Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE
Ms. Diana Whalen (Chairman)
Mr. Leonard Preyra (Vice-Chairman)
Mr. Clarrie MacKinnon
Ms. Becky Kent
Mr. Mat Whynott
Mr. Maurice Smith
Hon. Keith Colwell
Hon. Cecil Clarke
Mr. Chuck Porter
[Ms. Michele Raymond replaced Ms. Becky Kent]
[Mr. Allan MacMaster replaced Hon. Cecil Clarke]
Department of Community Services
Ms. Judith Ferguson, Deputy Minister
Mr. Gary Porter, Executive Director
Housing Authorities & Property Operations
Mr. Dan Troke, Acting Executive Director
Employment Support and Income Assistance and Housing
Mr. George Hudson, Executive Director
Mrs. Darlene Henry
Legislative Committee Clerk
Mr. Jacques Lapointe
Ms. Evangeline Colman-Sadd
Assistant Auditor General
Mr. Gordon Hebb
Chief Legislative Counsel
HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 21, 2010
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Ms. Diana Whalen
Mr. Leonard Preyra
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Good morning everyone. I'd like to call the committee to order. We're here at the Public Accounts Committee, and this morning we have witnesses from the Department of Community Services. Our subject today is the regional housing authorities.
Just to begin, before we have opening comments from our guests, I'd like to ask the members of the committee and the witnesses to introduce themselves.
[The committee members and witnesses introduced themselves.]
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much and just in that moment, we've been joined by one other member of the committee, Mr. Allan MacMaster, the member for Inverness.
As is our process, we begin with an opening statement. I assume you have some comments for the committee before we begin, so I will turn it over to Ms. Ferguson.
MS. JUDITH FERGUSON: Thank you very much, Madam Chairman and I would like to thank the committee and the Auditor General, everyone for being here today and for asking us to come and talk about housing.
I guess I can begin by saying that this is a very exciting time for housing in Nova Scotia and in particular for the things that we have been able to do over the past year, and we will be doing over the next year in the Department of Community Services. We're currently experiencing one of the largest injections of money into affordable housing in the province's history. In the midst of a global economic crisis last year, governments recognized that they had a role to play in stimulating the economy.
In partnership with the federal government, the Province of Nova Scotia developed a housing stimulus plan to create more affordable housing for Nova Scotians, upgrade social housing and create jobs in the construction industry.
Thanks to $128 million in stimulus money, communities in every region of the province will benefit from this investment. I'm pleased to report that there has been a lot of activity over the past year, we're beyond the halfway mark and about $70 million committed so far. So we're on target and will spend all of the stimulus money that we have received.
So to date - and I use these numbers, recognizing when I was talking to people this morning that the numbers actually change every day because, obviously, new units come into play every day, so these numbers are accurate as of today. But $11 million has been committed for 552 units in co-operative and non-profit housing, $24.4 million has been committed for the development of a 167 new units across the province for seniors and persons with disabilities; and $34.6 million has been committed for over 1,100 public housing projects.
Work to the province's social housing portfolio will complete needed repairs, reduce operating costs through energy efficiency, something that we're extremely excited about and proud of and help seniors to live independently.
We are making the most of every cent that we have. We always wish we had more money for housing, but having said that, we're on target in delivering our housing stimulus money. I really do want to take a moment to commend the staff in the department and the housing authorities, because they have worked exceptionally hard and tirelessly to ensure that we are able to commit all of the funds, and that we will be able to ensure that we've spent all our money and made the most of everything that we have received. As I am sure you can imagine, it has been an extensive amount of work by all of our staff. It has been their number one priority and they really have done an exceptional job.
We anticipate making some announcements about more communities receiving housing investments in the coming weeks, so I would ask you to stay tuned. This stimulus money, I want to underscore, is on top of what we already do in the department to help thousands of Nova Scotians meet their housing needs each year.
Every year in the department we help to house 27,500 families through our social housing programs, we also help more than 2,200 families modify or repair their homes every year so that they continue to have a safe and affordable place to live.
We all know that housing is fundamental to achieving healthy child development, stable family relationships, education and literacy, family wealth and social status and, obviously, in the Department of Community Services, we see that at all levels and really strive to bring our services together in a way that helps meet the needs of our clients.
It is important to have housing in place before offering other social services and you need a roof over your head before you can get back on your feet. We want to assure you that we will continue to help as many low-income Nova Scotians access affordable housing as we can. We are also, however, improving how we can provide that help.
The Auditor General's Report of 2007 concluded that the housing authorities included in the scope needed to correct some identified control weaknesses. This work has been completed and I'm pleased to advise that it is included in our update to the Auditor General's Report that has been provided to you.
The Auditor General's Office also identified that non-financial performance information and outcome measures should be developed. In addition, the Auditor General recommended that the public housing operations manual be reviewed and updated in several areas. Again, you can see the updates to these areas in the information that we supplied to you. I would like to underscore that we, in the department and the housing authorities, take the recommendations very seriously and we've worked hard to ensure that they've been implemented in a way that works not only for the processes, but also for the clients that we serve.
To that end, in the last two years considerable work has been done to advance the work of the Public Housing Operations Manual. The Occupational Health and Safety section is complete and has been endorsed by the Nova Scotia Construction Safety Association. In addition, quite a bit of effort has been made to learn what relevant policies and practices are in place in other jurisdictions, and work is underway in reviewing the Applicant/Tenant, Maintenance, Procurement, and Financial sections of the policy. It is our intent to develop performance targets in association with the completion of these reviews.
I think it is important to recognize that these are significant undertakings and occurring at a time where there are competing demands for resources. As I just said, a lot of the same staff who would be involved in updating the policy manuals are the same staff who are ensuring that the stimulus funds are getting out the door.
The other thing I'd like to say is we want to do this work right. We're trying to do this work ensuring that we have a very client service focus in the work and that we maintain that perspective as we work on the reformulation of the policies.
I would also like to say that the department collects information from the housing authorities each month on wait lists, application activity, unit activity, energy consumption and stimulus progress, in addition to the financial performance of each of the housing authorities. This information is reviewed on a monthly basis with the housing authorities and plans are developed to respond to both opportunities and issues.
The Government of Nova Scotia and the department is committed to providing more affordable housing and improving the lives of those struggling with poverty and homelessness in our province, and we very much look forward to continuing our work with our federal partners to meet the housing needs of low-income Nova Scotians.
Those are my comments, Madam Chairman, thank you very much.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, and thank you so much for providing them in a written format as well because there's a lot of information in there that I am sure the members of the committee will want to refer to.
We will begin our rounds of questioning with the Liberal caucus. I'd like to call upon Mr. Colwell to begin for the first 20 minutes.
HON. KEITH COLWELL: Thank you, Madam Chairman. First of all I'd like to start by indicating that we're very, very pleased with the work that the housing authority does in my area. The staff are very helpful to work with and whenever they can help, they do help. They always seem to go the extra mile, even sometimes when it is a very difficult situation. I would ask you to pass that along to them, if you would. It's not often that you have government or semi-government employees really caring about their job, caring about the people they work for, and indeed the housing authority is one of those groups of people that truly do that, so I just want to pass that along to them and put that on the record.
There are several things, but first I am going to ask you about the Preston Area Housing Authority. I know in North Preston in particular, some of the units there really need some repair work - badly need the work done on them - and there are some other issues there, as you are probably well aware.
Has there been any funding allotted to upgrade those facilities in the North Preston area?
MR. DAN TROKE: Yes, actually about two years ago there were a number of inspections and some maintenance work done to start that process with the Preston Area Housing Fund. The board itself recognized that there were some challenges there and they approached us and we had a long discussion and we also did a review of the units that were there, so at that time about half, roughly, of the units were done.
Since that time we've had some discussions with the board around how they want to move forward, so not only with repairing units but also the kinds of activities that they want to be involved with - we've actually had a number of opportunities to go to the board and have discussions around that. My understanding is that when it comes to any repair items that they were going to collectively bring forward to us how they would want to proceed or what are the types of repairs that they were looking for and then we would send our regional inspectors back to take a look at the units.
We've already been through them once, as I said, and about two years ago there was a lot of work done. If there's additional work that needs to be done then we would go through, review those, and see what is the best opportunity to move forward. But as a group, collectively, I know that the board is working very hard to look at how they want to move forward not just on the units they have, but what is their position and their vision within the community as they move forward? I know they're making a lot of effort to see what the next step is on where they want to go and what they want to do. They certainly can, at any point in time, have that discussion with us, and my understanding was that they were going to collectively bring forward a number of things to us, repairs being part of it, but also where they want to go in the future.
MR. COLWELL: I'm not surprised that you've been working on it - not at all. Some of the things in the 2007 Auditor's Report - you briefly mentioned in your presentation that the Regional Housing Authority of Cape Breton issued seven recommendations. One of them was a recommendation to create two new positions in a working group that would develop an overview, targets and outcomes, with a director of property facilities and a capital works group and a bunch of issues around that - how have they been addressed and how successful has that been so far? It's Recommendation 6.1 that the Auditor General had.
MS. FERGUSON: That recommendation, as I read it here, didn't specifically indicate positions, but what we have done is we have created two positions. The first is a position that Gary has, Executive Director of the Housing Authorities and Property Operations. Housing authority managers now actually report in through to that position and that has been very helpful for us also, certainly from an accountability standpoint in terms of ongoing accountability and monitoring - and I will pass it over to Mr. Porter to speak to the actual things that they've been doing.
We also have a director of property and facilities who reports in to that executive director, and we've also created a capital works group. That consists of housing authority staff, as well as our regional coordinators, to ensure that our assets are managed, strategically planned, and maintained so that we're ensuring that we're maximizing all of our resources.
So maybe I'll just turn it over to Gary to add anything more.
MR. GARY PORTER: Thank you for the question. It's certainly an important area of our work. The policy and procedures manuals are a significant piece of work that we've defined - and I'll make the connection in a minute in terms of how they relate to performance measures and outcomes.
In 2008-09 we defined some priorities for the division that included looking at the Occupational Health and Safety section, the applicant/ tenant area, the maintenance area, and the financial sections of the operational manual. We established teams for each of those reviews, which included having one of the directors of each of the housing authorities, and in some cases two, lead that work - so guide the feedback around each of those areas.
It became evident during the year that with other competing demands that wasn't the most effective way for us to approach it, so in 2009-10 we really took a more targeted approach to those manuals. We selected two of the manuals that we really wanted to delve into and complete on a priority basis.
Those were the Occupational Health and Safety Manual, which I think the deputy minister reported in her opening remarks as now complete, and we also had that manual reviewed by the Construction Safety Association of Nova Scotia to ensure that we were in line with industry practice, which they did. The Applicant/ Tenant Manual is the priority we really focused on in 2009-10. I have a staff member who was committed to that work and conducted jurisdictional reviews on policies and practices that exist in other jurisdictions, reviewed some of the issues that we face in relation to the Applicant/Tenant Manual and what they're doing in other jurisdictions - and also developed some options on how we might proceed.
One approach to the manuals is simply taking a look at what's there on paper and ensuring it's updated to reflect what's happening today. The approach we've taken is to target some of the issues we face with the manual and try to develop some options and how we might proceed in the future. That's kind of where we are, the work is substantially complete - we have a little more work around the jurisdictional areas to conclude. We've developed some options around some key areas, and right now we're trying to develop some recommendations around those areas specific to the Applicant/Tenant Manual.
Now I will add that that is not to say that other work hasn't proceeded around the other areas. The stimulus funding has really challenged us in many ways in terms of ensuring that our standards are up to date. As a condition of the funding, we've committed to an Energy Star rating for products that we've included in our stimulus work and we've also committed to meeting the criteria set out in the model of the National Energy Code. So a big part of this is really aimed at improving energy efficiency - and those are important areas for us.
As a consequence, we've had to update a variety of specifications for materials. Just to give you one example - the work that we've done around windows. We've actually obtained windows from every manufacturer, we've assessed those windows, we've evaluated them, and we've selected windows that best serve our needs for energy efficiency and meet the requirements of Energy Star, but also come with some guarantee of longevity so they actually will serve us well long into the future.
So that's an example of some other work that's going on, and I hope I've demonstrated through the response that we're committed to the work. When we finish these policy manuals, it will drive our thinking around what we measure and what performance expectations we set for our operations - if things change in our manuals that have an impact on those areas.
MR. COLWELL: I know there's a wait list for affordable housing; a lot of people need affordable housing now. There was some discussion in the audit I believe about wait lists and how you prioritize that and how that happens - could you give me some comments on that? And I have some information here that I'll table - the Chairman of Community Services Committee on February 2010, where we talked about that in some detail and maybe the clerk could give it to Mr. Porter just to have a look at, and before you answer the question just to refresh you on what you said at that time, but has there been a process put in place around wait lists that was addressed I believe in the auditor's report as well, under Section 6.1?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Porter, I hope you've had a moment. Maybe, Mr. Colwell, you have more to say while he takes a look.
MR. COLWELL: Yes, I can maybe ask another question while he's reviewing that information.
I also understand Housing does a subsidized rent on properties. How many units do you have like that, with a subsidized rent, and when will that subsidy run out and, if it does run out - I'm asking three questions here - is there a plan to reinstate that again?
MR. TROKE: First of all, rent supplement has existed in Nova Scotia for a significant period of time. There are really two components. The first part is what we would call the traditional Rent Supplement Program and there are over 700 rent supplements that exist throughout the province. So effectively what this is, is we have three-way agreements between our housing authority, the private sector landlord, and an individual. Really what it is, it's gap filling the rent for that individual. So in the event that they can afford $400 in rent but the rent is $600, the department gap fills that $200 for them. So it makes it so that effectively they have an affordable option within the community where they need to be and where they need to live.
Over and above that, when the Affordable Housing Program was introduced in 2002, a component of that also included rent supplements, and those rent supplements were used for two vehicles: number one, in some cases we would construct units and we had individuals on our list who had very low incomes so that really we needed to really drive the rents down very deep for those individuals in order to be able to get into those units - so we used them in that way; and second, it was also an opportunity for us each year to take individuals off our wait lists who were waiting in areas where perhaps, you know, there may not be a unit available to them. For example, they may need a three-bedroom unit in a town where there are very few three-bedroom units, so it was a way for us to utilize those to get people off the wait list, but also to get them the type of housing that they needed.
So in total between these two, I believe we are somewhere close to 1,000 units that are in a rent supplement model, and when you talk about rent supplements running out - as I said, rent supplements have actually been in existence in this province for a couple of decades. They're very much something that we utilize as a tool, both for our housing authorities to be able to help as many people as they can, but also an opportunity for us in communities where housing needs change, for us to be able to go in and actually make arrangements with a private sector landlord or even a not-for-profit in order to be able to get people into some units.
I guess to answer your question, there are about 1,000 of them in total, they've been in existence for decades so from a perspective of running out, I guess our experience has been that they are in effect a tool. If there was some decision that they weren't going to be there - it's a program if you will. It's not any different than a lot of the repair programs and other things that we deliver.
From a perspective of how it works, it works very well to complement the units that the province owns. The folks Gary manages, we are the biggest landlord in the Province of Nova Scotia. It's just one more option over and above the units we own, over and above the non-profit units, but also a way for us to work with the private sector to help people get into units when what they're looking for is not available where they are.
MR. COLWELL: Maybe Mr. Porter could answer my question now.
MR. GARY PORTER: Thank you for the time to read that. The question related to can we provide information on how long people can wait on the wait list. I guess my response during the standing committee was, to paraphrase, it depends.
I'll explain that. To make the connection to your question, you asked about the relationship to Recommendation 6.1. I think that is a very powerful recommendation in this regard, because this is the one that had us having a look at our policy and applicant/tenant manuals and processes in a way that allows us to develop performance measures and expectations. In general we do collect information every month on our wait list and a variety of other factors that influence our wait list.
There are a few things that I'd like to mention that are important in this area. In some areas of the province we have a higher supply of housing than we have demand. Those would include areas - in most cases they're very rural areas, places like Merigomish that are outside New Glasgow where I know in particular we have a 10-unit building where we have two tenants. The demand for housing in that area does not allow us to fill those vacancies.
In other areas we have a higher demand than supply, and we see that mostly in urban areas and communities around the province. These are typically the areas where we'd see our wait list.
The other thing is, the wait lists are managed on a chronological basis, so when a person makes application we time date that application and that determines their place in order of offering housing. The other thing that is influential is, we ask for their desired preference of location and they can provide us up to three preferences. In some cases they may indicate to us that they will not accept housing outside of those areas. In fact, they want to stay on a wait list for that specific location which may be one single building and that may relate to their need for proximity to employment or services that they receive in the community or a number of other factors.
We also have applicants that say here are my three desired locations, but I will accept others around. Those are ones we're usually able to respond to more easily, especially in areas where there's higher demand for housing.
The other things that influence, that we pay attention to on a monthly basis, many of the people on our wait lists are individuals who have requested transfers. They already live with us today and they would like to have another location and that location is usually quite specific in terms of a building. Roughly - this varies month to month, 10 per cent of our wait list are people who live with us today that request transfers. Other factors that influence our ability to get at the wait list include an individual's readiness to move, the availability of the units.
To go back to the question, I cannot give a specific answer as to how long can a person wait unless I look at a sort of building level. That's also influenced by a variety of factors. So just to summarize, our wait lists are managed chronologically and by preference and by availability.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you, I know in my area that the department has been very accommodating, whenever they can, for wait lists. It hasn't been a big issue although we never have enough units. That's our problem, which you've already addressed.
One other question that I don't know if anyone has ever asked you, which is the most efficient way to do this - a rent subsidy or actually to own and maintain the buildings?
MS. FERGUSON: I guess, and I'll defer to Dan a bit on this, I'll talk a bit. Our experience has been that we have a number of options - tools in the toolbox - so that we can be flexible, so that we can adapt to the needs of the clients that we have. I guess from our perspective, we would like to maintain that flexibility because if there's one thing that we've experienced on a number of levels and service delivery across the province, almost regardless of the program, one size does not fit all. You need to look at the individual needs of the client, the individual needs of the family, the individual needs of that community and see really what options best fit in those cases.
Subject to Dan disagreeing with me - which he might, which is okay - I think it's really important that we maintain the flexibility that we have. We have a large percentage of home ownership in Nova Scotia, particularly in rural Nova Scotia. However, in the urban centres in the province, obviously a high need for a rental market. So the options that we have and the choices that we have and the flexibility within the programming that we have to ensure that we have enough programs to meet the needs in the areas that we have, I think are really important because the needs are very diverse across the province and we see that on a daily basis.
Subject to that, I turn it over to Dan if he has any additional comments.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Troke, just for a minute because our time is just about up on this round.
MR. TROKE: No, actually I don't have anything that would really disagree with that. Really it comes down to that we have a spectrum, individuals who come to housing authorities, typically you do have what social housing is available in a given area but that's not the only option because you also have co-ops, non-profits, you also have rent supplement, as you mentioned earlier. Those, collective, are our opportunities to help that individual in an area.
One size doesn't always fit all and each community is different. So in some communities, rents might be your only option. In other communities where we have an abundance of a portfolio and we have enough stock that would meet not just the price point, if you will, but also the ability to house them adequately, determines which one of those is more effective. Of course ultimately, it will come down to availability when those individuals come forward.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Your time has elapsed now, Mr. Colwell, so I'll turn it over to the Progressive Conservative caucus and Mr. MacMaster for your 20 minutes.
MR. ALLAN MACMASTER: Thank you very much and thank you for the opportunity today. The first questions I'd like to ask involve subsidies for private sector
development of affordable housing. I actually did some analysis on this recently because somebody had come to me and they were looking at providing - there were some people who came to me actually looking to move out of their homes as they are retired, moving on to their later years in life. They were looking for accommodation where they wouldn't have to be looking after a house so I did some analysis with them and with a couple of private sector developers.
One thing I noticed was that subsidies - and I can appreciate that we're all trying to live within a cost-effective environment but the subsidies offered for developers seem to be, when we did the analysis, while they certainly helped, and I speak of - I believe you can get for every unit you build, if you're willing to charge a rent at or below a certain price, you can get $25,000 for every second unit you construct. When we did the analysis it just seemed that it was very difficult, it seemed to me, for a private developer to construct subsidized housing.
Have you been seeing anything around that? Do you have any thoughts on that?
MR. TROKE: I guess first of all, from a perspective of - we get phone calls daily from both the private sector and not-for-profits who come forward with proposals. Sometimes these proposals take a period of time to develop, because of expertise and other times they are basically in a position where these arrangements can happen very fast.
When it comes to the $25,000 capital contribution and normally we would look at taking no more than about half of the units that were available in any given development. That actually gives a developer quite a bit of flexibility because what they can do is stagger their portfolio. Many individuals who come forward aren't coming forward, I have a building with 20 units, or I have a building with 10 units. Often they may be working within a given town, city, or even a rural area, and so what will happen is they may very well have multiple units that they're building at any given time.
The two things it does, number one, is the individuals who live there, you don't know which are subsidized units and which aren't, so you don't get into any kind of, if you want to use the term, stigmatized building because of what you're trying to accomplish, but second of all, there's a second advantage to developers that many of them realize. They may not say a whole lot about it when they're talking to you, but because they go through affordable housing they get a huge break on their mortgage insurance. So that $25,000 capital contribution is just the beginning of an opportunity for them when they're going to the bank to finance a portion of this building.
So many developers who would come forward and say, I want to do 10 units in a 30-unit building, will immediately start doing the math and will say now I want to do 15 - the reason being that the mortgage insurance is a significant element. Second of all, understanding that we become a source for them of a stream of individuals coming their way. What will happen is they may very well realize that in their given area there's a certain amount of demand, but then what will typically happen in the arrangement with us is we will
say we can actually stream x number of individuals toward you as a developer, for whom this might be a suitable place to live. So that's another huge advantage for developers, is that you do have a continual ability to pick up a phone and say, do you have anybody who would like to have a two-bedroom unit or a one-bedroom unit, or whatever they happen to be constructing.
It is true that the numbers vary across the country, but here in Nova Scotia at $25,000 a unit, we still have a significant number of people who have been coming our way. Each year we continue to be able to construct units throughout the province. I think a map may have been given to you before this that shows there are very few spots of this province we haven't been and, as I said, we continue to get them. I guess one of the things I encourage when people are talking to me about this is if you know of groups or individuals who are looking to construct in your area, continue to send them our way because we'll work with them. There are programs with CMHC, what they call Seed Funding, which is an opportunity for groups who don't have a lot of the skills but would like to look at exploring not-for-profit or even for profit opportunities in their community to do business plans, to do market research. There are some components of that which are forgivable, which means if they want to look to see if this is a good idea, they can explore with CMHC and then come to us and we can talk about if this is something that has enough legs to give us, say, 15 years worth of affordable housing in a community.
MR. MACMASTER: That's most helpful, thank you. Could I ask, are you seeing a type of model come forth that's more successful than others? You mentioned the staggering of units, which I find interesting. Is an eight-unit building most popular - and I can appreciate it may depend on the demand in the area where the building is, but have you been noticing any trends there that seem to work better than others?
MR. TROKE: It depends on the size of the community and, quite honestly, we normally see a minimum of eight units being constructed at a time. So, in fact, we normally do not go lower than that. In some communities four and five units at a time is the maximum that they want to construct or that can be sustained in a given community. As you can appreciate, some communities are aging. The demographics mean that, because of out-migration, if you are building something you don't want to overbuild, because then effectively you're in a position where cash flow will mean this building may be in jeopardy a few years down the road.
From a perspective of small towns or in cities, normally we're seeing units get constructed in the range of about 20 units at a time. That means that normally you would be able to see about 10 of those 20 units be affordable, but in small towns anywhere from fourplexes, four units up to eight, seems to be something that people are comfortable with, but often what's happening is there is more than one set going up at a time. So you may see four units here, but that group, or that developer, may have four going up in multiple places. So it's a little scattered. It also really depends on what's happening, and I appreciate you can probably speak to what's going on in your own community, where the population is changing
quite dramatically and has changed quite dramatically. So we really have to build to take that into account, but also we really have to look at it from a perspective of making sure that if it goes up, there's sufficient cash flow to make sure that, you know, for the next 10, 15, 20 years that there is going to be a viability factor here for those units.
MR. MACMASTER: Thank you. What about inspection of public housing or private affordable housing? Can you tell me a little bit about that? I hope I'm staying on topic here today. Can I ask you that?
MR. TROKE: I'll start off, and then Gary will speak to the public housing side of it. When we enter into an agreement under the Affordable Housing Program or when we do work under the RRAP, the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program, a pre and post inspection is done of all work. When construction activity is started on a larger project, we would review the plans, we would take a look at them, we would ensure the building permits and so on are all in place. Occupancy permits go into place before individuals move in.
We also take a look at what those units are, and then at the end of the day, effectively you're making sure that what was on the table is exactly what you get. The RRAP also does renovations, and so we do work both with landlords and also homeowners, obviously, where we go in and look at the units prior to the work commencing, come up with a scope of what's expected to be done, and effectively price it out. At the end of it, when the work is done, we ensure that this is a safe unit for someone to be able to live in, that this is a safe unit from a perspective of - particularly if people have children and so on, that all of the things that are done are such that this is a place where they're going to be able to be safe and be able to live for a long period of time.
That's on the participation we have with the private sector and non-profits. I think I'll put it over to Gary. He can speak to you around the social housing side.
MR. GARY PORTER: I'll try to be official with my response. There's an ongoing responsibility that we take seriously with our public housing buildings. We have roughly 11,300 units throughout the province, and keeping their viability and sustainability is important to us.
To achieve that we developed a capital asset management plan, which is essentially a 40-year plan that looks at life cycle repairs on our public housing. We started that process in 2008-09 and we now have a plan. That plan is based on physical condition assessment, so our staff would look at the building and they would rate the components of that building in terms of their urgency and need of repair. Consequently that would form part of the plan.
So a number one, for example, may be an immediate need to replace a roof; a number five, may be that a roof needs to be replaced sometime in the next 20 years, probably 20 years from now. Those are based on actual physical inspections. That plan is in place, and
this year we'll be updating that plan with our staff, looking to see if any of those ratings have substantially changed.
We're also going to expand it a bit. Typically we've chosen to apply that to the larger buildings of three or more units. We're looking at a process now to adopt that process for our smaller units, single family homes that are in the public housing portfolio. That's our ongoing response to our inspection process.
As people move out, the second thing we do is refurbish the units to a like-new. It would be common to do flooring, cabinets, and other bathroom upgrades, those kinds of things. We use the opportunities for move-outs to refurbish units before they move again. That's the second area that we typically pay attention to.
The other thing is, you can appreciate that 7,700 of our units are senior housing. Some of our tenants have been there for some time and are aging and their needs are changing as they age. It would be very common for us to receive expressed concerns from some of our tenants that they may be having difficulty with mobility or with some of the navigation of their housing. We would respond to those on an individual-by-individual basis.
Recently, I had a request from a person who was finding it difficult in a wheelchair. The carpet was causing them problems to operate that, so we went in and inspected the unit, and we're consequently going to replace the carpet with a laminate flooring. There's that kind of stuff. We try to be responsive to people's needs. Those are the processes that we have in place.
MR. MACMASTER: Thank you. If I may go back to Mr. Troke for a minute, I've seen - this sounds like when government owns it, there's sort of a constant evaluation of the quality of the units. Maybe the same is true for private developed housing, but I tell you I saw a situation where, and this gets back to my first question around the viability of a private developer. After I did the analysis I thought, and I should tell you what the situation was - the unit that I was in, it didn't seem to be in very good condition. I spoke to some of the residents there and they said there's - actually, I shouldn't go into too many details - but they made some points about the units and they said, nobody sees this.
I thought, well, gee, that's not good and I thought, is there an inspection placed as ongoing, like once the construction is completed, say 5, 10, 15 or 20 years into a privately developed unit? Is there some kind of a safeguard so that people who are living there get access to a certain level of quality? Part B to the question - is there some way to measure satisfaction of the tenants?
MR. TROKE: There are two pieces to that. First of all, when you enter into an arrangement - typically with a non-profit, we have much more involvement day in and day out with how activities are run. When it is a private sector development there is less because we have a contractual arrangement that now happens between a tenant and a landlord. So you
have the Residential Tenancies Board as an opportunity for an individual who may or may not be happy with the unit that they are in. You also have, in the event there is any kind of a concern with a building, we have fire marshals who go through buildings regularly to ensure from a safety perspective. We also have Environmental and Labour in the event that there is any concern. So if there were some kind of a contaminant on the site or if there was any kind contaminant even in a unit that would be involved.
So, there are multiple layers both the provincial government but also municipal governments that are involved from a perspective of occupying buildings. So there is a requirement, as operating under a business, that you have all of these levels of government that are involved in your activities.
So really, the opportunity and the onus, when we think about things like the Affordable Housing Program is about getting a safe, affordable building built and then operating within essentially the letter of the law that exists for everybody who is in a rental market.
It is true that we may have much more interaction when we talk about non-profits and we would have much more interaction, in fact, but understanding that the part that you talked about earlier about a $25,000 capital contribution getting you a unit, we also have to look at that there are a series of rules and Acts that exists for them simply to be operating within that environment. So, we also have to be very careful to understand that we now have an arrangement that exists through a lease between a tenant and a landlord and that tenant has a significant number of rights that include being able to go to whether it is RTB, going to Environment and even going to the municipality with concerns with regard to the occupancy of that unit.
Quite often, it is the municipality, if they do get a call, that at which point in time we will also sometimes be involved through the RRAP program, which is another vehicle. So we often get involved in units that we never have even subsidized. We get involved with units because we heard that there are low-income tenants in there and there may be an opportunity for us to make their life better, to make the place they live safer.
So, I also throw out the other side of it, we may be involved in a lot of units that we have had no involvement with ever before as well.
MS. FERGUSON: If I could just add, even at the end of the day it is not a program that we have in the department that is particularly relevant to that landlord, obviously, our housing staff have a lot of information and they understand the connects between the provincial government and the municipal government. I guess I would just offer out to you that our housing staff are always available to answer questions and to help people find out what the options are that may be available to them so I would just put that offer out. Always,
people can make the phone call and like I said, if there is nothing we can directly do, we can certainly help them in the right direction and make sure they understand what the menu looks like.
MR. MACMASTER: Thank you very much. That's most helpful. It may be an issue, in some cases, where you have young people who are living on their own and they don't know who they should contact and they feel kind of trapped in the situation they're in. So, this is helpful and I will try to use that information to help them.
Have you ever heard of a group called Habitat for Humanity?
MS. FERGUSON: Yes, we have and we've been fortunate that we have been able to do a number of projects with them over the years that I have been in the department. We have worked with a number of the organizations across the province and it has been a wonderful experience for us.
MR. MACMASTER: That's great, I recently had the benefit of learning a little bit more about what they do and maybe this is something I'll say as a comment. They seem to do great work and I think they may, in fact, compete with the department in some sense because I think there's funding that's spent through the department that would accomplish the same type of things that Habitat for Humanity is accomplishing. One of the things I thought about, I think that at one time they approached government - and perhaps I'll raise this at a future point in time when I have all the details in front of me - about expanding government's participation with them, and maybe them offering services in place of government in some cases. They weren't taken up on it and that may be because the people they asked didn't want to be put out of business. I just make that comment today and perhaps it's something I'll raise by way of a letter to you at some point.
I do think they do great work. They also have an ability to leverage private donations and private sponsorship which, I think, if we can give people better places to live, at the end of the day that's what we're all trying to do anyway, so I would hope you'd be open to their approaches in the future. Perhaps you are, I don't want to paint the picture that you're not. I'll allow you to comment on that, if you like.
MS. FERGUSON: We welcome your letter on that, I just want you to know we've done about 30 projects with them and we have about seven proposals right now that we're looking at. Exactly to your point, I actually think the programs really complement each other and that's what we try to do, make sure that we do it in a way that can maximize what we can do and maximize what Habitat for Humanity does, but obviously any comments you have in that regard we would welcome and be happy to respond, thank you.
MR. MACMASTER: Thank you very much and I believe my time is about up.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: We can turn it over to the NDP caucus and I believe Mr. Whynott is taking the start on this round, 20 minutes for the NDP caucus.
MR. MAT WHYNOTT: Madam Chairman, I'm going to get right to the point because our colleagues would like to share in some of the questioning. I want to go to the stimulus package and in particular, how important was seniors housing when it came to the stimulus funding from the federal government?
MR. TROKE: As part of the economic stimulus package that the federal government proposed to all the provinces, there were two target groups that they really wanted to place emphasis on, and that was seniors and disabled. Effectively, it's really driven off of the fact that they were looking for opportunities and as well as what the provinces are doing to the Affordable Housing Program was creating units that would allow individuals to age in place. As you're probably aware, many individuals who enter into seniors' housing will be in their 60s or 70s but often that becomes the place that they call home for over a decade. As such, they were looking to continue the work that started under the Affordable Housing Program but actually now really focus it on seniors and disabled. As such, that's very much where our emphasis has been, we've designed a number of units that are very focused on individuals who move in who may have very few mobility challenges, but should their mobility deteriorate or should their mobility over time change, the units can be adapted to meet those needs.
It really was something that they put a lot of emphasis on and, in fact, under the economic stimulus package those are the two areas where we will be constructing. Family housing has largely been coming out of the Affordable Housing Program itself, so there's still plenty of opportunity for the development of family housing but with the demographics and the aging population that we have, there was certainly a heavy emphasis. Ultimately at the end of the day, the couple of hundred units that are going to be created are essentially focusing on individuals with mobility challenges and the ability for people to age in place.
I would like to add to that though that much of the work that's going on within the social housing portfolios, co-ops, non-profits and then public housing is also focusing on similar areas. Besides repairs and energy, we also are working - and Gary alluded to earlier about individuals who have had units that there are some things that need to be changed - we're also working very hard to make sure that those units then adapt to them.
MR. WHYNOTT: I'd like to discuss a local seniors housing project that is happening in my neck of the woods. I'm a big supporter of seniors housing and will defend it until the end of time. Can you explain how the Millwood project came about?
MR. TROKE: Millwood, of course, as you are aware, was developed under lot draws and utilization agreements for specific parcels of property. Without going too deep, essentially what happened is when we look at opportunities to construct units, particularly for the province itself, we really look at two components: we look at where the need factor
is, but also look in places where we don't have a lot of other proposals that might be coming in from the private sector, non-profit, and so on.
As you are aware, there are some individuals in your area who have been operating affordable housing for a long period of time, and very successfully so. In this opportunity we had several parcels of land that exist in your riding that have utilization or development agreements attached to them, and they've always been planned to be multi-units. As such, as the process was moving forward, we had discussions with the municipality, who were excellent to deal with in moving our agreements forward. Of course, we've also had opportunities with yourself and other people from the area to go and talk to people in the neighbourhood and ensure that they are getting all the information.
When we talk about moving ahead with a project, we really look at, first and foremost, where there is a strong demand, but also second, where we're not getting a lot of proposals from a private sector and where we have an ability to go in, because we have multiple parcels of land in that area and we're not the only ones developing different kinds of housing out there, it certainly was a really good opportunity. Of course the phone calls we've been getting have been very positive and, as well, we went door to door and it was very positive.
MR. WHYNOTT: Yes, exactly, and I've already received many phone calls from people wanting to get in there. I know that the folks there - of course there's always going to be a few people who are not necessarily happy with what is going in their backyard, but 99 per cent of the people there are very positive about this project, and I'd like to commend you for that.
As you mentioned Sackville, the whole community, the surrounding community has had a high need for seniors' affordable housing for a long time.
Can you tell us a little bit about the money that has been committed to date and what impact this will have on affordable housing in Nova Scotia?
MR. TROKE: As the deputy mentioned in her opening comments, we are well past half of the economic stimulus funding being committed and activity underway. The real opportunity that presented itself here with the economic stimulus was two-fold; it is really a dual injection. It's an opportunity to construct new units, but it is also an opportunity for co-ops, non-profits, and our public housing portfolio to be revitalized and to go in and tackle some of the issues that you heard Gary talk about: the fact that we've been doing a lot of capital asset work, knowing that these are things that we're going to try and accomplish over the next couple of years to make them affordable, not only today but into the future, and also from an environmental perspective, making sure we reduce our carbon footprint and that these are even warmer, more efficient units.
One of the things that I'm very happy that my group has had an opportunity to deliver is that we're putting almost $21 million into co-ops and non-profits. As you know, we have a lot of individuals for whom that is not only a place that they rent but it is a place they actively participate in boards, actively participate in how the units are run. We have been moving ahead with the program. It's called SHARP - Social Housing Assistance Repair Program. To date we have approximately $11 million of that $21 million already committed and work underway. So a great opportunity to revitalize some of the units.
With regard to the seniors' units themselves specifically and as per your question, really this is our chance to go into some places where we haven't had specific inquiries, either from developers or whatnot. We have had a long time, opportunities to look at developing specific parcels of land, and it really lined itself up that we now can have a new option within that community for people to retire to or for individuals with disabilities, something that they just couldn't find within their community.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Ms. Ferguson.
MS. FERGUSON: I just want to add to what Dan said. The bottom line is that the funding has really allowed us to do things that we would not have been able to do without the funding, that are going to make a significant difference for the clients that we serve, and to be able to have the focus on the senior population and disabled has been especially exciting for us.
In the public housing - and Gary can add to this in a minute - because his team had done all that work around the capital asset management plan, they were really well situated to know where to go, so it meant we could get to a lot of things a lot more quickly because we had this injection of funding. Obviously that makes a huge and significant difference, really on a scale that we hadn't experienced before, in terms of really being able to look at the significant renovations with our public housing stock. In particular, we're spending almost $23 million on the energy efficiency pieces, so not only does that assist in terms of the unit itself today, but down the road and the sustainability of those units.
It's a very significant deal for us and certainly is going to provide us, in terms of being able to look now at our housing stock and what our options are and where we might go next, it has really put us in a position that we haven't been in before.
MR. WHYNOTT: Okay, I'm going to pass things over to my honourable friend, the member for Pictou East.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. MacKinnon.
MR. CLARRIE MACKINNON: Thank you, Madam Chairman. It's a pleasure having you here today. I want to stay with the seniors theme because with the changing demographics, as Mr. Troke has already mentioned, this is going to become so much more
important in the future. I look at units in Westville and Little Harbour and Pictou Landing and Thorburn and Riverton - and Merigomish was already mentioned - I have a lot of seniors' units in my constituency and I've probably missed one or two as well.
In locating units, we have a problem in some areas because we appreciate having the units but we're distances from doctors, we're distances from groceries, and the age of some of the units is such that it is a real problem to attract people. One of the things that is happening, and I guess it had to, is we have such a variance in ages of residents; in some buildings there is a 35- to 40-year difference in ages. What can we do to make the whole situation more palatable in some of those areas?
MS. FERGUSON: I'll speak to the beginning and then Gary can add to that, in terms of the units. Certainly as we look - I guess a couple of things to start off with. Everything we do, in terms of looking at the seniors' housing and the portfolio and what we're doing, we're really looking to say, how will these units serve us over the lifespan? We are, I think, taking a bit of a different approach maybe than has been taken historically, in terms of really thinking about how these units will serve us in the long term, what is the continuum? Everything we do in the department these days we're looking from a client-centred focus, so we're really trying to be strategic and look over the lifespan of the client. That's the philosophy that we're applying when we look at the housing units. That's on a go-forward basis.
I think Gary spoke to and he'll speak a bit about units where we have chronic vacancies and what that means for us, and how do we use those units and how can we be innovative and creative and do some things differently that we haven't done in the past, recognizing that as people age they're going to want to be in situations where they're closer to their family doctor and closer to the services. Gary talked about people asking for transfers on the list and that's something that we're very aware of and we try very hard to be able to serve clients' needs as best we can, recognizing where we are.
We've also done a lot of work in the buildings in terms of doing things like changing taps for people and having automatically opening doors and those kinds of things in the units to really make sure that from an aging and place perspective, we really can serve the needs of the clients as best we can.
So I think I would say it's something that is constantly on our dashboard. We try to look at it every day as we try to plan and make decisions on where the units are, how we use them, what will the unit be used for down the road. We think about that, and Gary and his team have done a lot of work on that in really trying to be very strategic and forward-thinking on what the use of those units will be and what that means in terms of their place in our overall housing stock.
MR. GARY PORTER: Just to build on that a little bit, I'll first talk a little bit about the efforts we're doing to improve accessibility in our units and then move to some of the thinking and strategies we develop around trying to address chronic vacancies at the same time as demand in other areas.
From an accessibility standpoint, and this kind of builds a little bit on what Mr. Troke was saying as well, we're spending almost $4 million on accessibility upgrades in public housing across the province and that's included in about 340 different projects. The things we're focusing on are things that make it easier for people to live in their units longer. The deputy minister mentioned simple things like lever taps as opposed to knobs that make it easier for people, and large investments in wheelchair ramps in public housing. We'll have generators in every public housing unit of three or more units across the province which help in times of unexpected power outages and so on. So those are really kind of critical things that we feel we need to do to help people live independently longer.
So if you think of that in terms of sort of how that affects the taxpayer, if we're keeping people living in public housing longer, that means they're living without supports that are obviously more expensive. So we're really trying to keep people living independently as long as we can, through some of these upgrades.
Chronic vacancies are challenging for us. I mentioned the unit in Merigomish where, you know, eight out of the 10 units are vacant. Our typical approach is to look for individuals, like if it's a seniors' building, we may look for individuals who are under the typical age group for seniors, so that would mean, you know, under the age of 58. Usually that's somewhat of an effective strategy to fill vacancies and to respond to other areas. Obviously, we don't do that, we look at each of the tenants individually to ensure that there are appropriate fits when we place someone into a seniors' unit that, you know, we try to stay as close to that age as we can, but also we interview them and we look at their previous housing reference checks to ensure there's a compatibility with the population there.
We have a list and we talk about this frequently among our team, which includes the directors of all the housing authorities, are there other uses for those buildings that are underutilized? So in our department, for example, we have many other program areas that from time to time have needs that perhaps are not being met and in some cases this may be a vehicle to use for other purposes. So we're developing those strategies. I will say it is challenging in an area where population is declining. In areas where populations are declining, the demand for services in general is not there and it makes it difficult to fully utilize some of those resources and at the end of the day, I think we're kind of faced with, in the long term, making some decisions about the viability of those resources on a specific basis.
MR. MACKINNON: I'm going to have to pass along to the member for Antigonish.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Smith.
MR. MAURICE SMITH: Madam Chairman, I'm told I have very little time. I had a number of questions and I'm going to have to sort of pare them down. One of the things that I'm particularly interested in, I only got elected in October in a by-election so I'm new to this game, but very soon after getting elected, I had an opportunity to meet with the local Department of Community Services people and they brought in their person from the New Glasgow area who dealt specifically with housing.
I remember we spent a full hour on housing and one of the main issues that I found frustrating for them, for me, and certainly for some of the people who have come to see me, is that they don't fit within the program and that some of these programs are actually not - the money isn't being taken up, in my area at least, and the difficulty is around the fact that the cut-off limit, the income limit, or the family income - I'm just going to pick a figure, and this might not be accurate at all - let's say it's $28,000 annual income and this person has $29,000, they need the work done on their home and they can't get it done and such that the money is sitting in a pot and not being used because there's nobody else. Not many people have income of that low level and have houses that need work, you know, they can't afford the house to start with if their income isn't any higher than that.
So I guess my question is, when will the income limits for housing be revised and what is the juxtaposition between the federal limits and the provincial limits, and where are we on those?
MS. FERGUSON: Thank you very much for the question. I guess I'll first say that many of the programs in the Department of Community Services are income-tested and we see the challenge around that first-hand every day, so I share your concerns around the piece around the income testing, and that is something that our staff work hard on. Obviously we try to do the very best we can for the clients that we serve.
Secondly, the household income limits, that's the test - we refer to them as HILs in the department - and the level is different, depending if it is urban or rural and depending on a family or a single person. It is by bedroom count, basically. Those income limits are set by CMHC and they are normally increased on an annual basis, and we're just about to increase our income limits for HILs in the very near future. We do that in conjunction with the HIL limits that are set by CMHC.
MR. SMITH: So is there a provincial limit and a federal limit?
MR. TROKE: Basically the way it would work is that the household income limits are uniform across the programs. However, we have actually placed a higher limit on some of the provincial programs. For example, seniors actually have the benefit of having a slightly higher program on the provincial grants than we do on the cost-shared federal-provincial ones. Mainly that's to make sure that the program is keeping up with the indexing of the Old Age Pension. There is a slight difference there, so the provincial one is actually slightly higher, but from a perspective of the household income limits, as the deputy was
speaking to, we take the CMHC data that comes out annually and we have to use those for the cost-shared programs. Then we use them for provincial programs, but for several components of the provincial program we do increase it slightly to ensure that individuals have an opportunity to access that grant, which is typically a $5,000 grant, versus the larger.
MR. SMITH: Very quickly, have you any sense of when those HILs figures are coming out and what they might be?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Ms. Ferguson.
MS. FERGUSON: We expect that they're coming out any time.
MR. SMITH: Okay, and any idea what the new cap might be?
MS. FERGUSON: Not aware at this time, no.
MR. SMITH: I guess I only have time perhaps for one quick question, and it might be . . .
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Your time has elapsed, but we will come back to the NDP caucus for a further 15. So if I could, I'll move to the Liberal caucus to Mr. Colwell for 15 minutes.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you. Just back to my original question on wait lists, would it be possible to get a number of individuals in each housing unit that are on wait lists and the type of wait lists?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Porter.
MR. GARY PORTER: Yes, it would. If I had a specific building we could generate a wait list for that building.
MR. COLWELL: How soon can we have that?
MR. GARY PORTER: As soon as you tell me where you like that, we'd be producing it in a couple of days.
MR. COLWELL: Okay, if you could forward that to the clerk, I would appreciate that.
MR. GARY PORTER: Is there a specific building that you wish that for?
MR. COLWELL: No, I'd just like it for the whole province and all the different housing authorities, if I could. Is that possible?
MR. GARY PORTER: I can say what I can give you. We generate wait lists at a housing authority level, so I can produce a wait list that would provide you with information on who is eligible for housing on our wait list for the Metro Regional Housing Authority, the Eastern Mainland Housing Authority, the Cobequid Housing Authority, the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority, the Annapolis Valley Housing Authority, the South Shore Housing Authority, and the Tri-County Housing Authority, so you would get one number.
We could break it down by family, non-elderly, and seniors as well, so it would give you a general sense of the wait lists in those areas.
MR. COLWELL: That would be satisfactory, thank you. Also, on Recommendation 6.5, when you look at that, when the response that came back from your department on the control processes and operating in the control processes - are property managers generally supportive of changes in the rental changes when they go through this process, and what happens if they are not supportive? That is under 6.5. It was recommended that all changes to rental changes be fully supported and reviewed for accuracy and appropriateness by property managers and that the completion of the review should be documented and then in the response that we've seen to the Auditor General. Are the property managers generally supportive of changes in rent when the rents change in the properties? Really what I should be asking is, what process do you use now?
MR. GARY PORTER: What happens is the Housing Authority staff calculate their rent and the rent is geared to income so rent is based on a percentage of that person's income. The Housing Authority staff first calculate that rent or make adjustments to rent if income has changed while a tenant is living with us. The property managers then will review that calculation for accuracy and check the posting to the account records and sign that they have verified that review. It's really adding an extra set of eyes and checks on ensuring the calculations are made appropriately and that they're accurate.
MR. COLWELL: What have been the average rental changes in HRM and Cape Breton over the last few years?
MR. GARY PORTER: Average rental changes? I'm not sure I understand. In our population or in . . .
MR. COLWELL: Let's start to say with seniors' complexes - have they changed much? I realize it's based on a percentage of income but has that changed, the rental income changed the department much?
MR. TROKE: I guess basically when you think about, first, in some ways your question as you were asking, I think you might have answered part of it. As individuals' incomes would climb, so if you have seniors who are getting Old Age Pension, effectively their rent is going to change by some percentage of what that indexation is so if it were 25
or 30 per cent of their gross income was a rental calculation, then if that income climbed, there would be.
Overall, the most significant increases that we've noted, and I can't speak across the entire portfolio, but one of the most significant increases we've seen is that some of the small town's economic activity has increased quite significantly. Actually, even if I can, partially going back to a previous question is that in some areas our wait list for repair programs have gone quite low because there has been very strong economic activity in Truro, New Glasgow and places like that and the same thing happens in the rental market.
So the question on the rental side was, is there a pot that doesn't get spent? Well, no, it all gets spent and on the rental side, individuals' incomes are calculated based upon what their income is and if there is stronger economic activity and incomes incline, well incrementally there's going to be some percentage of increase, but understanding overall that they're not going to be spending any more than 30 per cent of their total income. Therefore, it is the most affordable kind of housing that you can get in any given area.
MR. COLWELL: Do you have many people in the overall system that don't pay their rent?
MR. GARY PORTER: Yes, as with any housing - and landlords in the private sector probably attest to this too - we do have situations where people do not pay their rent. We work with those individuals to try to encourage compliance with rent. In some cases we have to establish an amount owing to us and the person would remain living with us, but they would have an amount of money that they would be in arrears to us for. Generally we try to arrange repayment plans in that case. In some cases if the tenant has left public housing and they maintain arrears or they continue to owe us money, we will make collection efforts on that past rent.
We try to be responsible in collecting the rent from individuals and try to be also compassionate in terms of working with individuals to recognize some challenges that they may be going through, but ultimately rent is established as a percentage of income and we treat that seriously. The other thing that we can do from time to time is do direct payment options with tenants as well.
MR. COLWELL: That's positive because I understand that the department is very compassionate in this regard but at the same time, if you don't collect the rent, it affects everybody else and everybody else hurts because of it. In long term, if you had too much of a problem with it - and I understand you don't have a big problem, I'm not indicating that in any way - then it would affect the other people and all of a sudden everyone's rent would go up and everybody would be hurt. That's why I wanted to make that point.
One of the things that has always been a favourite topic of mine is elevators in seniors' complexes. How many seniors' complexes presently do not have elevators and what is the plan to put elevators in them because this is really a serious issue?
MS. FERGUSON: I can start - 87 per cent of the seniors' units in the province are accessible, either at ground level or by an elevator. We own about 120 multi-level buildings without elevators in the province, but those are only two-story buildings so everything beyond that has an elevator. Gary's team has actually put together a strategic plan around this, so we actually have criteria and base the decisions on elevators. We've looked geographically across the province to ensure that within a certain mile radius, every area of the province has an equal amount of accessibility to elevators so that we are being equitable across the province. In addition, we look at the number of units in a building.
We currently have three elevators that we're in the process of working on through the stimulus program and we believe the total cost for those three elevators is about $1.2 million, so elevators are expensive. So, as we look to investment in our portfolio generally and look obviously for the best investment, there is a balance there in terms of the elevator piece. But what I can say and Gary can speak to this in more detail, is that his team has spent an extensive amount of time putting together a plan, basically an evidence-based plan, with criteria so that we're ensuring that we're treating the province fairly in terms of access to elevators and that we have criteria upon which we make determinations so when we're looking at elevators and where we will build them and how many we will build.
So that plan has helped us in terms of being able to move forward in a way that is explainable, that is transparent and in a way that it is equitable for everybody because we do understand and appreciate the issue around the elevator piece, and we're very sensitive to that in the department, but that's basically where we are at right now.
While there are 120 multi-unit buildings, those would only be two-storey buildings - I would want to make that clear. The other piece is that our objective was to ensure that at least 75 per cent of the units within - we've drawn circles around the province - a 25 kilometre radius, have access to elevators. So, if we have someone in one of those buildings that really needs elevator access and doesn't have it, we can facilitate transfers within that 25 kilometre radius area to make sure that someone has accessibility to an elevator.
MR. GARY PORTER The deputy actually didn't leave me much. I will add a few things. I was hoping that I had a list of how many buildings do not have elevators - I did not bring that with me but I can supply that information if you wished to have it.
MR. COLWELL: Yes, I would.
MR. PORTER: The approach we had taken, as the deputy had mentioned, we looked at sort of what accessibility rates were and we defined it in two ways. One, ground floor access or currently served by an elevator. So province-wide, we have 87 per cent
accessibility. So those are buildings of two storeys or more that are at ground level or serviced by an elevator today.
So then we had to look for things we thought might give us clues in terms of where we needed to focus our priority on establishing priorities for new elevators or other means. We didn't find anything in terms of the demographic profiles in our communities that lent a helping hand to figure out where that might be.
We looked also at some of the needs in our existing housing units and there were really no clues there that stood out in any specific area. So we took the approach of saying, okay, if we want to establish a 75 per cent accessibility rate within 25 kilometres of an urban area, what would that look like? So that helped us a lot. We established some additional criteria to help prioritize that work. It called us to establish 13 more elevators in the province in the future, based on the criteria. We first looked at where we had buildings that were more than two storeys and we have one of those. So that's our actual top priority.
Then we looked at the size of the buildings and we wanted to have priority to those buildings that had more units, so the largest building that we have without an elevator today is 30 units. So we're down to the buildings that don't have elevators now, we're down to 15 units or less and seven or eight of those units in every one of those buildings are currently at ground level, so we would be building elevators to service about seven units. Typically our approach in dealing with people who have mobility issues is, we first look if their building is not suitable for their needs. We look to see if there are other buildings in the vicinity that are, or we look to transferring them into ground floor level. It's not just the strategy of building elevators, it's a strategy of looking at accessibility from the standpoint of meeting people's needs.
We are not recommending building elevators everywhere in the province where we have two-storey buildings. We're establishing that target as a means. The elevators that we have identified as priority would also be built as we have the availability of resources to do that. With the stimulus money, we have identified three elevator projects which we have committed to, and one is in Shelburne at Northwood Apartments where we have 30 units. The other is in Great Village, Colchester County, a building of 20 units, and the third is in Margaree Manor. That building actually has 15 units, but it's three storeys. Those are the three priorities we defined in the stimulus.
In addition to the growing cost of elevators, there was a day when we saw elevators built for under $200,000. We now see elevators costing in excess of $300,000. When we get into some of our existing buildings that are 30-plus years old, that cost grows largely because of the manipulation you need to do to the structure to accommodate the elevator. It's a fairly expensive and long undertaking to build an elevator.
Those are the three priorities we have planned for the next - well, they started last year and will continue into this year, and then we'll re-evaluate that strategy into the future.
MR. COLWELL: I appreciate that, because all seniors want elevators in their apartment buildings, and I can think of one in my area which didn't make your list, unfortunately.
I just want to thank you for the work you're doing to help seniors. Housing grants are incredible. They really help seniors in my area stay in their homes longer, and I appreciate that. If you would pass that along to the staff too, and thank you again for the work you do on behalf of the seniors, in particular, in our province.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Your time has elapsed. We'll turn now to Mr. MacMaster and 15 minutes for the Progressive Conservative caucus.
MR. MACMASTER: The age-old question - to rent or to own? Do you have any opinion on that? I'll just make a couple of comments before you answer.
I had heard from someone who used to work in Community Services about a Native and rural housing program. This offered home ownership as an option for low-income Nova Scotians. He had said that was one of the best programs that we ever had, and I think it has been curtailed and it may not even exist so much anymore. There's that point of view, that people should have a chance to build equity in their homes. The other side of it is, perhaps sometimes renting is cheaper. Personally I rent because I find it to be cheaper, but I don't have a family, so things are different.
In the United States we recently saw an economic collapse that was based on the housing bubble. One of the reasons why that event happened was because there was a belief among many people that government should be supporting loans to people who may not be able to afford to own homes, so they could own a home. There's a philosophy there that didn't work. Of course, then you had all the vultures in the financial district that came in and profited from it by offering to lend the money and then packaging it up and passing it off to other investors, and somebody else got left holding the bag.
At the end of the day, perhaps that's a lesson that owning housing doesn't always work and it's not always in the best interests of people. Do you have any thoughts on renting versus owning?
MR. TROKE: First, actually, the Rural Native Housing Portfolio, because really what's happening is there are two pieces there. That program had a renting component and then it had a lease-to-own component. Individuals would get in and be paying rent and then if they had the ability, there were options in there - you had so many years in order to be able to purchase it. If you could, you did. If you couldn't, you continued to rent. It kind of gave people both of those options. There are many individuals who are paying off their mortgages within the Rural Native Housing Portfolio. There are many people who have rented within that group for decades, and that's home and that's where their families were raised and where they want to live. So that program, I would say, yes, it was successful, but within that also
there were some challenges for people to be able to achieve home ownership and rental. Many of those individuals stayed in the rental market for just the reasons that you mention.
The second piece is that Nova Scotia has over 70 per cent home ownership, which is, I believe, the second-highest in Canada. When you look at the people who own homes, something like 10 per cent are spending more than 30 per cent of their total income in order to own that home. When you look at the other 30 per cent of people who are renting, something like 40 per cent to 50 per cent of them are spending more than 30 per cent in order to be able to provide that accommodation.
So really what it comes down to is that the programs that we offer and deliver, affordable housing, the stuff we're doing under the economic stimulus, what Gary's staff offers through the social housing network, all of that is targeted at those people who are finding challenges on the rental side. That's not to say homeowners are forgotten because about $15 million every year is spent to help low- income people fix their roofs, furnaces and all the things they just can't afford to do, and the department, through our regional offices, helps them through grants and forgivable loans and so on.
Both sides of the equation are looked at by the department, but certainly when you look at how CMHC is moving forward and how the province is moving forward when we talk about new programs, the emphasis is certainly on those people who are struggling in the rental market to be able to make ends meet, and that's where we've been putting most of our emphasis because those are the people who are really paying more than 30 per cent just to be able to keep a roof over their heads.
MR. MACMASTER: The next question I'd like to ask is around the security for residents in public housing - and I'm going to give you a couple of stories. There was an incident where somebody had come to me and mentioned that in the place where they were living somebody, I think, was running a laundry business in the residence. There were also situations where there were younger people - and this is probably with the need to try to fill spots where there's chronic vacancies - living in the unit mixed with older people and I think this might have been an issue that was brought up earlier today. For those people is there some kind of protection in place for them to raise these issues so that they can be addressed?
MR. GARY PORTER: Yes, I'd like to explain a little bit as well and go through some of the work that we're doing, without identifying specific buildings or areas.
Thank you for the question, it's a matter that we take very seriously with the housing authorities. We tend to see it more in areas where there are large buildings of over 100 units and especially in areas where there may have been problems with chronic vacancies where we see younger individuals in buildings designed for seniors. Even though we do
compatibility checks for individuals, from time to time we do experience challenges with difficulties among tenants and also fear of security in some buildings.
In approaching that, typically we would hold meetings with tenant groups so if there is a tenant association we might organize it through them, that is a vehicle for them to voice their concerns to us. We've held public meetings in our seniors' buildings designed to try to get more information on what people are fearful of or what security concerns they may have specific to themselves or their building. We encourage individuals to contact the police if they identify illegal activity, whether it's a laundry business - I don't know if that would meet the definition, but if they feel threatened or otherwise.
We have from time to time and routinely conduct what's called a CPTED audit, so these are Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design audits. We've recently conducted those on a number of high-rise apartment buildings and it really is meant to evaluate the security of the building. It may be whether we have sufficient security in place in a building, sufficient controls around the entrances, right down to the lighting around the buildings, accessibility and view planes and any number of things. Typically, those are done in partnership with the police, and as well we try to involve tenants in that process as well, and that helps us identify some improvement areas.
We also have some measures that we have put in place where there have been concerns identified to us. We have security guards in place at some of our high-rise buildings, we have exit door alarms, we have closed circuit television in some of our buildings that are monitored and we have sign-in protocols in some of our buildings that are monitored as well as curfew for people who are not residents entering and exiting the building. We constantly evaluate those plans to ensure their effectiveness and try to stay engaged with the tenants through that process.
I can say, I mean we've had very good success in partnership with the police in terms of co-operating, you know, right into investigations of activity that may be of interest or generally helping the police enter communities where they would like to establish partnerships in that community through establishing a community policing office or having beat officers in the area. In some of those areas, those beat officers also expand their coverage to include some of the buildings where there might be concern.
So those are a few of the measures we take and, obviously, it's an ongoing area that we attempt to pay attention to and we try to encourage people to be safe as well, to take their own measures to protect themselves.
MR. MACMASTER: Is there an ombudsman because in some instances the MLA becomes the ombudsman and I've seen that where issues have been raised and, in fairness, maybe the issues were maybe not understood or whatnot, but the problem still exists and, of course, then it comes to the local representative, but is there an ombudsman that if people don't feel their concerns are addressed, they can go to?
MR. GARY PORTER: Not specifically but I think it does speak to some of the service that we can provide as a division of the department where the housing authorities are somewhat at arm's length, they're independent from government even though there's a direct reporting relationship. We can act as a vehicle to address people's concerns as well. It would be very common for my office to receive calls both from elected officials at the provincial, federal and municipal level. It would be common for the minister's office to receive written correspondence or phone calls that identify issues.
Individuals are fairly resourceful in terms of identifying ways to let their concerns be known and typically those would come to my division. Especially in areas where it's a safety concern, we immediately investigate those areas and work with the housing authorities to ensure that there is an appropriate response. So while there's not a very dedicated position or function, it is very much an activity that we find ourselves supporting and doing and working in partnership with the individuals I noted.
MR. MACMASTER: In Nova Scotia, we have an aging population and we also have a lot of seasonal workers in this province. One of my concerns for them is as they walk through life, they're not maximizing their contributions to the Canada Pension Plan for one, and there's going to come a day when they retire, and they might have to retire because of health reasons, and they don't have a lot of disposable income. There could be a growing need for housing support for those people. What trends do you see for the demand and supply of public housing in the next 10 to 20 years?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Who would like that question? Ms. Ferguson.
MS. FERGUSON: I guess I'll start and then these guys can jump in. We've been doing a lot of work as a government - I guess I'm going to start kind of up here - really looking at the demographic piece for the province so that every department in government really has a good understanding of what the demographic shift is going to be and what those impacts are on all of us in terms of service delivery. So there has been a lot of work among the government departments to really make sure we understand the demographic piece.
So I guess I would just say, first of all, that that's a piece of work, the kind of overlays - I would think every time we have an opportunity to make some kind of a new program decision, I think it's really incumbent on us to look at that and say what does the demographic piece mean. Obviously, there's an issue around the seniors population, there's an issue around the labour shortage, there's an issue among the dwindling tax base. So I think there are a number of factors that we would look at every time we start to look at what does this mean for our programming and what kind of an impact is this going to have on us.
The other thing that we're really trying to do specifically in Community Services - and I know my colleagues, and when I called the other social departments they are doing the same thing - is really trying to get a really good understanding of who are our clients and what are the needs of those clients and what are the needs of those clients going to be, so that
as we look to developing programs or our service delivery models to say, how can we best deliver the services those clients need, in the communities where they are, not just in terms of each program specifically but in terms of really the broad spectrum of services that we deliver.
Obviously housing is a service we deliver. Sometimes our clients access more than one service from us in the department, be they seniors, be they families, be they single people. So as we look out into the horizon, so to speak, it is really important that we look at all of those services. I guess first of all the demographic piece; secondly, understanding what those challenges are; and then thirdly, saying how do we need to evolve our service delivery to make sure down the road that we are delivering those services in a way that makes sense for the people we are serving and also in the communities that they live because you know the service delivery can be very different community to community.
In all of the programs that we have in the department, we look at them on an ongoing basis and we track trends. Obviously Gary talked about the work we've started to do in Aging In Place. We started to do that work several years ago in Aging In Place because obviously we knew what the impact would be of that seniors population. We knew we had to make some decisions to try and help people stay in their homes, so we track a number of trends across the department. Dan can speak probably more specifically on a number of bases, so we would track, for example, our income assistance caseload - what is the impact of that, what does that mean for us? We would track the number of children we are bringing into care in our Child Protection Program.
I say that at a high level to know that everything we do obviously, as we look forward, is we need to make sure that we are as informed as we can be, to make sure that we're making smart decisions and that we're thinking about what the needs are going to be down the road. Maybe Dan can speak a bit to the specifics.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Actually, Mr. Troke, the time has elapsed for that round of questioning so in order not to take time from the NDP caucus, I'm going to move on, with your indulgence. Ms. Raymond is going to take the last 15 minutes, or share it with her colleagues.
MS. MICHELE RAYMOND: I think I'll actually be sharing it but thank you very much. I've very glad to have the opportunity to speak with you again. I know we've spoken on a number of occasions. One thing I really should say is that since I have a riding which I think includes the absolutely full spectrum of home ownership, from absolute outright ownership that has gone on for generations, right through to homelessness quite honestly. The department has significant involvement in my area, in co-operatives, in subsidized housing, in rent supplements and everything else. Seniors' housing - I'm very pleased with the investments that have been made recently, in particularly the Greystone project and seniors' housing. I am very pleased to see that and I think a number of people are.
I'm interested in, obviously, the comments that were raised around home ownership versus rental and so on and the desirability. Of course you spoke of the fact that there are probably more people in housing insecurity situations, I guess we call it, where more than 30 per cent of the income is spent on this. More of those people are involved in the rental market than in the ownership market.
I think just to focus on one piece of that, I think I understood you to say there are about 700 rent subsidies in existence in the province at the moment, of privately built as opposed to government built. I'm wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about that program, whether the subsidy is actually attached to individuals or to units, whether they are portable, whether they are used as a way of distributing residents, how they are identified and what kind of maximums there are, what kind of scope there is for the amount of subsidies, is there a maximum duration - just a little bit more about how that program works.
MR. TROKE: Rent supplements in particular - as I mentioned, the concept has been around for a couple of decades basically. They really are a tool amongst all the other forms of housing that are available to us, so to answer how they are attached, actually it is both. In some cases we have rent supplements that are attached to a particular landlord, so we may have X number of units that would be available to us to put people into specific units. We also have situations where individuals, it travels with them. So if you had individuals, let's just say for sake of an example that they were going to be moving because they were in one location and a job opportunity came in another, so there may be an opportunity depending upon the relationship in which they came to the department and how it was set up.
Typically though, a rent supplement is a three-way arrangement that exists with a landlord and once that tenant decides to leave that arrangement - it is effectively tenant driven, so either (a) they now have moved on and their income is such that that's not the place where they would like to live anymore, or (b) they've left the province to pursue other things - then what happens is that rent supplement then effectively goes back to the next person who could take advantage of that opportunity.
So at any given time, we may have close to 1,000 of them out there but some of them are in a state of flux - they may be going to the next individual or an individual may have moved on from that particular accommodation - and it is now available to the next person. But those rent supplements are effectively through the housing authorities so they have the ability to go to the next people on the list whom this might be an opportunity for them.
It also is a great opportunity in the event if there is an emergency situation, to utilize it as well. So if somebody is leaving a domestic violence situation or so on, it's another opportunity for us to make sure that somebody is in a safe place. So at any given time, these are one more tool that we have amongst those 20,000 options that are out there to find a safe, affordable place to live.
MS. RAYMOND: I'm not completely sure if I understand how they develop but basically they will tend to be attached to a unit primarily and if an individual qualifies, then they may come into that. Is there a maximum amount of supplement?
MR. TROKE: I'm actually sorry if I skipped that because typically it works the exact same way, is that we would work through the social housing portfolio. So it's based on what the individual's income is and we would gap-fill the difference. Some of these, basically all individuals who would go in are under our household income limits so similar to getting into social housing, similar to getting into co-ops, non-profits, and so on. So effectively, it is really another form to ensure that people aren't paying more than 30 per cent of their gross household income.
MS. RAYMOND: Thank you very much and I'm going to share the remainder of my time, if I may, with Mr. Smith.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Smith.
MR. MAURICE SMITH: I think it's Leonard.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Preyra, I think Mr. Preyra was waiting.
MR. LEONARD PREYRA: Madam Chairman, I believe he was cut off but he had a question he wanted to ask so I'm going to give him his question.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Smith, if you would like to finish your question, I know we did have to interrupt. (Interruptions) Good, Mr. Preyra, you begin and we'll give him a few minutes.
MR. PREYRA: I just have some very basic, actually maybe simplistic questions, but could you explain to me what the difference is between a housing authority and housing services? You know, is it an arm's length relationship between the two agencies, are they civil servants? What is the financial reporting relationship between the two agencies? What kind of accountability relationships exist? I'm still not clear how that relationship works and, you know, what the issues are. I only have five minutes so I'm not expecting a full answer but how do you explain that relationship?
MS. FERGUSON: I'll give a brief overview and, you know, we're always happy to discuss that and I'm sensitive to the time. So I can say briefly, Housing Services is a division within the Department of Community Services and they are responsible for the housing grants that we provide, the grant programs, the loan programs, and the Affordable Housing Program. So they are obviously civil servants who deliver those programs in our regional offices across the province.
The housing authorities are responsible for the public housing portfolio and they are not civil servants. The housing authorities are run by managers but those managers report through to the executive director of the Housing Authorities and Property Operations, which is Gary, and Gary is a civil servant. So although they are at arm's length and they have boards, they report in from a policy basis and a financial basis through Gary's position to the department and they are responsible for the public housing units.
MR. PREYRA: They're not civil servants but they report through a civil servant?
MS. FERGUSON: That's correct. We have management agreements with the housing authorities and operating agreements that set out the accountabilities.
MR. PREYRA: Do they bargain collectively with the Department of Community Services?
MS. FERGUSON: No, the housing authorities - some of them are unionized and some of them are non-unionized.
MR. PREYRA: I have a question about the Auditor General's recommendations. How many of those recommendations have been followed up on and completed to date and how many are still outstanding?
MS. FERGUSON: All of the recommendations have been followed up on and all have been completed. The one that continues to be in progress that Gary spoke to at the beginning of the session is the one around completing the policy manual and we're continuing to work on that.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Porter.
MR. GARY PORTER: Just to add to that, there are actually a couple other areas of work that are related to the Auditor General's response that are continued ongoing. There was a recommendation around job descriptions in the housing authorities and I'm not sure that's ever a complete process. That's an ongoing process of reviewing job descriptions over time on a continuous basis, so they're still working in that area. As well, we're doing the policy manuals, that's a significant area of work and comes from the Auditor General's Report. Also, it's treated as a separate recommendation in the Auditor's General's Report in terms of establishing performance outcome measures.
I guess to be specific, the control weaknesses identified in the Auditor General's Report have been completed. There is continued work on the development and review of policy, the operations manual, the development of job descriptions and the definition of performance targets and outcome measures.
MR. PREYRA: In terms of data gathering, how do you go about gathering data, what's the frequency? How is that data transmitted? How transparent is that data? Is there a way for the public to know what particular wait lists and wait times are for particular places and that kind of thing?
MR. GARY PORTER: The methods of collection, I think I'll speak to them first. We have an operating system for property management and that operating system not only helps us to find ways to manage our buildings and establish conditions of our buildings, but it's the vehicle we use to manage our relationship with tenants and applicants. It's really the all-inclusive system that helps us manage public housing which the public housing authorities around the province use for their day-to-day business.
Much of the information that we receive on things like wait lists and other related information comes directly from that system. The challenge for us is that it's a live system. I could print the report at 9:00 a.m. and then it would change by 3:00 p.m. because we may have housed some people or accepted new applications in the meantime, so it's 100 per cent live. So we've taken the approach of defining what information is helpful to us in making important decisions.
In addition to looking at wait-list information - we don't look at it in terms of wait lists, we define it as eligible candidates for public housing - we look at the number of those that have requested transfers, so they already live with us and we look at the status of those applications, how many are before the board, how many have been offered housing. We also look at an important number which is how many refuse housing. In other words, we're able to offer housing from time to time and people turn us down, they're either not ready to move or they don't want that particular housing unit, so that's an important aspect as well. We also look at the number of move-ins, so that's all the tenant-related activity.
On the unit side we look at how many vacancies we have, why we have those vacancies - in other words, there's some chronic, there's no wait list for them, or they've been vacant for a significant period of time. We track the number of refurbishments that we make every month. We look at how many units are rent-ready, how many we've offered, so significant information.
In terms of its transparency, it's really internal information that we look at and the housing authorities use it on a day-to-day basis. I use it on a monthly basis to identify issues and opportunities where it might help us. Sorry for the long-winded answer, but that's where we are.
MR. PREYRA: No, it's a very thorough answer. I'm going to hand over the rest of my time to Mr. Smith. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Smith, there's about three minutes left and it's your turn.
MR. MAURICE SMITH: Thank you. It's not a big issue, it might even be a yes or no answer. In your opening remarks, Ms. Ferguson, you indicated there's $128 million in the stimulus money and that $70 million has been committed to date. Are you still looking for projects or is all of that money already assigned and ready to go?
MS. FERGUSON: We're in the process of making decisions around what year two of that will look like. Dan and Gary and their teams are working on that as we speak.
MR. SMITH: Is it too late for someone to get on the list? I mean, you might have 10 projects and not enough money to cover the 10.
MS. FERGUSON: Well, not at this stage, so I'd say no, it's not too late at this stage for consideration.
MR. SMITH: Okay, good, thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: That's very important. Mr. Preyra, would you like to finish?
MR. PREYRA: Well, as you know, I like to take full advantage of the time. Actually I wanted to compliment the department. There was a little bit of February madness in my constituency at the seniors' homes and I think it related to this spending of some of that stimulus money on Aging in Place and the greening of buildings. As you know, we've been trying for a long time to deal with water infiltration and mould and all of a sudden the windows were replaced and gas was used for heating and generators were put in for emergencies, elevators and lighting. The seniors in my buildings are very happy all of a sudden and actually the community policing through environmental design - new pathways and lighting. So I want to thank you for some of that work that happened in February and March. It has been a long time coming and we're delighted that work actually happened.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. There's just a few seconds left, I don't think anybody else wants to take that time today. It allows a little more time for our closing statement if you had anything to add to today's proceedings. Ms. Ferguson?
MS. FERGUSON: Madam Chairman, I'd just like to express our thanks to the members of the committee for coming today, we always appreciate the opportunity to come and speak about the programs in the department. I'd also like to thank the Auditor General and his staff for being here and for the help they've given us as we've gone forward and moved forward on the recommendations.
I would, once again, like I usually do at these sessions, say if any of you members or any of your colleagues have any questions that we didn't get to answer today, our team is always available. We would be happy to answer those at any time and if you'd please extend that offer to your colleagues.
Again, we appreciate the offer, thank you very much and I would like to say thank you very much for the comments that you've made about the staff in the department. It's a privilege to be the Deputy Minister of Community Services. There is a fabulous team of people who work exceptionally hard every day to do the best we can for clients, and to have you acknowledge that - and we'll take those messages back - I'm very thankful for that. Thank you very much.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, Ms. Ferguson. I think your comments on the stimulus package have been very interesting to us too. It really is a new day. I think the last time you were here at Public Accounts, you didn't have access to that kind of funds and there were very different questions and now we're able to celebrate some real improvements to the public buildings that we own and the homes that you're providing for so many Nova Scotians. It was a good news story in many ways today and I'm happy to hear that.
We had a request for some information though. The wait list on the housing authorities and the supply list of how many buildings that don't have elevators. So, if we could ask for that, that can be sent to our clerk for this committee and we'll all receive it. Thank you very much again for joining us today, we enjoyed it.
With that, our witnesses are free to leave if you'd like to. There's really no committee business, I just wanted to draw your attention to the correspondence we've gotten back from Capital District Health Authority. There is also provided a list of the upcoming meetings that are confirmed, just so everybody has that.
Next week we will meet April 28th, we'll have the Departments of Environment and Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal - that's a mouthful. We will be looking at environmental monitoring and compliance with a look as well at the Sysco remediation project. That's on for next week and I thank you all. Motion to adjourn, please?
MR. MAT WHYNOTT: So moved.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Mr. Whynott.
We are adjourned.
[The committee adjourned at 10:56 a.m.]