As the executive director of Adsum for Women and Children, Sheri Lecker knows first-hand just how important hotels have been for housing people left with nowhere to go.
The non-profit provides emergency shelter to women, families, youth, and gender-diverse individuals in need.
“We use hotels because the shelters are full,” says Lecker.
Adsum and another non-profit, Welcome Housing and Support Services, assist those people as part of the province’s Shelter Diversion Support Program. Between the two organizations, Lecker says they’re helping 270 people currently living in a dozen hotels in the city. More than 50 of them are children.
“As you can imagine, there are a lot of challenges to living in a hotel room, to not being able to cook,” says Lecker, “to live off a very, very tight amount of money. How do you get your food together on a small budget without being able to cook?”
According to Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services, the province spent $5.6 million for clients to live in hotels from April to December 2022.
In 2021, it spent $1.5 million for income assistance clients only, before the shelter diversion program was implemented.
This week, Community Services Minister Karla MacFarlane said the government is also negotiating with the owner of the Dartmouth Doubletree Hotel for a new contract, where 100 people are living right now.
“There’s almost no housing, and this is decades in the making,” says Lecker, “This didn’t happen overnight.”
“And we know there are people sleeping in tents, who are sleeping on sofas, they’re in relationships that break down and there’s intimate partner violence, they have to leave,” adds Lecker. “And there are fewer and fewer options.”
The Nova Scotia director of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives says governments need to be working on long-term solutions while providing short-term relief.
“When we look at Band-Aid solutions, even like emergency shelters, hotels, all of that is supposed to be just a temporary emergency,” she says. “We saw this coming for a very long time, because governments were not investing in housing, and especially in non-market housing.”
She says the province’s failure to increase the amount Nova Scotians receive on income assistance is compounding the problem at a time when the cost of living has increased.
“We have 48,000 Nova Scotians that we know of spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing,” says Saulnier.
“Should anything happen like their housing increase, their food costs increase, and other things, they could find themselves without housing,” she warns.
After receiving money through Ottawa’s Rapid Housing Initiative, the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS) is just a few months away from completing its affordable housing development.
The 12 units on True North Crescent Dartmouth include one, two, three, and four bedroom units, some of which are “deeply affordable,” says AHANS executive director Michael Kabalen. That means the rent will be calculated at 30 per cent of a tenant’s income.
“You’re starting to see it come together,” he says, pointing at what the finished project will look like in a full-colour rendering.
The net-zero units with roof mounted solar panels are designed to be cost-effective both to build and maintain.
The municipality donated the land, which sits amidst what began as a housing co-operative decades ago.
The cost of the first phase of the project is around $5 million. The units are already spoken for, says Kabalen.
“So this is already effectively full,” he says, “and it’s not complete until June or July.”
“But we’ve already identified pretty much all the tenants through a number of different systems,” he added.
Kabalen says what’s needed are more projects like this one, but applying for and receiving government money for each one takes the kind of time the problem doesn’t have.
He believes what’s really needed is an immediate injection of capital cash from governments, similar to what’s being pumped into health care.
“We really need to see that type of massive spending on housing,” he said, “and in fact, if you spend on housing, you can save on health care in the future.”
“Otherwise we’re constantly left either at the disposal of government, and the decisions they’re going to make to fund or not fund, or we’re left to fundraise ourselves from the community,” Kabalen adds.
“Rents are going to keep going up, income is not going up, you have to figure out all sides of the equation,” says Saulnier.
She also believes that governments must look beyond building when it comes to providing more affordable housing.
“What about the housing that we’re losing,” she says. “If there is a rental building that is going up for sale, the government should actually buy those….there are other opportunities, not just buildings.”
Lecker says if funding was put directly in her organization’s hands, it could start building quickly. Adsum accessed rapid housing funds in 2021 and constructed 25 affordable homes within a year, known as “The Sunflower.”
“We’ve got to build it, we’ve got to create it, we’re ready,” says Lecker. “We just need the money, if we get more money, we’ll build it within a year and have more people living there.”
“As long as we put ‘Band-Aids’ on this problem, the problem will grow, (and) it will deepen.”