N.S. brings in rent control, bans 'renovictions' amid affordable housing crunch

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Liberal government is bringing in temporary rent controls amid a series of evictions of low-income tenants and rising homelessness in Halifax.

Housing Minister Chuck Porter said Wednesday that rents across the province can't increase by more than two per cent a year. The restriction is retroactive to Sept. 1.

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The measure will remain until the province lifts its state of emergency order or Feb. 1, 2022, whichever comes first.

Porter linked the move directly to the global pandemic and the need to avoid putting people out of their homes when there aren't affordable rental options.

"People are struggling, and we are doing our best to support them, and this is one mechanism of doing that," the minister said.

He also said landlords will not be able to obtain an eviction order for renovations — informally known as a "renoviction" — for the same time period, because he says people shouldn't be forced out of their homes during the pandemic.

There have been a spate of such evictions in the past two months.

These include the case of Grace Fogarty, a 63-year-old woman who last month was served a notice by her landlord asking her to vacate during a renovation and then face a rent hike from $725 a month to more than $1,300 by next April 1.

Mark Culligan, a community legal worker with the Dalhousie Legal Aid clinic, said in an interview that he's awaiting a full text of the protections but added he is cautiously optimistic the announcement will help his client.

"We're very hopeful in her (Fogarty's) situation that it will prevent the increase going forward," he said.

Tenant advocacy groups and the opposition NDP say they want a more permanent solution.

"Temporary rent control is meaningless if landlords can continue to raise rents and drive tenants from their homes once the pandemic is over," said Sydnee Blum, a spokeswoman for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

The minister also announced the creation of the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission, composed of representatives from the public, private, non-profit and academic sectors who will recommend ways to increase affordable housing.

Porter told reporters the decision on whether to continue with the controls may depend on the findings of the commission, with the first recommendations to be submitted to him within the next six months.

"We will hear from everyone. I won't speculate. I'll look forward to those recommendations," he said.

Culligan said he's concerned about the composition of the commission, saying it doesn't include tenant advocacy groups such as his own.

Still, the announcement is a significant turnaround for Stephen McNeil's Liberal government, with the premier saying just last month he doesn't believe rent controls are effective.

Rent control has not been in place in Nova Scotia since the Liberal government of former premier John Savage eliminated it in 1993.

Porter said the pandemic has changed his government's view, for the time being.

"Now is not the time for people to worry about keeping a roof over their heads or being forced to find a new home for their family," he said.

He also said further details are coming soon on assistance for the rising number of people sleeping on the streets.

According to a study released this month by the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, the city’s homeless population has grown to 477 people, more than double the figure a year ago.

In its last budget, the province announced it would put $20 million towards addressing homelessness over five years.

That has led to 15 additional housing workers being hired in Halifax, and four workers to assist people coming out of health facilities and prisons who are in need of homes.

On Wednesday, Porter said the province will invest $1.7 million to replace 30 shelter beds that have been taken out of the system due to physical distancing requirements under COVID-19 health protocols.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2020.

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