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N.S. housing crunch must be treated as 'once-in-a-generation challenge': industry

A contractor carries a ladder into a residential construction site in a suburb of Halifax on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese A contractor carries a ladder into a residential construction site in a suburb of Halifax on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Nova Scotia's housing shortage is a generational challenge that must be met with effort similar to what was needed to rebuild after the Halifax explosion, says the head of the province's construction association.

Expected to be lacking 41,200 homes by 2028 -- and with the pressures of inflation, high interest rates and labour shortages -- the province needs to take immediate action, says Duncan Williams, president and CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia.

"This is a once-in-a-generation challenge. We've had this before, we had it after the Halifax explosion," Williams said about the 1917 collision between two ships -- one carrying explosives -- that killed 2,000 people, injured thousands more and destroyed neighbourhoods.

"But most of the folks that were around then and would have helped plan through that, obviously, are not with us anymore."

Nova Scotia's current housing needs, he said in a recent interview, are similar to the province's situation after the Second World War, which resulted in a period of major urban development in Halifax that extended into the 1960s.

"We've done this before. We just need to go back and dust off some of the history for how it got done."

Williams says he's looking overseas for help. Last week, he returned from a recruiting trip in London, England, where he shared job details with professionals with experience in "anywhere from drywall, to carpentry, to finish carpentry and pretty much anything in between."

He was joined by representatives from the province and the Canadian Home Builders Association of Nova Scotia, and said they were met with a "very positive response." It's too early, he said, to know how many labourers might come to the province as a result of the visit, but he said the delegation had in-depth conversations about work opportunities in Nova Scotia with 300 tradespeople.

"And now I'm helping match up some of the applicants or folks we've had said they're interested with some of the job openings that are available," he said.

Newly-built homes are pictured at a suburb under construction in Halifax on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

There are between 2,000 and 3,000 construction job openings across the province, he said, adding that sustained investment from all levels of government is needed to grow the skilled trades workforce and speed up the rate of construction.

In order to make a dent in the housing deficit, the province has to build at a rate well above the recent approximate annual average of 6,000 new housing units, Williams said.

"In this year alone I think we're on track to (build) 5,000, so we're actually seeing the trend go in the opposite direction," he said, a drop he attributes to a shortage of available labour and the high cost of supplies. To close the gap, the province would likely need to build 16,000 new units a year to catch up and return to a "balanced supply," he said.

The projection that Nova Scotia will be short 41,200 homes in less than five years comes from a provincial study completed by consultant Turner Drake & Partners, which estimated that in 10 years, the shortage of housing units may hit 80,400. It also found that 54 per cent of the 21,000 Nova Scotians surveyed said they had to spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing; 46 per cent said they couldn't find a place to rent in their price range.

Work needed to reverse the bleak housing projections is "doable," Williams said.

"But there's a lot of things that have to line up right to make it happen."

In October, Nova Scotia's government said it would invest $1 billion over five years "to create the conditions" needed to address the housing shortage. The province also said it would spend more than $100 million over three years to speed up the recruitment and training of skilled tradespeople.

"The way we are currently training these skilled professionals can't keep up with the level of demand," Premier Tim Houston told reporters on Oct. 20.

An excavator moves rock at a residential construction site in a suburb of Halifax on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Mohammed El Sherif, project manager of Halifax-based construction company Savvy Homes Construction Ltd. said in a recent interview that next to challenges with labour, the rising costs of all aspects of home building is a top concern.

Statistics Canada data from July to September 2023 found that residential construction costs were up by 8.4 per cent in Halifax compared to the same quarter last year -- the second highest year-over-year increase of the 11 major cities surveyed, next to Toronto.

"The price of material and land has had a major impact and the construction insurance is also getting expensive. Those rising costs are reflected in the price of housing, he said, adding that they also limit the number of projects the company takes on.

"Sometimes we find the land, but then we do our math and if it's going to get too expensive by the time we finish constructing the house, then it's less appealing to a buyer," making the project unviable, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2023.

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