Numerous construction cranes sway over Halifax as the city’s accelerated pace of construction continues despite the impact of the pandemic.
Duncan Williams, president of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia, says residential construction, sometimes with retail and even office elements, is a major driver of the city’s current boom.
While the impact of COVID-19 on the economy is evident, the construction industry has not taken a heavy hit.
The development of multi-residential rental housing is “going very well” and the city is seeing all-time high or near-record starts in all new housing, says Ian Munro, chief economist of the Halifax Partnership, a non-profit public / private partnership made up of business consultants, economists and others working with the Halifax Regional Municipality on the city’s economic growth plan.
Munro says new public works projects are also underway, a hospital, for example. Only the city’s office sector is slow, in large part due to high vacancy rates after several years of intense development.
The economist says the Halifax Index, an annual economic review of statistics and figures filed by the Halifax Partnership, shows construction continued throughout COVID-19 while other industries have slowed down or made pause.
In some ways, the pandemic may have helped spark Halifax’s latest residential development. The city’s population is increasing with the increase coming from outside the province and even overseas.
“For the most part, you can now work from anywhere in the world,” Williams says.
“A lot more people want to work and play close to home (due to the pandemic) and they are concerned about their environmental footprint.”
The city’s affordability and recreational lifestyle are appealing, but so too is the growth of industries such as information technology and life sciences, Munro points out.
He attributes the record population growth since 2017-18 in part to initiatives by the city and other stakeholders to attract people from out of province, especially new immigrants.
Francis Fares, president of Halifax-based developer Fares & Co. Development Inc., says while construction margins are good, labor shortages are a problem, not because of the pandemic but rather. the sustained pace of construction.
“We can’t get trades. They won’t even price your labor. Everyone we talk to says it will be a year or 18 months away, ”says Fares, whose company has started excavating a 27-story residential apartment tower and is building several low-rise multi-family rental projects. including in the downtown waterfront.
“We’re reaching out to New Brunswick to find trades, but it’s also booming there.
Predicting more delays in construction schedules in the city, Fares attributes the rental construction boom in large part to rising rental rates.
“It’s almost the same price as in Toronto. “
In addition to being affected by a Canadian or global economic crisis, Fares sees no obstacle to construction activity over the next few years.
Len Bryden, director of training at Carpenter Millwright College Mainland Nova Scotia, says training for apprentice carpenters and trades in general in the building industry is in high demand in Halifax and he doesn’t see a slowdown coming.
He says training has remained stable throughout the pandemic, but in limited numbers and cohort size. “Many COVID-19 protocols have been put in place and followed, including physical distancing, use of masks and online training. “
Still, Bryden says most classroom training continued to be delivered in person.
Although Williams has heard of 50 tower cranes on the Halifax skyline, he says there could be more activity if there were fewer obstacles to development in the planning process and authorization from the city.
“We probably have over a thousand condominiums, apartments and multi-unit residential projects in the pipeline, but we just don’t seem to be doing (enabling) them quickly enough. “
He says there is a delay of about 80 to 100 days in the permit approval stage for “fairly simple projects.”
The city recently hired more staff to speed up permitting and, according to Munro, the Halifax Partnership is working with the city on the next five-year economic strategy that includes increasing the number of affordable housing needed.