N.S. Premier Tim Houston pictured in 2019. Credit: Andrew Scheer / Creative Commons

Rent control works. Just ask the Progressive Conservative government in Nova Scotia, which recently passed legislation to cap rent increases through December 2023.

In the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, the victorious Tim Houston ran a campaign dedicated primarily to healthcare. On the other side of the political spectrum, Gary Burrill’s NSNDP ran on a platform centred around rent control.

Burrill, in an interview with rabble.ca, says the way to implement permanent rent control in Nova Scotia is the same strategy that won temporary caps.

“Both were won by a combination of grassroots community attendance, organizing public outrage, people contacting their politicians in the premier’s office, and a strong, vociferous, unremitting progressive opposition in the legislature,” Burrill explained.

Burrill spoke of exorbitant rent increases affecting his constituents in Halifax-Chebucto, noting he’s seen increases ranging from an extra $100 per month, to a 50 per cent or even 100 per cent increase in rental costs.

Nova Scotia introduced temporary rent control legislation last fall, limiting increases to two per cent of rental costs. That legislation was slated to end on one of two dates: February 1, 2022, or sooner, if the province ends their state of emergency related to the pandemic.

Now, in a surprise to many, the same leader who vehemently and philosophically rejects rent control as a solution to affordable housing shortages in the province has endorsed a plan to see rent control measures continue in the province.

But some advocates and housing experts are sounding the alarm, warning the temporary housing legislation doesn’t go far enough.

Rent control extension comes with loopholes: advocate

Hannah Wood, Chair of the Halifax-Peninsula ACORN chapter, was on vacation when she heard the news regarding rent increases in Nova Scotia.

The rent cap extension took Wood by surprise, who was pleased to see a number of specific language and demands from ACORN incorporated in the legislation, particularly around changes to the Residential Tenancies Act.

The provincial government is also implementing legislation around “renovictions” — evicting tenants in the name of maintenance or upgrades — by financially penalizing landlords who conduct these evictions.

Nova Scotia is also set to implement inclusionary zoning measures for affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning is a land-use planning tool that allows the city to mandate a certain percentage of affordable housing in new developments.

While Wood is pleased to see these changes, she worries the moves don’t go far enough.

“I am [especially] concerned that rental increases are not being tied to units, [but are] still being tied to tenants,” Wood explained.

Large REIT companies like Killam Properties are reported to have turnover rates ranging between 20 and 30 per cent each year. That’s where Wood says companies can get around the rent cap.

“If we don’t tie the rental increase to the unit, and we tie it to the tenants, then “that incentivizes renovictions, incentivizes tenant harassment and neglect and incentivizes basically finding a way to get that tenant out in order to be able to get around that two per cent increase,” Wood said.

In a statement to rabble.ca, Nova Scotia communications officer Blaise Theriault did not respond to a question regarding increases to units rather than tenancies. Theriault noted the housing crisis in Nova Scotia is unprecedented.

“The interim rent cap will protect existing tenants, including those with fixed-term leases, from high rent increases. It applies to those renewing their lease, as well as those continuing to rent the same unit under a fixed-term lease,” Theriault wrote.

Living wage in Halifax $22.05 per hour

The issue of rent control in Nova Scotia speaks to a larger, multifaceted crisis surrounding affordability.

A new report released this week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) finds the livable wage in Halifax has increased to $22.05, up from $21.80 in 2020. The report suggests that affordability be addressed “at a societal level through social programs and public infrastructure.”

Minimum wage in Nova Scotia is $12.95, nearly $10 less than a livable wage. That disparity means low-income workers are earning just under 60 per cent of a basic, livable, budgeted income.

“In Cape Breton, for example, increases in the employment income needed to cover expenses this year meant the income exceeded the threshold to qualify for the GST credit and resulted in less child benefit,” the report read.

The report found that shelter, food, and child care currently make up for over 60 per cent of a family’s monthly budget. That amount leaves little room to pay for prescriptions, dental care, and transportation.

While the livable wage report includes 11 expense categories, there are many that aren’t included: credit cards or loan payments, saving for retirement, life insurance, home ownership costs, and care costs for loved ones with disabilities.

While Nova Scotians desperately need better affordability to get by in the province, premier Houston showed his true colours during a question period exchange Thursday regarding minimum wages.

Asked about raising the minimum wage to $15, Houston responded, “I don’t know many Nova Scotians that grow up thinking, ‘boy, I hope I make minimum wage when I grow up.’ That’s not the way people think. They want real jobs.”

Nova Scotians are looking for financial security and deserve dignity in the workplace. Part of that dignity is a livable wage.

While the subject of rent control can be polarizing, the reality is that each province already has some level of legislation to prevent unreasonable rent increases. In every province, landlords are restricted to one rent increase every 12 months — preventing multiple increases in any given year of a tenancy.

From there, rent control measures become much less consistent. Rent caps are currently in place in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. These caps limit increases to existing tenancies, while Manitoba and PEI are the only provinces where rent increases are limited to new tenants.

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...