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Adequate housing plays a vital role in maintaining positive mental health

Nova Scotia’s housing shortage has attracted a lot of attention in recent years, but the impact it can have on people’s mental health has garnered much less ink.

“There’s no doubt that housing insecurity is a major determinant of mental and physical health,” says Dr. Simon Sherry, a Halifax-based psychologist. “Research points to a consistent and impactful link between housing insecurity and your mental health.”

This includes things such as anxiety, depression, stress, suicidal thoughts, and relationship problems.

Because housing insecurity can chronically expose people to stress, their physical health can become compromised.

“You’re putting a lot of load on your body,” Sherry says, noting the stress can negatively impact one’s immune system, leading them to become more susceptible to other health conditions.

Vacancy in Halifax at Record Lows

Dr. Simon Sherry, the vacancy rate in Halifax for rental apartments was 1.0 per cent, matching a 30-year low for the city.

“Lower vacancy rates and higher rents likely challenged lower-income households, young adults, fixed-income seniors, and new immigrants searching for affordable rental apartments,” the report says.

Part of the reason for the housing shortage, besides lack of supply, has been the province’s growing population, which is now north of 1,000,000.

“Nova Scotia emerged as a COVID-19 safety haven in 2020 and 2021 for Canadians fleeing crowded cities and astronomically high house prices,” the CMHC report says.

Housing Crisis Targets Most Vulnerable

Jennifer Watts, CEO of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), says the housing shortage affects immigrants in different ways. She says while some people come as “economic immigrants,” having skills or a trade the federal government has identified as facing a shortage here, they may be better able to afford housing than a refugee.

“[Refugees are] coming because of the huge humanitarian crisis within their home country, within the last place they were living,” Watts says. “They’re coming in and they may not have a lot of resources.”

The housing shortage affects the entire population, including immigrants, but low-income families are hit hardest, Sherry says.

“When housing insecurity exists, the risks and harms associated with it are not equally distributed across the population,” he says. “It’s a disadvantaged minority who are going to bear the brunt of those housing problems.”

Four Pillars of Housing

Watts says ISANS thinks of housing as having four pillars: being safe, affordable, accessible, and appropriate.

“Having a place to call home is always super important, but I think particularly about the families arriving who are refugees who have had very traumatic experiences, landing in a new place, that anchor place… is really key,” she says.

On the point of appropriateness, immigrants struggle to find appropriate housing. A 2021 Statistics Canada report that looked at the housing experiences of immigrants in 2018 found 27 per cent of recent immigrants “were in unsuitable housing, meaning that there were not enough bedrooms in the dwelling to meet the needs of their household,” a rate three time higher than the total population living in unsuitable housing (nine per cent).

Watts says the composition of immigrant families sometimes looks different than the assumed Canadian norm: two parents and two kids. She says some immigrant families will have two parents, a half-dozen or so children, and extended family members that may include grandparents or cousins.

“As a result, we need to be thinking about multiple housing options and do we have enough in all of the continuum of housing needs to be able to effectively respond to immigrants coming in,” Watts says.

She says in a place like Atlantic Canada, which doesn’t have the same immigrant social networks as larger cities such as Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, having appropriate housing becomes even more critical.

“The idea of having housing that really supports that extended or larger family definition is important to help the immigrant family to settle, find the immediate supports they need to make sure their kids are taken care of, and they can engage in jobs in the community,” Watts says.

Provincial Action on Housing

Since taking office late last summer, the provincial PCs have announced several measures to address the housing crisis, such as extending the two per cent rent cap until the end of 2023 (it was set to expire Feb. 1, 2022.) The province has also designated nine special planning areas in the Halifax Regional Municipality to allow for the potential development of up to 22,600 new residential units.

In late July, the province and federal governments announced they were splitting the bill on $13 million of funding  to ensure 183 units of housing provided by six housing co-ops and one non-profit housing provider remained affordable. The units are located in Dartmouth, Halifax, Lower Sackville, Sydney, and Wolfville.

“Every Nova Scotian needs a safe, affordable place to call home,” Housing Minister John Lohr previously told My Halifax Experience. Asked if he was concerned immigrants and refugees were being disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis, Lohr says, “I’m concerned about any Nova Scotian being impacted, including immigrants.” He says he is proud of the steps his government is taking, but says that while some measures will have an immediate impact, it takes time to build housing.

The PCs have established lofty population goals of attracting 25,000 new residents a year with an aim of having a population of 2,000,000 by 2060.

Immigration Key to Solutions

Watts says immigrants will play a key role in resolving the province’s housing shortage.

“Even though more people are coming in [and there’s more pressure on the existing housing market], we desperately need the workers, we need the carpenters, we need the engineers, we need the project managers, we need the people who work on the supply chain issues; those are going to be immigrants who are really going to help us solve this problem,” she says.

But Watts notes we can’t forget about the additional mental health pressures the housing crisis creates.

“Anything we can do to support the delivery of mental health services to all citizens, including immigrants, is critically important,” she says.

Richard Woodbury

Richard writes for both local and national publications and his work has been published by Reuters, Metro and Enterprise Magazine.

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