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As Halifax turns into a housing hot spot, many look to Ottawa for relief

Lachi Mainali and Lachsman Koirala stood outside a mustard-coloured house on a corner lot in Timberlea, a suburban community outside Halifax.

It’s a long way from the downtown hospital where they work in housekeeping. But they’re priced out of the real estate market in the city. This home — a split level with four bedrooms — is listed at just under $330,000. It’s in their wheelhouse, financially, even though the couple knows from experience that it will sell for far more than that. 

“I’m hoping this one will be it,” said Koirala as his wife laughed. He estimates they’ve looked at more than 150 homes in the past two years and put in offers on more than two dozen — only to be outbid each time.

“Sometimes it is so frustrating I think, like, we should wait for some time before looking for houses again for prices to come down again.”

CBC News: The House11:10White-picket-fenced out of home ownership

In a special episode from Halifax, The House hears from homeowners and realtors about the challenge they face in navigating a tight housing market, and the problems with unaffordability. 11:10

But waiting isn’t really an option for the couple, who arrived as refugees from Nepal back in 2011. They’ve now got two children aged 12 and 8.

They want a home. A yard. And they’re not giving up even though house prices in the Halifax area are among the fastest-rising in the country.

“We didn’t have a home back in the country,” said Koirala. “Coming here, we want to have a home. To feel what its like to have a home of our own. That’s what makes us look for one.”

“It’s a dream,” Mainali told CBC in an interview for a special edition of The House airing this weekend from Halifax.

Atlantic Canada’s largest city is home to one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.

The Canadian Real Estate Association reports that the price of a typical house in the Halifax area jumped to a record $465,100 in February — up 33.5 per cent from just a year earlier.

The vacancy rate for rental units hovers around 1 percent. 

‘I tell everybody this isn’t sustainable’: Halifax realtor

Angela Cowan is the realtor working with the couple. She said she hasn’t seen a market like this since she got into the business 17 years ago.

Cowan said there are far more people wanting to buy than there are houses for sale. Buyers from out of province — seeing the relatively good prices in Nova Scotia as an investment opportunity — are driving up prices, putting in offers well above the asking price on places they have only seen online.

“I tell everybody this isn’t sustainable. That’s the thing, it’s just not sustainable,” she said in an interview with The House punctuated by a steady stream of incoming texts and calls to her mobile phone.

as halifax turns into a housing hot spot many look to ottawa for relief
Realtor Angela Cowan meets with clients to tour a home in Halifax. (Jennifer Chevalier/CBC)

“So something’s got to be done. Something’s got to give somewhere. Interest rates are even going up. There’s got to be something that happens.”

The situation in Halifax is far from unique. The shortage of affordable housing, the bidding wars driving record sales prices, landlords evicting tenants to renovate and then raising rents — these are things being felt right across the country.

Suzy Hansen is the New Democrat MLA for Halifax Needham, a riding that takes in the city’s north end. It’s a diverse community where aging high-rise apartments compete with modern condominiums that start at $400,000, she said.

We met her by a small field next to an abandoned school. From there, you can see the harbour, a housing co-op and new builds.

as halifax turns into a housing hot spot many look to ottawa for relief 1
Suzy Hansen is the NDP MLA for Halifax Needham and the opposition party’s housing critic. (Jennifer Chevalier/CBC)

Hansen, who has seven children, is still a renter. Even with an MLA’s salary, she said she can’t afford to buy in the part of town where she grew up.

“I mean, a house that was, let’s just say, three blocks up here that was on Maynard Street that was selling ten years ago for $249,000 — that, at the time (was) not attainable for somebody who lives in this community,” she said. “It’s now selling for $549,000. Two bedroom.

“And so when we talk about gentrification, it’s beautiful that we see new families and, you know, it enriches us. But at the same time, it also takes away from the opportunities [for] those who live here.”

Federal budget’s big promises

These housing pressures aren’t going unnoticed.

Last week’s federal budget set aside $10 billion for various housing initiatives — including $4 billion to work with municipalities to build 100,000 homes in the next five years and another $1.5 billion to expedite construction of another 6,000 affordable housing units.

First-time home buyers get a nod, too, with tax concessions to help them save for a down payment.

The Nova Scotia government is also pumping money into housing development and in last month’s provincial budget imposed a special tax on those out-of-province buyers — particularly from Ontario — who see housing in Atlantic Canada as an investment rather than a place to live.

“It’s very critical to us as a government that we we address the issue,” said John Lohr, the province’s minister of municipal affairs and housing. “We know that no one thing we’re doing is the solution. We’re hoping that all of these programs and all the things we put together will make a difference.”

But there’s no guarantee that the money raised from those levies on out-of-province buyers will be specifically directed to housing, Lohr said. The money will go instead into general revenue — even though the minister said estimates suggest that Halifax needs an additional 17,000 to 25,000 housing units.

And that’s a problem. Nova Scotia’s population just topped one million and, for the first time in years, more young people moved to the province than left.

CBC News: The House11:09The spectre of ‘renoviction’

After a ban on “renovictions” expired in Nova Scotia, some, including Adele Martell, faced the prospect of being forced from their rental homes. She shares her story, and Nova Scotia NDP MLA and housing critic Suzy Hansen discusses her party’s approach to the housing crisis. 11:09

So that lack of affordable housing and those soaring rents aren’t selling points for this province or any other.

“You know, access to safe, affordable housing is crucial if we’re able to continue to be the destination of the best and the brightest from around the world. And Nova Scotia is no exception,” said federal Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen, citing the housing initiatives in the budget.

“There’s a lot of pieces in there but the work is not done in the budget. We are continuing to make sure that we talk to experts, we follow the evidence and we bring forward policies that address this issue comprehensively, not piecemeal.”

Back in Timberlea, Lachi Mainali and Lachsman Koirala aren’t waiting for what this or future budgets might offer. They’ve been through the house and are putting in another bid.

“We can only offer what we can offer, right? So we stick to that rule as long as we like the house we put on offer,” Koirala said. “If … we both like the house, then we make an offer that is the highest we can offer.”

They’re hoping that, this time, the result will finally be a home of their own.

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