Public housing

Low-income tenants face long waits for public housing. What happens to those who cannot wait?

This story is part of a CBC Cape Breton series called The High Cost of Getting By. In the series, journalists examine how the rising cost of daily living is affecting islanders. Over the past few months, reporters from our newsroom have spoken to people who are struggling with the high costs of basic necessities like housing, food and home repairs.

Sam Bonnar moved into his little green duplex looking for a safe, clean and warm place to live with his daughter. Instead, she can’t sleep at night from birds nesting in the walls, has lost hundreds of grocery dollars to mice, and broken doors and windows torment her during the busiest months. cold.

After struggling for years to find a decent rental, the single mother decided to try her luck last summer on the duplex with a courtyard in a quiet area of ​​North Sydney.

“It’s hard, especially when you’re a single parent or a low-income parent, to find affordable housing that you can trust and rely on your landlord for when things go wrong,” she said. .

The duplex that Sam Bonnar rents in North Sydney. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Bonnar’s Ontario owner Kim Gratto bought the duplex without seeing it in 2021. His son now lives in New Waterford and manages the property. They didn’t know it was in such bad shape because they only got pictures of the other half of the building which is in better shape.

They put up an ad looking for tenants using the same photos, but once they saw the space for themselves, they pulled the ad. By then Bonnar had already called and asked to rent the space.

“We wouldn’t have rented it until it was completely finished except she was desperate… she said the place they lived before with her child was not safe, that’s why we authorized the rental,” said Kim Gratto.

“We were 100% confident that we would be able to have it renovated for her within six months.”

Bonnar said she went ahead with the rental thinking repairs were underway.

“I’m a very open-minded person and I was like, okay, if it needs fixing, I’ll take care of it,” Bonnar said. “It’s frustrating because there’s nothing that’s cheap and affordable and kid-friendly, pet-friendly.”

Sam Bonnar’s pantry, littered with mouse droppings. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Bonnar works part-time and lives on welfare. She receives a rent supplement of $239 from the province to help pay her monthly rent of $750, which does not include heat and hydro. Bonnar has yet to complain to the rental board or try to move because it has been so difficult for him to find a place with his limited income.

She spent three years on a waiting list for social housing, but to receive a rent supplement she had to leave the waiting list. It took another year of waiting before she was approved for a supplement.

“I would rather have help to help support me, to live where I am,” Bonnar said.

Hundreds on waiting lists

Despite a higher percentage of subsidized housing than the provincial average, in March there were 639 eligible people on the waiting list for public housing in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

Currently, 616 people in the territory receive a rent supplement.

Many families have to choose between getting a rent supplement or waiting for it to be paid and moving into social housing that charges them a maximum rent of 30% of their income.

A broken baseboard heater on the side of Bonnar’s tub. Her daughter is afraid to get out of the tub because she cut her leg on the radiator in the past. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

A walk through Bonnar’s house revealed broken baseboard heaters, rotting soft wood around the tub, gaping holes in the eaves where birds were actively flying, holes around the house foundation where mice entered and gaps around the exterior door frame leading to heat loss in the back porch.

Her 10-year-old daughter needs help getting in and out of the tub because of a broken baseboard heater attached to the wall lining the tub. She cut her leg on it and is now afraid to go out on her own.

The Grattos are relatively new to investment properties and have purchased 10 properties totaling 15 rental units on the island during the pandemic. They say it has been difficult to get contractors and many items like windows have been out of stock for months. Some repairs have begun, however, and the Grattos say they intend to keep Bonnar as a tenant as these renovations take place.

Cheap or safe?

Affordable housing has become a top concern for Nova Scotians as house prices have soared.

Organizations such as Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation consider housing affordable if an individual or family spends no more than 30% of their monthly income on a mortgage or rent.

According to Catherine Leviten-Reid, associate professor of community economic development at Cape Breton University, there just aren’t enough economic rentals at CBRM.

Under the subsidy program, if a person is under 58 and earns $1,000 a month, $300 of that amount should be spent on rent. The subsidy is based on average market prices. For example, a typical one-bedroom apartment costs $721 per month, so a grant would total approximately $421.

Holes and weak spots in the siding of Bonnar’s house. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

“So if you’re a low-income renter and you get this subsidy and you can’t find a unit at that price and you rent at something that’s higher than that, you’re responsible for paying that… additional cost .”

She said people are often stuck between renting cheaper but substandard houses and apartments, often not located near essential services, or suitable accommodation that is too expensive for their budget.

“We have very low income assistance rates and we have minimum wages that are way below living wages, so it’s very difficult for people to find housing that they can afford.”

Leviten-Reid said 25% of rentals in CBRM are social housing or are subsidized with a rent supplement, compared to the provincial average of 12%. Yet long waiting lists mean that not everyone who needs help gets it.

“It confirms that there is a significant lack of affordable housing in our community and that we actually need to build more public, then deeply subsidized, co-op and non-profit housing.”

Possible solutions

“The system isn’t working,” Levitan-Reid said, adding that the province has chronically high poverty rates and a large homeless population.

She said there should be a system in place where all rental units are registered and inspected.

In October 2021, the government announced an additional 1,100 new affordable housing units for the province.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr confirmed to CBC that none of the housing will be created in Cape Breton, but that additional rent supplements have been made available on the island.

Lohr said there are shovel-ready projects in the Halifax Regional Municipality that have become the top priority, but he realizes there is a housing crisis across the province.

He said many options were being considered, including releasing provincial land for developments. On May 31, the province announced that it had identified 37 vacant lots and was accepting proposals for affordable housing projects on those lots.