Port Hawkesbury names housing a top priority

PORT HAWKESBURY: Town councillors are saying that housing is one of their top priorities.

During the regular monthly meeting of Port Hawkesbury Town Council on Feb. 2, Cher McDaniel and Celeste Gotell, with the Strait Richmond Housing Coalition, told council about the need to pursue housing opportunities.

Gotell said the group was formed after an October, 2018 housing think tank in Port Hawkesbury.

“A number of people gathered afterwards and said they were committed to moving this work forward,” she recalled. “The coalition is a group of concerned citizens from both Richmond County and the Town of Port Hawkesbury that are really concerned about housing.”

The group started operations in December of 2018, but she said the group has been in discussions with Port Hawkesbury in 2015.

The coalition partnered with StFX University’s Extension Department in May of 2019 about moving research into action. Gotell said the group also worked with a number of municipalities to put together an application to conduct research and data collection to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

“Unfortunately, we were one of about 40 applicants from across the country and were not funded but it spoke volumes about the commitment within the quad counties,” she noted.

The coalition hosted landlords about housing needs and ways to partner with private developers, Gotell said, noting some of the group’s meetings included provincial and federal partners. She said they also reached out to local candidates in the federal election and undertook an education campaign during the municipal election.

“The vision of our coalition is to have inclusive, healthy, affordable, sustainable, and accessible housing available in Strait Richmond,” Gotell said.

She said rural communities have unique housing needs from urban centres.

“Homelessness, for example, or precarious housing, often shows up hidden. We don’t always see it,” Gotell said. “Couch surfing is particularly common among youth. Youth who live in very unstable homes, may have been asked to leave, don’t feel safe in their homes.”

Seniors are another rural group which have specific needs.

“Often seniors, in their elderly years, may have some decline in health, or what have you, which makes it very difficult to live in rural communities because they may not be able to drive at night,” she said. “They may have lost their licence due to cognitive ability.”

Women in these same rural communities face challenges, Gotell said, noting that high levels of child and family poverty also contribute to the need.

“They often have very few options of where to go when they’ve left the transition house.”

The cost of utilities put low income homeowners at risk, Gotell said. And those suffering mental health and addiction issues, as well as those living on low incomes, often face problems because landlords are reluctant to take them as tenants, she pointed out.

“You may have a house, but if it’s poorly insulated, or if you’re living in poverty, or income assistance, the cost of just heating a home can be very prohibitive,” she told council.

Those without options are forced to live in private apartments that may not be suitable, Gotell said, noting that lists for public housing are long, and are targeted for seniors and families.

In the area, Gotell said there is limited affordable housing for all demographics, there is no emergency housing for youth or men, there is no second stage housing for women in transition houses, there are only 36 senior housing apartments and 31 family units in the Port Hawkesbury area, there is only one long-term care facility, and one of the biggest challenges in accessing funding is there is no not-for-profit organization in the area with a mandate to address housing.

McDaniel said council can display leadership by reaching out to the community to develop solutions, it can help by being decision-makers with by-laws, and the town can be risk-takers with private sector collaborations.

“Really show how inclusive housing can lead to healthy, safe and inclusive communities,” she said.

To explore options for affordable housing, McDaniel said the town can look at zoning by-laws, tax credits and land transfers for new and retrofitted construction. The town also needs to form private and public partnerships and advocate for housing matters, she said. Finally, she suggested the town needs to collaborate with all levels of government.

In addition to Port Hawkesbury’s efforts in forming a housing committee and distributing a housing survey, McDaniel said other local examples include the Town of Antigonish and the Municipality of the County of Antigonish providing land to the Antigonish Affordable Housing Society. She pointed out that the Municipality of the County of Inverness has had a dedicated staff person handling housing issues for the past three years.

Because there is a renewed commitment from the federal and provincial governments, via investments in housing, McDaniel said there are opportunities. Also StFX’s extension department can provide resources and assistance, she noted.

“I think it was important to get a presentation on here so people at home watching can understand the need and the serious of the need that we have here in Port Hawkesbury,” town councillor Jason Aucoin noted.

His colleague Mark MacIver said council is “digging in” to the issue since it is one of their top priorities.

Deputy mayor Blaine MacQuarrie said the report is a good resource for the town’s housing committee.

“Affordability is definitely an issue, and we know that, the other issue is accessibility,” he told council. “The Town of Port Hawkesbury we have a real need for affordable housing. People are struggling in various difficult situations because of that lack of accessibility.”

As a result of the many conversations taking place across the province, Gotell expects more initiatives will be rolled out soon.

“I suspect that in the coming weeks we’re going to be hearing about some stakeholder engagement,” she added.