CBRM advisers and advocates dispute agency data showing rising vacancy rates

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Cape Breton regional advisers are disputing data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, saying the latest figures could make it difficult to obtain financing for affordable housing.

The latest CMHC survey in October 2020 showed that the vacancy rate is up and some rents are down from the previous year.

Lawrence Shebib, executive director of the North Sydney Food Bank Society, said that whatever the numbers, there is certainly a need for affordable housing.

“We see it, just people who live in terrible housing,” he said. “We see it when we deliver the groceries to some of them. I mean, [places] not suitable for housing people. “

Earlier this year, the food bank moved to the old Seton Elementary School after buying it from CBRM for $ 1.

Erika Shea is CEO of New Dawn Enterprises, a social agency involved in community housing. (Matthew Moore / CBC)

The building has already undergone a huge transformation, with old classrooms converted into public laundry rooms, food storage and assembly of care packages.

The company has also installed a large freezer-cold room and equipment for a community kitchen that will open soon.

The food bank also offers a wide variety of community services, including a used clothing depot and visits from a public health nurse through the Ally Center of Cape Breton.

Shebib said the move has been widely praised and the community is excited about a proposal to add a mix of affordable and market-priced housing.

The company is working with New Dawn Enterprises, a social agency involved in community housing, to build a $ 4.6 million community hub with 10 duplexes on the site.

But there are fears that favorable CMHC funding will be withheld because of agency data.

Shebib said the housing project would be a perfect complement to the food bank.

“We just know from the numbers we see, the number of people coming in, asking us if we know where there are apartments available,” he said. “We get calls every other day from people wishing to rent apartments.”

Cape Breton Regional Municipality Town Hall. (Tom Ayers / CBC)

Part of the old school will be demolished to make way for housing and the old school gymnasium will remain as a community center. The entire development will use solar energy.

New Dawn CEO Erika Shea told CBRM that about 350 people are on a waiting list for provincial rent subsidies and 180 for social housing.

She also said there was no doubt that the municipality needed more and better housing.

“If we go back three years, we would generally have had a vacancy rate in all units between 5 and 10 percent,” Shea said.

“We haven’t had a single vacancy in the past three years and for us it continued until 2020 [and] until 2021. “

There may have been an increase in vacancies and a drop in rental rates last year, with a large number of international students at Cape Breton University taking courses online instead of coming to Sydney due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

CBRM Executive Director Marie Walsh believes there are fewer vacancies and higher rents than the survey indicates. (Tom Ayers / CBC)

New Dawn also operates an immigration center and there have been fewer arrivals last year.

The numbers appear to be reversing, but Shea said that may not be reflected in CMHC survey data, which is being collected in early October.

“So the question is, how long will this blow affect the community’s ability to access funding to build affordable housing? ” she said.

Shea said CMHC officials have suggested the North Sydney project may not be eligible for funding due to the latest figures.

The latest poll showed that the vacancy rate nearly doubled last year, from 4.6 percent to 8.2 percent.

The agency also said rents for both rooms fell, while overall rents rose only about 1%.

Shea said that even before the recent influx of international students in 2018, the need for affordable housing was considerable.

“We had thousands of people living in substandard, dangerous, inaccessible and unaffordable housing,” she said.

A 2019 study by CBU researcher Catherine Leviten-Reid found that the CMHC survey sample did not take into account the range of housing in the MRCB.

Shebib says there is a need for affordable housing no matter what the numbers say. (Tom Ayers / CBC)

CMHC said it could not comment due to the ongoing federal election.

New Dawn is working with the university and a local housing coalition to collect data that Shea and others say will demonstrate the need for affordable housing in the MRCB.

They are hoping that CMHC will fund the North Sydney housing project and others once the data is ready.

Meanwhile, the CBRM council voted on Tuesday to ask CMHC to verify its numbers.

Chief administrator Marie Walsh said staff and advisors believe there are fewer vacancies and higher rents than the CMHC survey reveals.

“I’m just wondering where they get their information and just make sure they’re comparing apples to apples,” she said.

Walsh is a member of the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission, which released a report earlier this year that found better data is needed in small urban centers and rural areas.

“There aren’t a lot of housing statistics so one of the things you need to do is look at them at the local level,” she said.

“The recommendation was that municipalities look at housing statistics in their area, because they know their municipalities better than anyone.

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