October 18, 2023

Fall sitting likely to focus on housing crisis, rising cost of living

Provincial politicians will once again take their seats at Province House on Thursday for a sitting in which the rising cost of living and the ongoing shortage of affordable homes could supersede health care as the main topic of debate.

Although problems with the health system remain a major preoccupation for both the public and Premier Tim Houston's  PC government, opposition parties believe housing and affordability need more immediate attention.

"We know that more and more Nova Scotians are falling behind," said Liberal leader Zach Churchill. "Nova Scotia has the highest inflation rate in the country, the highest increases in rent, and at the centre of this is the housing crisis.

"So we're going to be bringing forward ideas that we think can help."

The NDP has similar plans.

"We know that Nova Scotians remain concerned about the unkept pledge to fix health care in this province, but the reality is, in this environment where costs keep going up and up, where rents and the price of housing keep going up and up, where we see more people living on the streets than ever before, it's an issue that needs urgent attention," said NDP leader Claudia Chender.

Few details on legislative agenda

For its part, the government is keeping its legislative plans mostly secret.

Government House leader Kim Masland offered up bill titles when asked about the Houston government's priorities this fall, but no details.

"We're going to be looking at a first responders' act, we're going to be looking at a mental health act, which will deliver on the commitment that we made to Nova Scotians in the mental health mandate, and we'll be looking at housing," said Masland.

"You'll have to stay tuned for the legislative sitting" for what's in those proposed laws.

During the last election, the PCs promised "universal mental health coverage," something the party estimated would cost $100 million to put in place.

"This will mean establishing a billing code so that approved mental health professionals are leveraged for the benefit of all," stated the 2021 PC platform.

While the government has been working on a way to make this happen, it's unclear this is the commitment Masland is talking about delivering on.

The Houston government also promised to create a standalone "department dedicated to addictions and mental health" and to establish "recruitment tools to attract mental health professionals to Nova Scotia."

It created an Office of Addictions and Mental Health and has stepped up doctor and nurse recruiting efforts, including those dedicated to providing mental health services.

As for the opposition's main priorities — housing and affordability — Masland said those two things were obviously on the minds of people in the province.

"Certainly, affordability and housing is a very significant concern of ours," she said. "Anything that affects the lives of Nova Scotians is important to us."

Residential tenancy enforcement

One housing-related government bill that could come forward would be legislation to create a residential tenancy enforcement unit.

Nearly a year-and-a-half ago the provincial government awarded Halifax-based Davis Pier Consulting a tender to study Ontario's system and come up with a comprehensive program design detailing the scope, structure and costs of implementing something similar in Nova Scotia.

A draft of that report, obtained by CBC News, recommended going ahead with the unit and having it in place for early 2024. For that to happen, the Tories would need to introduce enabling legislation this fall.

The Liberals plan to bring forward legislation to "reduce red tape" when it comes to building new homes, and the party will propose ways to try to reduce the cost of building materials.

"That's the only way we're going to be able to have more affordable rents or housing prices on the other side," said Churchill.

Taxing vacant land

Among other bills, the NDP will propose creating a tax on vacant land, as a way to try to free up land for development and establishing clean air regulations for schools and public buildings.

If the Tories do not bring forward a bill for the tenancy enforcement unit, both opposition party leaders say they respective caucuses will.

The sitting will start with the election of a new Speaker to replace Keith Bain, who has agreed to step down, after an attempt by the Premier to force him out failed last fall. The PCs have the votes to make Karla MacFarlane Nova Scotia's first female Speaker of the House.

Another first will belong to the newest member of the PC caucus, Twila Grosse who will become the first Black woman to sit on the government front benches as a cabinet minister.