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N.S. auditor general says public housing improperly managed, wait list too long

HALIFAX — Shoddy management has resulted in a wait list that is too long for the more than 11,000 public housing units in Nova Scotia, the province’s auditor general said in a new report released Tuesday.
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Nova Scotia Auditor General Kim Adair fields questions at a news conference in Halifax on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Nova Scotia’s auditor general says there were more than 6,000 applicants on the wait list for the province’s 11,000 public housing units as of the end of last year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — Shoddy management has resulted in a wait list that is too long for the more than 11,000 public housing units in Nova Scotia, the province’s auditor general said in a new report released Tuesday.

There were 5,950 applicants on the wait list for public housing as of Dec. 31, 2021 — a figure more than half the total number of units in the province, Kim Adair said. There is an average wait time for public housing of about two years, with some applicants waiting much longer depending on the location and size of the unit required, she added.

“Our findings are very significant given the current situation, where the demand for public housing far exceeds supply,” Adair told reporters. “Because demand is beyond supply, what’s important is that the existing portfolio (housing supply) … be used as efficiently as possible.”

Adair’s audit found that regional housing authorities were not effectively managing the application and tenant-placement processes, nor were they adequately monitoring continued eligibility for public housing. That poor management, she said, has resulted in tenants living in units larger than they require and families remaining on the wait list.

Adair said government officials estimate that more than 1,500 units are underutilized, adding that it takes more than double the 60-day target to place new tenants into vacated homes. She said no work has been done to assess why the delays persist or how they can be reduced. 

“That means units can sit vacant for months at a time,” Adair said. “If they address that turnaround time people will be placed more quickly.”

The auditor general issued 20 recommendations, including to implement an effective governance structure, to create a fair and consistent public housing application process and to create an accurate wait-list ranking system.

As things stand, there is no publicly available reporting on wait lists, vacancy rates or turnaround times, she said.

“This information is of great significance to those awaiting a placement in public housing and should be made available to the public,” the report said.

Adair said the responsibility for the housing program has been transferred to three different departments since 2019 because of restructuring. The program currently falls under the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing. There were also five deputy ministers responsible for the housing portfolio over the three-year period from Jan. 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2020, she said.

The government said it has accepted all of the recommendations, and Adair said work is underway to improve the management and oversight of the system.

“The application process, managing the tenants, managing their complaints and concerns — those pieces should fall into place once you get the governance right and the system has stability,” Adair said.

The audit also revealed that the current system for housing has little accountability due to missing or outdated management agreements. In fact, the audit was only able to locate management agreements for two of the five regional housing authorities, both dating to 2004 with no subsequent updates. 

In an interview, Housing Minister John Lohr said there was little that was surprising in Adair’s findings. “All of the issues the auditor general has identified we are aware of,” Lohr said.

He added that work has been underway since November on a new governance model and on standardizing applications for housing. There is also work underway on a uniform asset-management plan, he said.

Lohr said he also wants the housing authorities to better manage vacancy rates. “I’m not happy with the vacancy rate because that reflects on the turnaround time on our units."

In an email, the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing said the average vacancy rate for public housing in the province is 1.8 per cent. It said the figure does not include units vacant due to repairs, units that have been offered to someone on the wait list who hasn't accepted yet, or units in which a tenant has yet to move in.

Meanwhile, the report said that in the 2020-21 fiscal year the provincial government spent just over $54 million on its five regional housing authorities, or about one-third of the $153 million operating costs.

Tenant rents covered $67 million, and the remaining $31 million was shared between the federal and municipal governments. The overall operating loss was $85.65 million, about 56 per cent of total housing authority expenses.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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