PORT HAWKESBURY: Building on the work started last year with a people’s school on affordable housing focused on building awareness and inspiring action and a community think tank about housing needs, a recent people’s school explored ways to build the research capacity of community groups to provide evidence about local needs and support their housing goals.
The StFX Extension Department, in partnership with the Strait Richmond Housing Group and the Antigonish Affordable Housing Society, co-hosted a People’s School on Housing Needs: From Research to Action on May 11 in Port Hawkesbury.
“It was a collabortive initiative to help communities learn how to build their research capacity to support their housing goals,” Pauline MacIntosh, fieldworker with the StFX Extension Department said. “Many communities today are looking at how they can create more affordable, appropriate housing for the residents, and one of the main outcomes that happens on that journey, is increasing awareness of the need for housing.”
Finding affordable housing that is safe, secure and accessible is a challenge throughout Nova Scotia for many, especially those living on low incomes or with disabilities. MacIntosh said it is a significant step for communities to build capacity to conduct research in support of their housing goals.
The event, which attracted 54 people, saw a broad geographic representation as attendees were from all across the province and the majority of them were individual citizens or from community groups,
“People left knowing that there is a strong desire to share tools and resources [and that] we don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” MacIntosh said. “Certainly one of the messages was that communities can do this work, and there are a lot of tools out there to help them.”
It’s really heartening to see such a broad spectrum of individuals and community organizations in attendance, but MacIntosh indicated they still need to strive to ensure the conversation includes more diverse groups and populations.
“It’s so important and valuable to have an opportunity to learn from one another, to share tools and resources,” she said. “It’s a conversation we need to carry on and continue to learn together moving toward achieving our housing goals.”
Participants learned about various ways to gather and use information from researchers such as Catherine Leviten-Reid, associate professor of community economic development at Cape Breton University, Fred Deveaux, executive director of the Cape Breton Community Housing Association, and Peggy Vassallo, health promoter with Public Health.
Leviten-Reid said there is data in the province, depending on the size of the community.
“If you’re living in a community of 10,000 or more, an annual rental market report will be completed on median rents in the community and vacancy rates for example,” Leviten-Reid told The Reporter. “A lot of communities in the province have access to census data on their particular geography – you can get a feel for rental housing – but that isn’t available on an annual basis, it’s only collected every five years.”
For example, being able to know how many renter households there are, what these rental households are paying on average for their self-costs on rent and utilities, and how many renter households are subsidized in the community, is an advantage in helping dealing with any individuals housing needs.
“In our context, here in Cape Breton, the community organizations we’ve been working with starting in 2015; they wanted to know much more than what was going on beyond what the census was telling them about rental housing,” Leviten-Reid said. “So to be more specific, these organizations try to place people, who are on the margin, in houses.”
She recalled that the province told the Housing First program there was a high vacancy rate in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, at around eight per cent, so they wanted them to be housing people, but people on the ground weren’t having that experience.
“They weren’t finding units that were for rent at a cost that these [individuals] could afford,” Leviten-Reid explained. “So I did a comprehensive study on the rental market here, looking at all of the rental markets.”
Since then, they’ve had tremendous success in the CBRM in getting the issue on the agenda, getting the provincial government to pay attention on what’s really going on in the municipality for expanded shelter services and knowing what kind of housing they need to be developing.
Beyond sources of data, Leviten-Reid also talked about the kinds of partnership to be developed, how to share findings, how to get the word out, how to reach the general public and how to reach policy makers and elected officials.
“I hope people learned that there is probably a little bit of data they can already access on the nature of rental housing in their community,” she said. “I hope they walked away in feeling that putting effort into understanding about their local rental housing market can really pay off.”