Housing By the Numbers

There was a wonderfully wonky — yet important — item on the agenda of last night’s CBRM council meeting, and I am not talking about the CBRM declaring Paul’s Pizza Burgers the official food of the municipality for 2021.

I am talking about an item that pleased me personally first, because it had made the agenda at all; and second, because it touched on a subject (housing) widely identified as an important issue in this federal election. So by writing about this particular agenda item, I am also fulfilling my promise to discuss election issues this week.


The item in question was the following resolution, submitted by Deputy Mayor (and District 2 Councilor) Earlene MacMullin:

CBRM council resolution re: CMHC stats.

It passed with little discussion (District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald was the only one to speak to it, saying it was important rental market data reflect the real situation in CBRM). But I think it’s worth discussing in a little more detail because it’s really quite eye-opening.

Boiled down to its bare bones, the problem Councilor MacMullin’s resolution seeks to address is that would-be affordable housing providers may be denied government funding for their projects because Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) data suggests there is no shortage of/need for affordable housing in their areas.

Councilor MacMullin told me the issue had been brought to her attention by proponents of a project to turn the former Seton elementary school in North Sydney into a facility that will include a food bank, a community garden and 22 rental units — some market-value, some affordable.


Secondary market

To understand the problems with CMHC’s data, I contacted CBU professor and housing advocate Dr. Catherine Leviten-Reid who sent me a copy of an article on the subject she’d co-written — with Bridget Horel of CBU, Rebecca Matthew of the University of Georgia and Fred Deveaux and Peggy Vassallo of the CB Community Housing Association — for the Journal of Rural and Community Development:

Strong Foundations 1689-4816-1-PB


You can read the full article for the details, but the main point it makes is that CMHC’s annual rental market report, considered “the foremost data source” on rental housing in this country, doesn’t collect sufficient information about smaller geographic areas. It collects detailed information about census metropolitan areas (CMAs), which must have populations of 100,000, at least 50,000 of whom live in the core. In Nova Scotia, that means Halifax.

CMHC collects less detailed information about census agglomerations (CAs), which must have core populations of 10,000. In Nova Scotia, that means CBRM.

When I say CMHC collects “less detailed” information about smaller areas, I mean that for areas under 10,000 population, it doesn’t collect much rental market information at all — and what it collects, it collects irregularly.

As for areas like CBRM, “less detailed” means CMHC doesn’t collect information about what is called the secondary rental market, focusing instead on the primary market. The primary market is defined as “units in buildings in which there are at least three rentals, such as purpose-built apartments” while the secondary market is comprised of “rentals in buildings with fewer than three units.”

As a resident of Sydney’s North End, I know that much of the market rental stock around me falls within this secondary market — think duplexes, basement apartments, apartments in commercial buildings, single-detached houses — but you don’t have to rely on my anecdotal evidence, Levetin and her colleagues undertook their own “extensive, community-engaged” research six years ago (the paper explains their methods) and discovered that a full 43% of CBRM’s market rentals are “located within the secondary market.”

Of the secondary market rentals, the majority are duplexes or semi-detached dwellings (42.60%), followed by rented, single-detached homes (28.14%) and converted houses or buildings (15.23%).

So when CMHC is doing the math on vacancy rates or average rents in CBRM, it is leaving 43% of the market out of its calculations. When I spoke to Leviten-Reid on Tuesday, she said CMHC says there are 2,053 private rental apartments in CBRM. But Leviten-Reid said their research found 6,589 rental market units — and the most recent census data shows CBRM has 11,595 tenant households in non-farm, non-reserve, private dwellings, 25% of which were subsidized rentals, which means 8,696 non-subsidized or market rentals. She said there were some discrepancies between the three sets of data but the bottom line is:

What they understand is our rental housing universe here, even for primary rentals, seems to be off.

All of which explains how CMHC could report that in October 2020,  Sydney had a vacancy rate for 2-bedroom apartments of 8.4% (up from 5.8% a year previously) while, as Councilor MacMullin stated in her resolution, “staff, affordable housing providers, residents, researchers and housing advocates” tell a very different story.


Utilities included?

Leviten-Reid said another problem with CMHC’s data is that it doesn’t specify whether utilities are included in the rent, whether units are accessible or whether landlords are targeting specific types of tenants (seniors, say, or families), nor does it distinguish between types of housing (like rooming housing).

The implication is that if an apartment is vacant, it is available to anyone — but if it’s not accessible (and the local research showed less than 3% of CBRM rentals are) and you are in a wheelchair, or if the landlord is targeting seniors and you’re a non-senior, then it’s obviously not an option for you.

And the failure to specify whether utilities are included in the rent makes it hard to judge the affordability of a unit. The local researchers found that 77% of CBRM units do not include lights in the rent, 58% don’t include heat and 9% don’t include water. CMHC relies on information collected from landlords and states that rents “may or may not” include utilities. The researchers calculated the median price for 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments in CBRM including utilities and found the difference between these figures and the median rents calculated by CMHC based on information from landlords to be significant:

Source: Leviten-Reid, C., Horel, B., Matthew, R., Deveaux, F., & Vasallo, P. (2019). Strong foundations: Building community through improved rental housing data. The Journal of Rural and Community Development, 14(3), 74–86.

“Overall,” says the article:

…these omissions raise concerns about the extent to which current data accurately reflect affordable housing need and supply within smaller geographies specifically, and among the most vulnerable, more generally.

Why does this matter? Because the CMHC figures are used to determine housing benefits, to access the adequacy of shelter allowances and social assistance rates, and to evaluate proposed affordable housing projects.

I asked CMHC to comment on MacMullin’s resolution but media officer David Harris told me in an email that:

Given CMHC is a federal crown corporation, we are required to adhere to the Caretaker Convention governing federal elections. As such, we are not be able to provide a comment at this time.

He also provided me a link to the methodology for the rental market survey, which explains:

The survey is conducted on a sample basis in all urban areas with populations of 10,000 or more, and targets only privately initiated structures with at least three rental units, which have been on the market for at least three months.

But as we’ve been discussing, this is precisely the problem.



Interestingly, the CBC here in Nova Scotia has been investigating another problematic CMHC data point — the one used to determine what constitutes “affordable” housing.

Under the headline, “Ottawa is lending billions to developers. The result: $1,500 ‘affordable’ rents,” reporters Richard Cuthbertson and Shaina Luck analyzed data related to more than 130 low-cost loans given to developers under the federal government’s $25-billion rental construction financing initiative which is intended to incentivize developers to include affordable units in their developments.

Cuthbertson and Luck discovered that “in more than half the cases,” the average “affordable” rents were “higher, or are projected to be higher, than what most tenants currently pay in the city or town where the project is located.” A project in Halifax (which I’ve discussed previously), for example, promises that 76 of its 324 units will be “affordable,” but according to the reporters, “affordable” in this case means $1,500 a month — in a city where the average rent is $1,172.

How can this be? Because under the rental construction financing initiative, developers must promise that:

…a certain number of units will be rented for at least 10 years at rates less than 30 per cent of the median family income for the area. [emphasis mine] And the total rent taken in must be 10 per cent lower than what would otherwise be achievable.

This not only isn’t a standard definition of “affordable” (which is generally considered to be 30% of the median income of tenants) it isn’t even CMHC’s definition of affordable as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia pointed out back in June:

As Cutherbertson and Luck explained, including homeowners in the calculation of median income raises it because homeowners tend to earn more than renters.

The federal government’s response to criticism of the initiative, according to the CBC article, has been to start referring to housing for “middle-class Canadians” rather than “affordable” housing.



Luckily, these data problems are not insoluble.

As Leviten-Reid told me, it’s a matter of CMHC asking more specific questions about rental units (Are utilities included? Are you targeting a particular type of tenant?) but also collecting more detailed information about smaller geographies, including details about the secondary rental markets in these smaller areas.

She acknowledges this would cost more, but surely the value represented by such information — the way it could inform other government decisions and programs and projects — would outweigh the expense.

CBRM council clearly thought so, because it passed MacMullin’s resolution unanimously, instructing staff to write to the federal minister and deputy minister of Social Development Canada (presumably not until after the election) asking that CMHC reassess its data and consult more closely with local experts to ensure its numbers accurately reflect the situation on the ground.

As for ensuring affordable housing is truly affordable, Ricardo Tranjan, a political economist with CCPA-Ontario, offered this suggestion way back in August:

To truly lower rents and make housing affordable for all, we ought to take profit out of the equation by investing in public and non-profit housing.

Following passage of MacMullin’s motion, Mayor Amanda McDougall said improved data was “imperative” if the CBRM was to “lead on projects municipally” with the support of provincial and federal governments.

If the CBRM aims to create truly affordable housing, it needs to take Tranjan’s advice to heart.

Featured image by Juniper Littlefield via the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS)