What Part of ‘Rapid Housing’ Don’t You Understand?

Last Friday’s “emergency” CBRM council meeting has been well covered in the local media, leaving me with one angle—secrecy—that I still feel has not been adequately explored.

But first, let’s recap recent affordable housing history:


October 27: The federal government launches the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) delivered by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) as part of its 10-year National Housing Strategy. The RHI:

…takes a human rights-based approach to housing, serving people experiencing or at risk of homelessness and other vulnerable people under the NHS, including women and children fleeing domestic violence, seniors, young adults, Indigenous Peoples, people with disabilities, people experiencing mental health and addiction issues, veterans, 2SLGBTQI+ individuals, racialized groups, and recent immigrants or refugees.


November 2021: CBRM council holds a special session on “affordable housing” during which it hears from Dr. Catherine Leviten-Reid on “Affordable Housing/Homelessness” and New Dawn CEO Erika Shea on the Seton School Affordable Housing Project (and, significantly, the difficulties faced by non-profits in accessing capital for affordable housing projects).


November 10: CBRM (thanks, apparently, to lobbying on the part of local MPs Jaime Battiste and Mike Kelloway) receives $5 million through the Cities stream of the RHI.

November 22: CBRM council proclaims “National Housing Day” as “a reminder to all Nova Scotians” that:

…access to safe, sustainable and equitable housing affects our collective mental health; and to have a mentally healthy community we must work together to ensure every member of our community has a place to call home.

December 9: Council meets in camera to discuss the RHI funding citing “contract negotiations” as the reason for secrecy.

December 20: CBRM council votes to accept the funding and directs staff to issue a request for proposals (RFP).

December 29: CBRM issues an RFP.


January 26: The RFP closes.

March 7: Council meets in camera (“contract negotiations”) to hear staff’s recommendation that it fund a New Dawn/Ally Centre of Cape Breton proposal to build “a 24-unit safe, affordable, staffed supporting housing project for a diverse array of Ally Centre Clients—those most at risk of homelessness in the CBRM.”

The project is proposed for 26 Stuart Street off Mira Road:

A map showing 26 Stuart Street, Grand Mira, CBRM, NS.

After three hours of discussion, council comes into public for just over 11 minutes and votes 6-4 to reject the recommendation. (Councilors Darren Bruckschwaiger, Ken Tracey and Cyril MacDonald are absent. Bruckschwaiger is on extended medical leave. MacDonald, it will turn out, was home sick. Councilor Tracey’s whereabouts have yet to be accounted for publicly.)



March 9: CBRM council holds an emergency meeting during which it is agreed that all four RHI applications received in response to the RFP will be forwarded to CMHC for vetting as the corporation has agreed to extend the CBRM’s deadline for beginning the project to May. The vote is unanimous although Councilors Bruckschwaiger, Steve Parsons (who is traveling on business) and Tracey (whose absence is not explained) are not present.


‘Show of Community’

Friday’s meeting lasted half an hour and consisted chiefly of councilors complaining they hadn’t asked for this $5 million, they didn’t have enough time to properly vet the proposals, they didn’t have enough support from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), they didn’t have enough support from the provincial government, the municipality doesn’t have the resources to deal with this sort of application, housing is a provincial responsibility and residents didn’t understand their concerns.

A photo of protestors in front of CBRM Civic Centre, 10 March 2023.

(Source: CBC Photo/Tom Ayers)

These attempts to blame anyone but themselves for the the shambles they’d made of their RHI application culminated in the truly farcical moment when District 3 Councilor Cyril MacDonald, who had missed the meeting during which the projects were discussed (although he assured everyone he would also have voted “no”), leaned into his mic to intone, “Shame on CMHC.”

In this, MacDonald was accepting Mayor Amanda McDougall-Merrill’s framing of events in which the evil, nasty, not-very-nice CMHC with its terrible deadlines had relented in the face of public outcry, which she chose to believe was directed against CMHC and not her and council. (The Mayor looked at a gallery full of people carrying placards saying things like “Help Us. We Are So Cold,” and pronounced it a “pretty remarkable show of community.”)

A less heroic interpretation would be that CMHC has agreed to move the goal posts 40 other Canadian municipalities are expected to meet to accommodate the organizationally-challenged CBRM. (Can you imagine what’s being said about us around the water coolers at the CMHC these days?)


Helpless, helpless, helpless

As for the claims that CBRM council had no support in its deliberations, back in December, when council first (publicly) discussed the funding, Mayor McDougall-Merrill said she’d been speaking with the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, John Lohr, who had told her:

…the provincial government was prepared to support the initiative and fund the operational side. [CBRM CAO Marie] Walsh also said she was comfortable that the province would cover the difference between the “very low” rents and the amount needed to operate the facilities…

Furthermore, Mayor McDougall said she’d had the chance to speak with Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, whose city had already received RHI funding and who offered the expertise of his staff to advise the CBRM on project selection and delivery. McDougall said HRM had put some of its RHI money, received at the height of the pandemic when construction costs were soaring, into a contingency fund and was also able to access additional funding through the federal Reaching Home program.

How that translated into “nobody helped us with our application” boggles the mind.

Certainly, the province was having none of it, Acting Municipal Affairs Minister Colton LeBlanc issued a press release on Friday stating that the suggestion the province did not support the CBRM in his RHI funding is a complete “fabrication” and that his department officials have been working with CBRM and CMHC to find a solution to the problem:

It was very disappointing to hear CBRM placing blame rather than taking accountability for their flawed actions, only to reverse course due to public pressure.

Council also fretted over being left holding the bag for costs associated with the project, but one of the very few crumbs of information we were allowed to know about Planning Director Michael Ruus’ recommendation was that it stated clearly that the final contract with the proponents should contain language relieving the CBRM of any liability for funding shortfalls, capital over-runs or operational short falls.

And in its application, New Dawn states:

Should we go over budget, New Dawn will assume responsibility for securing the funds required to complete the project.


We anticipate reaching an agreement with the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services for long-term staff and operating (unit costs) funding for the project…

I cannot understand why these assurances wouldn’t be good enough for our council except that spending on social infrastructure like affordable housing seems to be viewed very differently from spending on say, renovating sports facilities you don’t actually own, or operating sports facilities you don’t actually own, or implementing 5% across-the-board tax cuts that leave $3.6 million holes in your municipal budget.

(I wrote this before last night’s council meeting during which CBRM took ownership of yet another rink.)



It seems pretty clear, however, that money is not the key stumbling block for the dissenting councilors.

New Dawn CEO Erika Shea told the CBC she “really hoped” with “every fiber of [her] being” that councilors’ concerns about the New Dawn/Ally Centre project weren’t of the “not in my backyard” variety but listening to District 11 Councilor Gordon MacDonald and District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald on the CBC’s Information Morning Cape Breton on March 9, it became very clear their concerns were NIMBY all the way.

Councilor Eldon MacDonald, besides telling host Steve Sutherland they’d learned about the money “early in the year,” which is not true, suggested there was a need for “community consultation” about the location of the New Dawn facility. He then took the opportunity to share complaints he’d received about the Ally Centre’s office in the downtown core, saying he’s had “numerous calls” suggesting it is “destroying” downtown Sydney and should not have been permitted to open there. (Remember downtown Sydney before the Ally Centre opened? Untouched by the advent of shopping malls and Big Box stores, unaffected by landlords who preferred empty buildings to lower rents, well maintained in terms of sidewalks and asphalt, welcoming of pedestrians and cyclists alike—a North American urban miracle, really.)

Both MacDonalds argued that the site chosen for the project, which they portrayed as a Shangri-la off the Mira Road populated entirely by seniors, was not the place for a supportive housing facility. (And may I just note what a disservice they do seniors by simply assuming they would oppose such a facility? By not even considering the possibility these same seniors may have struggled with addictions or mental health issues themselves or watched friends and family members struggle and might actually be supportive of such a facility?)

Both MacDonalds (I tell you, I’ve rarely felt more like a Campbell than I did listening to this interview) also dressed their objections up as a preference for “distributed” or “scattered” housing for people with addictions or mental health issues as opposed to “congregate” housing of the type proposed by New Dawn.

But Catherine Leviten-Reid, assistant professor of community economic development at CBU and lead of the Community University Housing Research Lab, told the CBC that both types of supportive housing are legitimate options and while there’s not a lot of research comparing the two, what research does exist suggests people in congregate settings report “a stronger sense of community” and “more community integration” than those spread throughout a community.

Moreover, this isn’t some cutting-edge experiment New Dawn is proposing but a type of project that’s been done in other municipalities—like Dartmouth, where RHI funding was used to convert the former Travelodge off Windmill Road into 65 “affordable, comfortable and safe housing units” with “24/7 wraparound support for those with complex needs, based on harm reduction.”

A photo of the former Travelodge off Windmill Road in Dartmouth, NS.

The former Travelodge off Windmill Road in Dartmouth, NS, now the “Overlook.” (Photo via Google maps)

But perhaps the most important thing Leviten-Reid, who lives in the area in question, had to say was this:

These folks are living in our district right now, but they’re living in tents.

(I’m focusing on the councilors who voted against the proposal because they carried the day, but it must be noted that the severity of the situation and the need for action was not lost on all councilors, as this CBC interview with District 7 Councilor Steve Parsons will attest.)



And now it’s time to mount my particular soapbox.

Residents would be much better positioned to judge councilors’ concerns about the New Dawn/Ally Centre project had they heard these concerns which they did not because councilors shared them in secret. There isn’t much to laugh about in this situation, but the fact that their secrecy came back to bite them is kind of funny.

Obviously, the projects should have been discussed in open session with the proponents on hand to answer questions. As I explained on Friday, Halifax Regional Municipality discusses the RHI projects it is considering funding in detail, in public. New Dawn, the proponent whose privacy was supposedly being protected by CBRM council’s secrecy, published its proposal online. This mania for secrecy clearly serves no one: not the public, which is not permitted to understand the decisions council is making on its behalf; not staff, whose judgement is being impugned by council and who have no opportunity to defend themselves; not even councilors, who open themselves up to all sorts of accusations by refusing to let citizens in on their reasoning.

And yet, nothing that was said on Friday makes me at all optimistic the next discussion of the municipality’s RHI project will be held in public. Quite the opposite, in fact. Councilors were very careful to avoid discussing their actual concerns about the proposed developments in front of witnesses and CAO Marie Walsh made a point of saying she “didn’t want to go into detail” about changes to the “parameters” for qualifying projects that had apparently been agreed in discussions with CMHC (prompting me to write a very impolite word in capital letters in my meeting notes).

Which means that even after being forced to call an “emergency” meeting to explain themselves, it doesn’t seem to have dawned on our councilors that they should have met in public.

And if they didn’t learn that lesson this past week, when will they ever learn it?


This just in…

As the Spectator was about to publish, the province announced funding for new units of supportive housing in Sydney to “help men experiencing chronic homelessness transition to permanent housing.”

The units, on Byng Avenue, will be operated by the Cape Breton Community Housing Association and provide room for six men. A provincial press released on Wednesday said:

The Province is providing more than $320,000 in annual funding for the new location, in addition to funding supportive housing on Union and Margaret streets. Combined, the three locations will support up to 21 men at a time.

The supportive housing units:

…have staff available 24/7 and on-site supports to help the men increase their independent living skills and social inclusion.

The release quotes Fred Deveaux, executive director of the Cape Breton Community Housing Association, who says:

To date, the supportive housing options we have provided have been successful and the tenants have been able to benefit from the greatest housing stability they have experienced in some time. Supportive housing is a key tool, along with other resources, to effectively end chronic homelessness.