found tenders for refurbishing a total of 109 public housing units (I excluded tenders for repairing fire damage and new construction). Clearly, the bulk of the annual refurbishing/preparation work is performed through housing authority staff or standing contracts.



So, there are 93 untenanted public housing units in the CBRM – 10 ready for renting but empty, 83 either being prepared or about to be prepared for renting.

On the other hand, says Fairbairn, as of 5 June, there were “about 612” on the wait list for public housing in Cape Breton, including 416 “eligible seniors” and 196 “eligible family applicants.” How long they will spend on the list depends on a number of factors:

Wait times for housing vary from building to building and person to person. The time applicants remain on the wait list depends on: the availability of units, the applicants’ preferred locations; readiness to move and their specific needs. The wait time can be as little as a few days for a priority access application. Some seniors’ complexes and single family dwellings (bungalow style homes) have very low turnover rates. Applicants who wish to be placed on the list for specific complexes or housing types may wait for some time.

Note the characterization of those on the waiting list: eligible seniors, eligible families. This is where my story takes a turn: I thought I was writing about vacant public housing units in the CBRM but instead found myself focusing on the people who will eventually fill those vacancies, or more precisely, the people who won’t.



Public housing in Nova Scotia has a mandate to prioritize seniors (people aged 58 and over) and families, but recent research suggests the need for housing in this province is particularly acute among single, non-seniors.

Data from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in 2011, for example, found that 12.5% of NS households were experiencing “core housing need,” meaning their current housing was “inadequate, unaffordable and/or unsuitable” and “acceptable alternative housing would absorb more than 30% of their total before-tax income.”

Of those households, “non-senior, one-person” households accounted for the biggest share — 30.5%. (Senior-led households were close behind, at 29.4%; followed by lone-parent households at 20.6%.)

Here in the CBRM, the Cape Breton Community Housing Association (in cooperation with organizations like Every Woman’s Centre, Public Health, Cape Breton Regional Police Service, Cape Breton University and the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness) set out in 2016 to get a handle on Cape Breton’s homelessness problem.

Their research included three separate studies: a Point in Time (PIT) homelessness count, a service-based analysis of homelessness and a rental housing stock survey.

The PIT count, done over 12 hours on 15 April 2016, found 137 people who met the definition of homeless — some who were actually sleeping rough, some couch surfing, some in emergency housing (like women’s shelters) some in addiction treatment centers, hospital ERs or half-way houses.

The service-based analysis, conducted over four weeks in April 2016, asked 40 agencies in a variety of sectors to provide information about homelessness among their clients. The resulting data identified 304 people experiencing homelessness, 88% of whom were single adults; 38% of whom were under the age of 30. The chief barrier to finding permanent housing — experienced by 69% of clients — was poor housing options/low income.


Left out

In November 2016, when the results of the research were announced, CBU Professor Catherine Leviten-Reid, who oversaw the rental stock survey, told  LocalXpress:

What jumps out to me is this issue of single people who aren’t seniors being left out.

I spoke to Leviten-Reid recently, and she said public housing’s mandate to prioritize seniors and families dates to a time when single people in the province could expect to graduate high school and find work. This is clearly no longer the case – particularly not in the CBRM – and yet the government has not revisited that mandate. Compounding the problem, says Leviten-Reid, is that even non-profit and for-profit landlords often prefer seniors as tenants:

We found that our private landlords are not renting to single, non-seniors. Market-based landlords will even waive the deposit for seniors, making it easier, economically, for a certain type of renter.


Source: Homelessness in CBRM, a Point in Time Count.

Source: Homelessness in CBRM, a Point in Time Count.


One solution to the problem of homelessness among single, non-seniors, Leviten-Reid suggested, would be to expand the public housing mandate to include them. Such an approach might not even require new construction, she told LocalXpress, as “…there’s evidence there that we do have units sitting empty.”

Accommodating non-seniors in facilities normally occupied by seniors is something that would require careful thought and planning, she acknowledged, as elderly tenants can be intimidated by younger neighbors. But there are ways it can be done — dedicating a wing or a floor of a complex to single non-seniors, for example, or allowing for separate common areas

I asked Fairbairn if the government were considering expanding the public housing mandate to accommodate single, non-seniors and she replied:

While public housing currently serves the needs of families and seniors on a priority basis, we can accommodate non-elderly single individuals when there is no wait list for an appropriate public housing unit…We recognize that there is a need for more options for non-elderly single individuals and Housing Nova Scotia is currently undergoing a comprehensive program and policy review to identify potential options to better support this group.

But Leviten-Reid says implying that public housing supports single, non-seniors because they are “technically” able to access units and supplements is “like telling a neighbor they can swim in your backyard pool whenever they want to, but then never putting water in it.”

She adds:

We were told by public housing at our fall conference on homelessness and affordable housing that their mandate was to serve families and seniors. But…it is good news they are re-thinking how this household type is supported (or not), and they have a tremendous opportunity to work with organizations on the ground who have learned so much about what the problems are and the solutions can be.


Rent supplements

Both Fairbairn and Leviten-Reid also raised another possible method of providing affordable housing to single, non-seniors: rent supplements.

As it now stands, rent supplements are available to qualifying seniors and families in lieu of a public housing unit. The supplements make up the difference between what a landlord is charging and what a tenant can pay. (And, if not properly regulated, can give landlords an incentive to hike rents annually, as was pointed out to me in the course of my research.)

Fairbairn told me in an email:

Rent supplements may also be used for these clients if there are no family or senior applicants on the list.

But Leviten-Reid says single, non-seniors’ access to rent supplements is like their access to public housing units — technically possible but rarely occurring.

According to Housing Nova Scotia’s own website,  rent supplements are now provided to a mere 1,485 “low-income households” compared to the 17,666 “families and seniors” occupying public housing units.

Rent supplements are particularly necessary for people on income assistance in the CBRM. That rental housing stock survey mentioned earlier, which Leviten-Reid oversaw in the summers of 2015 and 2016, collected data from 292 landlords and 19 rooming house landlords in the municipality and discovered that only 10% of market rentals here cost $535 — the maximum shelter allowance for those on provincial income assistance — or less. (Obviously, raising the maximum shelter allowance is another option — remember I said this article is only scratching the surface of the issue?)

The rental stock survey also revealed how little difference there is between non-profit and private market rents in the CBRM:

Source: 2016 Homeless Count Committee

As Lucy MacDonald, a Halifax woman attempting to find adequate housing on an even lower shelter allowance, wrote recently in the Nova Scotia Advocate:

The shelter allowance for a single employable person like me is $300 a month. That amount will not even rent you a closet this day and age. That amount contradicts the Community Services policy manual that states that its program “strives to provide residents of Nova Scotia who are in need with a level of assistance adequate to meet their basic needs for shelter, food, clothing and personal care.”




I think it’s time for a bit of positive news, don’t you?

One area where progress has been made in the CBRM is in affordable housing for those with living with or recovering from mental illness. (The service-based analysis of homelessness done in April 2016 found mental illness was a factor in 22% of homelessness in the CBRM.)

Whitney pier housing complex. George Mortimer/CBC photo

George Mortimer/CBC photo

A program called Supported Housing for People Living with Mental Illness (SHIMI), launched in 2007 and involving three levels of government and community organizations like New Dawn Enterprises and the Cape Breton Regional Hospital Foundation, has constructed (or, in the case of 10 public housing units, taken over responsibility for) a total of 35 units.

When the most recent eight units, located in Whitney Pier, opened, Lynn Rossiter, housing co-ordinator with Mental Health and Addiction Services, told the CBC how challenging it was to find affordable housing in the CBRM:

It’s “quite dire right now,” she said. “I think people would be challenged to find affordable housing to rent under $600 and the shelter allowance amount is $535.”

Rent at the SHIMI complex is covered by the $535 provincial shelter allowance. As of January, there was talk of developing another such housing complex — and a waiting list of 60 people.

What programs like SHIMI recognize is that homelessness and mental illness are connected — and not in a simple way. While having a mental illness can make finding shelter difficult, especially if one is on disability in this province with a $535 monthly shelter allowance, being homeless or inadequately housed is not conducive to good mental health, as Lucy MacDonald pointed out in that Nova Scotia Advocate article cited earlier:

…people like me are stuck with the $300 shelter allowance, trying to find a place to live in a city that charges at least $600 for a decent unit. Only the mentally strong can survive this ordeal. It begs the question, are we not worthy of adequate housing while we look for work?  Having secure and permanent housing would greatly increase our chances of finding a job, and less stress and anxiety equals greater stability and productivity.


Housing First

Addiction is another factor linked to homelessness, although as with mental illness, the connection is more complicated than simple cause and effect.

Here in the CBRM, addiction was an issue for 43% of the homeless clients identified in the service-based analysis done last April. (During the PIT count, 23% of respondents identified addiction/substance abuse as a key factor in their homelessness.)

Housing First (HF) is an approach to homeless assistance that aims to help people battling addictions find (and keep) housing largely by acknowledging those addictions rather than insisting clients get clean before they get housed. Housing Nova Scotia defined Housing First in this 2015 press release as:

…an innovative approach to break the cycle of homelessness. It supports homeless individuals to remain housed without a requirement that they first become “housing ready”. Similar programs across North America have proven to be a very effective intervention to offer people who have long struggled with homelessness.

The Housing First approach has been implemented in both the CBRM and the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). Here in the CBRM it is a joint project of the Cape Breton Community Housing Association and the Every Woman’s Centre and has housed 29 clients. But the program in the CBRM isn’t as well resourced as the one in the capital. In fact, the HRM version enjoys two distinct advantages, the first being access to — wait for it — rent supplements.

Explains Leviten-Reid:

…the serious challenge in the implementation of this Housing First initiative locally is securing affordable rental housing, and this is why these rent supplements are so critical. HF clients can’t access these supplements through the Housing Authority, because they aren’t families and they aren’t seniors, so people trying to implement this program in CBRM are really stuck.

It’s frustrating to watch: Housing First has been rigorously tested and is associated with a range of positive outcomes, but locally our community agencies can’t house people adequately because rents are too high and the gap between what people can pay and what landlords charge isn’t being bridged by making supplements available. The official launch of HF in CBRM was in January of 2016, and we still don’t have rent supplements from the province…Rent supplements have been designated for HRM specifically (for their Housing First clients) in Housing Nova Scotia’s strategic plan. I’m not sure why CBRM has been excluded.

I asked Heather Fairbairn of Community Services if the province had any plans to extend rent supplements to the Housing First program in the CBRM and she told me a lot of stuff but none of it amounted to an answer to the question:

Housing NS is “currently undertaking a comprehensive program and policy review to identify options and opportunities to better support single, non-senior individuals address access to affordable housing across the province.”

They are working to reduce waiting lists for public housing. The CB Island Housing Authority provided 20 new rent supplements (to seniors and families) in 2016-17 thanks to federal and provincial funding. Housing NS invested over $1.5 million in the last fiscal year through the Shelter Enhancement Program and housing repair program support in the CBRM. They are working with pretty much everyone, it seems, to address the issue of homelessness and are in the process of establishing a new Homelessness Coordinator (which may be a good thing but is a really bad title).

I don’t blame Fairbairn, who is always very good to deal with, for the answers she was given by the bureaucrats at NS Housing. (I’d like to have been a fly on the wall while they were crafting this response, though — wondering just how much extraneous information they dare include, deciding to cut references to what the deputy minister had for lunch and how many in the office had seen the Game of Thrones premier.)

Presumably, coordinators of the Housing First program in the CBRM — and more importantly, current and future clients — must wait for the results of that extensive review to get an answer about rent supplements.



The 2016 Homeless Count Committee is made up of representatives from Cape Breton Community Housing Association, Public Health, Cape Breton Regional Police Service, CBU, Every Woman’s Centre and The Community Advisory Board on Homelessness.

Source: 2016 Homeless Count Committee


Housing support

The second advantage the HRM Housing First project has enjoyed is housing support workers, thanks to a program launched in the capital six years ago:

Offering support to individuals who are homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless, the Housing Support Worker (HSW) Initiative is an integral component of the supports and services offered by Housing Nova Scotia. This past year, the initiative has been extremely active and successful on multiple fronts.

That’s taken from a 2015 press release extolling the successes of the HSW program which, by that time, had helped house 1,200 people with a 90% retention rate.

Leviten-Reid doesn’t need to be sold on the value of the program but she says it’s time to bring it to the CBRM:

“We need housing support workers.”


Maintaining homes

To get a sense of what such workers do, I spoke to one — Adam Craft, of HRM’s Metro Non-Profit Housing Association (MNPHA).

MNPHA’s declared mission is to “assist single individuals who have been homeless or at risk of homelessness to create and maintain their homes.”

It fulfills that mission, in part, by owning and operating apartments which it rents to single, non-seniors. According to the non-profit’s 2015 annual report, it now has six apartment complexes — including one for women only, one for men only and one, the Buddy Daye Street Apartments in Halifax, which won the Lieutenant Governor’s Prize for Architecture in 2001.

Craft spoke to me by phone from MNPHA’s Housing Support Centre, located in the Buddy Daye Street complex. He told me that many of MNPHA’s tenants struggle with addiction or mental health issues and have been kicked out of apartments in the past. He says MNPHA, aware of the challenges posed by addiction and mental illness, resorts less readily to eviction than do private market landlords, and he considers this a big factor in their success.

Another factor, he says, is tenant participation in building management. Tenants are hired for jobs like cleaning hallways and staircases or taking care of garbage or yard and garden work. They also get a say in how the buildings are run. Says Craft:

Each building has a board and it includes tenants. When an apartment opens up, for example, we give them a curated list of possible new tenants and let them choose.

MNPHA also provides services and a place to “call home” for people from the broader community. The building where Craft works is home to the Housing Support Centre, a drop-in center and cafe open to tenants and non-tenants alike. Center staff refer community members to appropriate agencies and short-term counseling, schedule medical appointments and even accompany people to them.

When I mentioned that I’d been talking to people about the need for better services for single, non-seniors, here, Craft said that one of their current tenants is a woman who had tried to make a go of it in the CBRM before giving up and moving to Halifax.

“She tried,” said Craft, “But she just couldn’t piece it together down there.”


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