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Jim Vibert Column Outta Leftfield: Encampments Could Be Christened ‘Houstonville’

Sep 23, 2023 | Opinion, Politics

By Jim Vibert

The sanctioned tent encampments around HRM obviously lack almost everything we’d normally associate with home but, in the interest of community and identity, they ought to at least have a name. What could be more fitting than christening each of them, and those to come, Houstonville?

The name benefits from a ring of historical alliterative resonance with Hooverville, the moniker attracted by and attached to the shantytowns that sprang up across America in the 1930s, named derisively for Herbert Hoover, the poor schmuck and US president when the Great Depression arrived.

Hoover wasn’t the author of the Depression, but his administration had no response once it hit. Nova Scotia’s premier Tim Houston surely didn’t create the housing crisis, but now that it’s upon us with full, or near-full, force. his government’s response has been, to date, Hoover-like.

Such is the state of homelessness and hopelessness in Nova Scotia that the Halifax Regional Municipality officially designates areas for tent encampments – the shelters are full – to keep homeless folks concentrated in a few areas, I suppose, for their protection and, perhaps, to limit sightlines on our shared shame – abject poverty amid great wealth.

Souls Harbour Mission CEO Michelle Porter hit the nail squarely on the head when speaking of a tent site, she said, “It’s a place of bleakness where there are men and women who cannot find a decent roof over their head.”

Homelessness is the bleeding tip of the spear that is the housing crisis.

There are thousands of Nova Scotians living in precarious housing circumstances, some paying almost all their income to keep a fixed roof over their head. Thousands more dread the end of provincial rent controls, coming in 2025 a few months after the next scheduled provincial election.

Renters can’t save the deposit required to buy a home, and those folks who share ownership of their houses with a bank live in dread of their mortgage renewal date or are already dealing with huge increases in their floating mortgage payments.

Some of the factors contributing to the crisis – like interest rates – are beyond the direct control of the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. But the rest of this mess is a colossal failure of public policy.

Here in Nova Scotia, housing has been an ignored crisis on a simmer for decades. It went to a hard boil with the post-pandemic influx of immigrants and other Canadians. We were, and remain, utterly unprepared for the population growth that past and present provincial governments covet.

Halifax has been designing itself incessantly for a generation and managed to deliver up a city that’s unaffordable to many who work there. Nor is there adequate, affordable housing for the students who fuel the massive economic engines that are the universities. But, while it has to deal with the issue on the ground, the municipality doesn’t have the resources to address the housing crisis. Those resources lie with the two senior levels of government.

Like the province, Ottawa had been largely missing in action on the housing front, but the feds are now ponying up some real money – like the $4 billion housing ‘accelerator’ fund.

The province followed Ottawa’s lead and removed sales tax from materials used to build rental units. That’ll kick-start stalled, planned building, which we’re told is far too little to meet demand. Nor, obviously, are those planned units targeted anywhere near that sector of the market reflected in Houstonville tents.

The province generally nips at the edges of the crisis with existing programs like rent supplements, while the Houston government seems to believe the marketplace will somehow sort it all out, despite years of evidence to the contrary.

Houston recently rearranged the senior bureaucracy to create a small committee of deputy ministers that he called “solutionists.” Their job, apparently, is to find answers to questions the government, as it is normally constituted, can’t. Finding real homes for people now living in tents in the public square would seem to fit the bill.

If the solutionists working for Houston need added incentive, a little political embarrassment to their boss might help. Enclaves of Nova Scotians living in tents, each called Houstonville, would do the trick.

Journalist and political columnist Jim Vibert worked for provincial governments of three stripes.

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