Housing in the Headlines

If writing about poverty, homelessness, food banks and the need for a guaranteed annual income (GAI) could solve any of the problems associated with such matters, I would surely have solved a few over lo! these many years I’ve been contributing to the Spectator.

The battle cry at the moment is against exorbitant rent increases, especially in Halifax, where owners claim the need for improvements to their units as a reason for the increases and tenants demand the return of rent control, something that hasn’t existed in Nova Scotia since the The Rent Review Act was axed in 1993 by John Savage’s LIberal government. As Hilary Beaumont explained in The Coast back in 2014, Nova Scotia once had a Rent Review Commission that “set a maximum allowable increase each year, and landlords could apply to go over that cap if, for example, they had splurged on repairs.”

Antigonish rent control protest

Rent control rally, Antigonish, NS, 7 November 2020 (Source: Twitter)

But the current Liberal government doesn’t seem to be a fan of rent control either. Reporting for the CBC in September, Taryn Grant wrote:

The provincial NDP proposed a rent control bill in 2018, but the sitting Liberal government has essentially rejected it by leaving it untouched on the floor of the legislature for two years.

The Residential Tenancies Act is the central piece of legislation in Nova Scotia regulating rental housing, and it falls under the portfolio of Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab. She declined an interview request.

Housing Minister Chuck Porter told CBC last month that the government hasn’t enacted rent control because it believes it “doesn’t work.”

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), in Halifax a “record low vacancy rate in conjunction with record high new developments are making housing less affordable.” Stories about “development” in Halifax are almost daily fare in the local news, and they definitely tend to be very high-end, expensive and well out of reach for any garden variety renter. But the shortage of affordable housing has been well documented here in Cape Breton, too.

Lars Osberg, a Dalhousie economics professor and proponent of a GAI, told Grant it is “quite feasible to have rent control on existing apartments but have new apartments exempt from some controls. If you exempt new construction, it doesn’t impede the supply of housing at all.”


When all is said and done, however, there is a group for whom the ongoing debate is of little interest. They are the homeless, those who take advantage of the various shelters around the province, including the one opened in Sydney in December of 2019. Not having to spend nights on the street or couch-surf or sleep in an unlocked car is a boon for those who can now avail themselves of a place where they know they are welcome. But, let’s face it, having to leave each morning and roam the streets or find a short reprieve in a coffee shop is definitely not ideal.

In writing about this situation back in January of 2018, I discovered that a “forever home” was what everyone working with the homeless saw as the most desirable outcome, and both Every Woman’s Centre and Transition House were renting apartments from “generous landlords” which they then let out to clients at rents in keeping with their incomes. I also discovered an interesting take on housing the homeless in Scotland, where Josh Littlejohn and Alice Thomson operate a small café, “The Social Bite,” offering patrons the opportunity to pay for a coffee or a sandwich for a homeless person. When one of those who benefited from that “pay it forward” scheme asked for a job in the café, Littlejohn hired him. Eventually, they expanded to five outlets, in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. One quarter of their workers are homeless.

But in addition to employing the homeless, Littlejohn hatched a scheme to house them, building tiny homes for 10 of his employees. He raised the money from the likes of George Clooney, Bill Clinton and Leonardo DiCaprio, and other generous patrons and in the summer of 2017, the first residents, who had been spending their nights in hostels — in at 6PM out by 10AM, moved into their new digs. The houses, which cost $CAN50,000 to build, are mobile.

By 2018, Littlejohn had established The Social Bite Village in Grafton, Edinburgh — 11 two-bedroom tiny houses offering “a stable and supported way of living to 20 residents at a time for a period of 12 to 18 months.”

During this time, they’re offered a range of programs – counselling, cooking lessons, budgeting and more — to assist them in finding employment, thereby changing the entire course of their lives. Builder Jonathan Avery, who designed the “NestHouse” for Littlejohn, continues to build, sell and ship them near and far, although COVID-19 has put a bit of a hitch in his production.

A novel answer to the homeless question but one that could be undertaken anywhere.

Sounds like a plan.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.