Premier calls on HRM council to roll up their sleeves and 'get to work' on housing

Premier Tim Houston says addressing the housing crisis will require the co-operation and support of all levels of government, and he criticized Halifax Regional Municipality for not doing enough. (CBC - image credit)
Premier Tim Houston says addressing the housing crisis will require the co-operation and support of all levels of government, and he criticized Halifax Regional Municipality for not doing enough. (CBC - image credit)

The housing crisis facing Nova Scotia and the rest of the country is everyone's problem and not a time for pointing fingers, Premier Tim Houston told reporters Thursday before criticizing Halifax Regional Municipal council for almost three minutes and accusing them of contributing to the problem.

"You know, look, stomping your feet and pointing at somebody else — no," Houston said during a news conference following a cabinet shuffle.

"Roll up your sleeves and get to work."

Houston encouraged members of council to "look in the mirror a little bit" and said he agrees with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser that it's time for municipal councils to "step up" on the housing file.

There are "lots of examples" of HRM council dragging their feet on approvals that could see housing built, said Houston, adding that the municipality has sent construction fees "through the roof" as he read from an itemized list of examples.

"Some of these fees have gone up by seven and eight times, and every one of those fees land on the cost of housing. So to ask the question now, why is there not more affordable housing when, as a council, they have been just jacking what I would call these hidden taxes up through the roof? So nobody should be surprised that there's an affordability crisis."

Calls to get back into housing business

It has been more than two decades since the province added to its own affordable housing stock. At a time when vacancy rates are at historic lows and a growing number of people are struggling with increased costs of living, there are renewed calls for the province to get back into the housing business.

So far, Houston and his cabinet have resisted those calls, favouring instead steps to expedite private sector builds and provide land and funding to help non-profit organizations raise developments.

Earlier this week, some members of HRM council criticized the province for what they saw as a lack of action to address the growing problems with affordability and an increasing number of homeless residents.

"We know that there's a capacity there with the province to make rapid decisions, spend a lot of money and deploy housing, so quickly we need something like that for homelessness," HRM Coun. Waye Mason told CBC News.

During a council meeting Tuesday to discuss the growing problem of homelessness in the city, several councillors suggested that the province might need to be shamed into action through the declaration of a disaster.

The province is months late in delivering housing strategies for students and for the general public.

Last week, Advanced Education Minister Brian Wong could not say when the student housing strategy would be ready. Housing Minister John Lohr said last week the general strategy should come this month. Houston said on Thursday that he expected it to be released sometime this fall.

Houston attributed the delay to his government trying to make the document "more fulsome," but added that changes were also required "because of the failures of some of the municipalities."

New team of senior bureaucrats

At the same time he announced changes to some cabinet positions on Thursday, the premier also announced changes to some of the senior ranks of the bureaucracy.

Of particular note is the creation of a team of executive deputy ministers who will not be attached to any specific department but rather will focus on the most pressing issues in the province. The premier listed housing, health care and the affordability crisis as examples of where he expects the group to begin its focus.

The team consists of Kelliann Dean, Paul LaFleche, Tracey Taweel and Dana MacKenzie.

LaFleche was the deputy minister of municipal affairs and housing and seniors and long-term care before the change Thursday and Taweel was the deputy minister of community services. Along with their new duties, Dean will remain deputy minister of finance and MacKenzie will continue as deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs.

"This is a team of individuals who have proven their ability to get things done and I will be looking to them to get even more done for you, for Nova Scotians," said the premier.