Our Housing Crisis: Low Vacancies, High Rents, Damaged Stock

CBRM council met on May 10 for a “Strategic Vision” workshop that, despite it’s rather vague title, actually had a clear—and important—purpose: councilors met to discuss quality of life, family recreation, public transit and affordable housing and homelessness.

A woman standing at a podium.

Catherine Leviten-Reid addressing CBRM council on 10 May 2023.

I’m going to focus on the latter because I think ensuring access to safe and affordable housing and ending homelessness would be an excellent first step toward dealing with a host of other issues.

Presenting to council was CBU associate professor Catherine Leviten-Reid, who currently leads two research projects on affordable housing: one in partnership with Cape Breton Community Housing Association and the other with organizations and universities across the country.

Leviten-Reid has presented to council before and while her essential message hasn’t changed, the sense of urgency with which she delivers it has. She told council on May 10 that a point-in-time (PIT) count in November 2022 found 259 people experiencing homelessness in CBRM, the highest number Leviten-Reid said she’d ever seen in a PIT count here, adding:

I was very alarmed about that.

The PIT count was undertaken across eastern Nova Scotia (Antigonish, Cape Breton, Guysborough, Inverness, Richmond and Victoria Counties) by a group of organizations including the Affordable Housing and Homelessness Working Group (AHHWG), CBU, Nova Scotia Health and the Strait Richmond Housing Matters (SRHM) coalition. A year earlier, in November 2021, the same groups had conducted a service-based count across the same geographic area. As they explained:

The AHHWG and SRHMC consist of stakeholders and service providers from a variety of sectors within the community who work with people experiencing homelessness, such as community-based organizations, housing/transitional housing/shelter programs, health, mental health and addiction services, education, justice, income and employment services, academics, municipal representatives, and program staff from government. As such, the working groups were highly invested in supporting the outcome of this research.

The research-based count found 325 people experiencing homelessness in CBRM.

Leviten-Reid added that 330 people had used the shelter operated by the Cape Breton Community Housing Association in 2022 and last month alone—that is, April 2023—the shelter had served 77 people.


Elsewhere in the Maritimes…

To put the CBRM’s homeless numbers in context, Leviten-Reid compared the 2022 CBRM PIT count to the most recent PIT counts in Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and Moncton. The results looked like this:

MunicipalityPopulationPIT Count% of Population
Saint John69,895700.10

(A note about Saint John: Following Leviten-Reid’s presentation, District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie said he, personally, always likes to compare CBRM to Saint John, a similar-sized municipality in terms of both population and geography, so I looked up the PIT count for Saint John—conducted at the same time as the counts in Moncton and Fredericton, the night of 28 April 2021—and the population according to the 2021 Census and added the information to the table. It suggests our homelessness problem is significantly worse than Saint John’s.)



Research conducted here in CBRM has revealed that homelessness affects men and women to a similar degree, albeit in different ways.

Leviten-Reid said it also touches people of all ages but especially younger people—the most common age category is 16-29 followed by 30-39.

People who identify as 2SLGBTQI+ struggle with homelessness as do people identifying as Indigenous, who are “over-represented” in the homeless statistics, a finding that is “consistent across the country” and which Leviten-Reid attributes simply to “colonization.” (This seems like a good place to note that the federal government recently announced a total of $15 million in funding under the Rapid Housing Initiative for the construction of a total of 94 deeply affordable units in Sydney, Potlotek First Nation, Eskasoni First Nation, and Wagmatcook First Nation. Leviten-Reid has told me before that the RHI is the real success story of the federal government’s housing strategy.)



Leviten-Reid said the most common-barriers to finding housing (and people often face more than one) are:

  • Substance use
  • Mental illness
  • Low or no income (42% of people experiencing homelessness locally are on income assistance which, says Leviten-Reid, “shows you that those income assistance rates are too low.”)
  • Poor housing options, lack of availability
  • Family breakdown, violence, intimate partner violence



Council heard that 10% of homeowners and 32% of renters or 6,815 households in CBRM spend over 30% of their income on shelter and at least 9% of the municipality’s housing stock is in need of “major repair.” Based on the most recent census data, that percentage is greater than in Halifax or the country as a whole. Moreover, the census was done before Post-Tropical Storm Fiona in September 2022 and Leviten-Reid said she expects the next survey will show an even higher percentage of housing in need of repair.

District 7 Councilor Steve Parsons asked if there was anything the municipality, by way of its by-laws, could do to address the problem of people renting accommodations in need of “major repair” and Leviten-Reid said the CBRM could change its system of inspections.

The current complaint-based system, she said, leaves tenants “incredibly vulnerable.” As one told her, “You complain too much, you get evicted.” This often takes the form of an “informal eviction” in which the tenant moves out before a formal legal process is even initiated. Informal evictions, according to this federal government publication, can be the result unaffordable rent increases, harassment or illegal lock changes and Leviten-Reid says they account for about half of all evictions in CBRM.

The alternative, she told Parsons, would be a regular, pro-active systems of inspections and if the CBRM doesn’t have the resources to conduct them, she suggested the municipality consider strongly advocating for the  creation of a province-wide (and provincially funded) inspection system that would relieve tenants of the responsibility of reporting problems.

The CBRM also has a “critically low” vacancy rate at 1.5%, a level Leviten-Reid said she has “not seen in this municipality.” She itemized some of the pressures on the local housing stock, including increased demand (the result of a number of factors including “unprecedented” student enrollment at CBU and people choosing to move here during COVID). Leviten-Reid also cited climate change, as represented by Fiona.

Asked about the impact of short-term rentals (like Airbnb) on the local market, Leviten-Reid said she hasn’t been able to do any local research on the subject but that with such a low vacancy rate, the CBRM should consider restricting short-term rentals to owner-occupied dwellings.

Halifax passed a by-law this spring limiting short-term rentals to owner-occupied properties but only in residential zones, the by-law doesn’t apply to rentals in mixed-use or commercial zones. (A staff report said there were about 2,000 short-term rentals in the capital, about 1,300 of which were located in residential zones.) The law has been getting pushback from landlords and some councilors hope to tweak it before it comes into force on September 1. The media is helpfully doing stories about “mom and pop” landlords who will lose their supplemental income, but these stories just serve to remind me that a) there are 6,000 landlords in Nova Scotia and 300,000 tenants under the Residential Tenancies Program and b) a 2019 study by David Wachsmuth at McGill found that more than 41% of all Halifax short-term rentals were commercial multi-listings, that is, controlled by a host with two or more entire-home listings or three or more private-room listings.

Other topics touched on during the Leviten’s May 10 presentation included the challenges facing local groups who want to build affordable housing and the provincial and federal governments’ reliance on “rent supplements” as a solution to the housing crisis. Leviten-Reid said such supplements are limited both in number and value and “only work when you actually have housing available.”

District 11 Councilor Darren O’Quinn asked about the number of vacancies in public housing in CBRM and Leviten-Reid said that was a question for the new Nova Scotia Provincial Housing Agency, so I put that question to the new Nova Scotia Provincial Housing Agency but as of press time had received no response. Leviten-Reid thought the province was supposed to be considering making such information available through its Open Data Portal so I had a look and found maps of public housing units for seniors and families but they just show total units, not vacancies.



Photo of framed certificates on a wall.Leviten-Reid ended by explaining that research, both national and international, has found that affordable, appropriate housing is a determinant of health and a guarantor of neighborhood stability; that kids who are safely housed do better in school and that adults find it easier to find and keep jobs and feel a stronger sense of belonging to their communities.

Her final slide featured a photograph taken as part of an earlier research project in which people who had succeeded in finding affordable, good-quality housing were asked to take pictures representing what that housing meant to them.

The photograph shows a wall covered in framed certificates. Leviten-Reid, said they represented all the courses the tenant was able to complete after she had found a stable place to live.

It’s trite but true: this picture is worth 1,000 words.