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Rural Cape Breton communities not immune to housing crisis

Officials in Richmond County and the Town of Port Hawkesbury say homelessness is not as obvious there as it is in larger centres, but it's no less a problem. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Officials in Richmond County and the Town of Port Hawkesbury say homelessness is not as obvious there as it is in larger centres, but it's no less a problem. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Some municipal officials in rural Cape Breton say even though they don't have tent cities like Halifax, or people obviously living rough similar to Cape Breton Regional Municipality, housing and homelessness are problems for them, too.

Town of Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton said while it may not be the same for her community as it is in bigger centres, it doesn't mean it isn't an issue. She said her community has seen the occasional tent.

"We definitely need to be paying attention to it and doing what we can to try to make sure that we see the people who need housing housed," Chisholm-Beaton said.

In Richmond County, people have occasionally resorted to living in tents, but not often or for great lengths of time, said Warden Amanda Mombourquette.

Both said housing is one of the top issues residents call about. Mombourquette said they usually call before homelessness becomes a problem.

"They're either in housing situations that they can't afford in the long term, so they're looking for a solution that would be more appropriate to the income level that they have, or they don't have a place to stay and they're completely at the end of their rope trying to figure out what to do next," she said.

In any case, solutions need to be found soon, Mombourquette said. "We feel like we're out of time," she said.

Warden Amanda Mombourquette says residents often call before homelessness becomes a certainty, but it's still a scary predicament that needs solutions.
Warden Amanda Mombourquette says residents often call before homelessness becomes a certainty, but it's still a scary predicament that needs solutions.

Warden Amanda Mombourquette says residents often call before homelessness becomes a certainty, but it's still a predicament that needs solutions. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Last year, the Nova Scotia government supplied all 49 municipalities with housing needs assessments, identifying a shortage of thousands of new units based on 2022 surveys.

Port Hawkesbury's report found the town needs about 250 new housing units in the next five years, but it also found the town had a high vacancy rate.

But Chisholm-Beaton said she hears from residents that housing is tight.

She said she would like to confirm the vacancy rate "because I get calls every single week from students, seniors, families, workers — like new workers in particular — that are looking to work in Port Hawkesbury, but have trouble finding a place to live."

Richmond County will be short more than 500 units in the next five years, according to the provincial report, but Mombourquette said there is some hope on the horizon.

She said developers have approached the county looking to build affordable housing, but officials aren't sure the county's aging sewer and water systems can handle rapid growth.

Depends on infrastructure, says Mombourquette

"It's fantastic that we have developers who have a community mindset and they see this as an issue and they don't just want to develop market housing," Mombourquette said.

"They also want to develop affordable housing, but at the end of the day, our ability to support that a lot of times depends on the state of our infrastructure, which as I said is aging and some of it is already in critical condition."

Richmond County council has asked for a staff report that's expected next month identifying where housing can go now and where the municipality will need to invest to unlock new development.

Port Hawkesbury is working on its zoning plans to open up more housing and Chisholm-Beaton said it is hoped the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce will be able to help.

Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton says the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce may eventually be able to help with creative housing solutions.
Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton says the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce may eventually be able to help with creative housing solutions.

Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton says the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce may eventually be able to help with solutions. (Submitted by Brenda Chisholm-Beaton)

Chamber president John Ouellette has said members are having difficulty filling jobs because of the lack of housing for potential employees.

The business group is looking into the possibility of forming a not-for-profit organization that could offer innovative solutions, such as having a cruise ship tie up at the wharf or creating some kind of housing co-operative.

Chisholm-Beaton said that could help, but the region simply needs more housing right away.

"The time is now," she said. "The better time would have been yesterday."

Provincial responsibility, municipal action

Housing is considered to be a provincial responsibility, but the warden and mayor said they have to do something because they are the ones getting the calls from people needing help.

"We understand that it's primarily a provincial responsibility, but we always call it a municipal problem because we're here on the front lines of our residents and when they have nowhere else to turn, they do tend to call us," Mombourquette said.

CBRM, the largest municipality on Cape Breton Island, is short 1,000 housing units and that could double in the next decade if steps aren't taken to grow the housing stock, according to its provincial needs assessment.

However the municipality has become involved in affordable housing over the past year and a task force was expected to report to council this month, although that hasn't happened.

A provincial housing needs assessment shows the scale of the housing problem in Inverness County, but neither the warden nor the deputy warden returned calls for comment.
A provincial housing needs assessment shows the scale of the housing problem in Inverness County, but neither the warden nor the deputy warden returned calls for comment.

A provincial housing needs assessment shows the scale of the housing problem in Inverness County, but neither the warden nor the deputy warden returned calls for comment. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Elsewhere on the island, Inverness County is short more than 600 units. Some of the existing stock is being used for short-term rentals, such as Airbnb and Vrbo.

The provincial needs assessment also says some residents are staying in campgrounds while renting out their homes to take advantage of tourism income.

It also says housing prices have skyrocketed while incomes have not kept pace, making affordability an issue.

Neither Inverness Warden Bonny MacIsaac nor deputy warden Catherine Gillis returned phone calls for comment.

Victoria County working on infrastructure

Victoria County could be short more than 400 housing units in the next few years. The county's provincial report says short-term rentals make up 6.5 per cent of the existing stock.

The province also says affordability is a problem, but no one from Victoria County council would comment.

In an email, the county's spokesperson said housing is a provincial responsibility and the county is focusing on building infrastructure to support new housing.

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