Ocean Breeze Village is a quiet community in North Dartmouth. It is home to around one thousand people, including many families, who enjoy water views, streets where kids ride their bikes, and the surrounding wooded areas where deer and other wildlife are frequent visitors.
Jenn and Celine are both long term residents of Ocean Breeze. For Celine, her time living in Ocean Breeze is the longest she has ever lived in one place. Like many residents, Jenn and Celine both have adult children who also live in the neighbourhood having chosen to raise their own families there.
“We love it here, having our own yard and being able to meet so many new people who literally became friends and family to us. There is a true sense of community from times long ago,” says Jenn. “As my oldest has grown up and started her own family, she moved into another spot in Ocean Breeze and now my grandkids are just down the road. This is especially important to me as I am able to see them every single day and they love going for walks and surprising me when they come around to my place!”
In 2021, the Ontario-based company that owned Ocean Breeze Village put the 57 acre site up for sale. It was purchased in 2022 for $82.5 million by Basin Heights Community Limited Partnership, a conglomeration of local developers including Cresco, Fares & Co. Development, and T & H Group Developments.
As word of the sale got around, tenants started organizing. They are determined to fight for their homes, but they’re up against developers with deep pockets and clear political influence. They are also facing down Halifax’s long history of displacing lower income and racialized residents.
But there are reasons to think that the Ocean Breeze tenants just might win.
Forced evictions in the name of progress
Like any colonial settlement, Halifax has a long history of forced evictions carried out in the name of progress. Each time this happens there are promises of better living conditions, increased access to services, and economic prosperity. However, each time, the benefits accrue to the few, not the many, and very seldom to those who were pushed out of their homes and off their land.
The English first settled in Kjipuktuk (Halifax) on June 14, 1749. Chiefs and Elders of Sipekne’katik drafted a letter expressing their anger over the English settlement in Kjipuktuk:
“The place where you are, where you are building dwellings, where you are now building a fort, where you want, as it were, to enthrone yourself, this land of which you wish to make yourself now absolute master, this land belongs to me.”
This scene played out between the Chiefs and Elders of Sipekne’katik and the English sets the stage for centuries of ongoing displacement of groups of people with less power and privilege by those with more.
Federal funding for slum removal
Fast forward to the 1950s, and the creation of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Even as the Canadian government recognized the need to increase access to housing, the removal of some people from their homes and neighborhoods was a key part of the program. The CMHC was established in the post-war period as a funding vehicle to expedite home construction for the growing population. In fact, most of the public housing that exists in Canada was built through funding provided by the CMHC in the years between 1950 and 1980.
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s the federal government, through the CMHC, provided funding for “slum removal”. Beginning in 1958, more than seven hectares of Halifax’s downtown were bulldozed, displacing many people and families from their homes and businesses.
The CMHC slum clearance funding stated that displaced residents should be provided “decent housing” in another location. However, as Ted Rutland explains in his book, Displacing Blackness, the “decent housing” being offered to residents of the downtown area was the public housing in Mulgrave Park that had yet to be built at the time of the residents’ eviction.
As Rutland describes, the government-funded clearing of the downtown areas which became Scotia Square and the Cogswell Interchange evicted nearly 4,000 people from their homes between 1958 and 1961. Less than 1,500 were ultimately able to move into the newly constructed public housing. Housing was actually only available to families – not single people, couples without children, or seniors – who could afford monthly rents much higher than those they had been paying.
The destruction of Africville
In 1964, Halifax City Council voted to relocate residents of Africville, a primarily Black community on the Bedford Basin which had existed there for more than 120 years. Despite the fact that residents of Africville paid taxes to the City of Halifax, the city had refused to provide access to services like sewage and garbage disposal, and built an infectious disease hospital, a prison and a dump on their doorsteps. These same conditions were then used to justify the need for the relocation of the community.
Africville residents, many of whom had owned their homes, were promised better living conditions. However, these were mostly rental units. Some families able to pay the high rents found places in public housing, but intergenerational, extended families were broken up. Other services and supports promised – education and employment programs, welfare benefits – were quickly scaled back or abandoned all together.
The work of the Halifax Redevelopment Committee, which led to the removal of residents from downtown Halifax and the community of Africville, had the clearly articulated goals of transitioning areas of “blight” to their “highest and best use”. Unfortunately, we have not moved very far from this approach to housing and development.
In October of 2021, the provincial Conservative government announced plans to establish a Planning Task Force “to focus on faster planning and development approvals for large residential projects in HRM.” One of the priorities for the task force for 2023 is the “Acceleration of development within ten existing special planning areas and consideration of additional special planning areas where warranted and consistent with criteria established by the Panel in 2022.”
Faster planning and development in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in homes being bulldozed before public housing was built. It seems the only things that have changed in 70 years since are the names of the committees leading the charge. The results remain the same: lower income communities are evicted to make way for development projects meant to deliver neighbourhoods to their “highest and best use.”
This is exactly the situation the residents of Ocean Breeze are facing with bulldozers scheduled to demolish the first of their homes in the spring of 2024.
Money and power
So who exactly are Jenn, Celine, their children and neighbours up against?
Basin Heights Community Limited Partnership, the conglomeration of local developers that purchased Ocean Breeze, has deep pockets and serious political clout.
In the past three years, the individuals behind Basin Heights and those firms that make up the conglomeration (as listed in the Nova Scotia Registry of Joint Stocks) have donated a total of more than $40,000 to the provincial Liberal and Conservative parties in Nova Scotia – the two parties who have held government during that period of time. This total does not include any donations that may have been made to individual candidates during elections or to specific riding associations. It also does not include any donation to federal political parties.
On top of direct political donations, developers are also spending plenty of cash to polish their image and make their case to decision makers. They are members of the board of the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia (IPOANS). IPOANS uses members’ funds to support advocacy efforts “to counter external events negatively impacting residential investment property owners’ investments”.
The provincial Lobbyist Registry identifies Trevor Floyd, Partner at Iris Communications and former Nova Scotia Liberal Party staffer, as a registered lobbyist for 27 different business interests, including AirBnB Inc. In March 2023, Gord Gamble, registered as a lobbyist working on behalf of Fares & Co Development “speaking with politicians regarding barriers to property developments proceeding in a timely fashion”.
Basin Heights hired Iris Communications to manage its PR on Ocean Breeze -, they are no doubt the brains behind the website https://www.reimagineoceanbreeze.ca/ and the term “market-affordable”. Iris Communications was originally founded by Kirby McVicar, a disgraced former Chief of Staff to former Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil.
These developers clearly have had the ear of the Liberal and Conservative governments in Nova Scotia. It is no surprise then that it has been large development companies like these who have benefited most from the provincial and federal governments’ housing spending.
“I wake up with that feeling of dread”
In late July, the first group of Ocean Breeze tenants received eviction notices. They were told that their homes were the first scheduled to be demolished to make way for the redevelopment.
A few weeks later, the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia reported that the number of actively homeless people in Halifax had surpassed 1000 for the first time.
“The sale of our community has impacted our physical and mental health over the past year or so but it has been especially worsened by the fact that our section is the first to be demolished. Even my 13 year old is losing sleep and being overly cranky as she is worried about what will happen and where we will move.” said Jenn.
Celine adds, “I want others to understand what it is like to live under this stress constantly. Everyday I wake up with a feeling of dread.”
Tenants living in homes impacted by the first phase of demolitions have been given the option to relocate to another home in Ocean Breeze (with the understanding that all of these will be impacted by future phases of redevelopment), or to move away from Ocean Breeze in exchange for three months free rent plus a one-time payment of $3,500.
WIthout any context, this might not sound like a bad deal. But the current average monthly rent for an available two-bedroom unit in Halifax is $2259. The vacancy rate in Halifax is only 1 percent, and the vacancy rate for affordable units is even lower.
“I am worried that we will be forced [from our townhouse] into an apartment and we will be paying more for so much less space and not be able to have the type of security that we have here. With the costs of everything these days I literally cannot afford to move into a “like” situation,” explains Jenn.
“We will have to get rid of a lot of stuff and probably only be able to afford a one bedroom. I have a well paying middle class job and it will be difficult to afford much more than that! We may even have to give up our pets, which for me is not an easy thing to do because we have had them for years and they’re part of our family too!”
So, this choice is really no choice at all. Tenants of Ocean Breeze are left wondering if they are better off delaying eviction in hopes the housing crisis will improve, or they should take the money and leave now to try to find a new place to live – in a city where housing encampments are springing up more quickly than affordable rentals.
“I am worried that anywhere I go in Nova Scotia I’ll be required to sign a fixed term lease and that creates so much insecurity. We might have to move away from the province,” adds Celine
For-profit development got us into this mess, it won’t get us out
In 2023-24, the Conservative provincial government will pay $21 million more to landlords through 1000 new rent subsidies, bringing the total number of tenants receiving rent subsidies to 8000..
The current provincial government has also fast-tracked about 23,000 new housing units being built by developers, none of which are designated as affordable housing.
Neither of these half-measures do anything to improve long-term housing security for tenants. In yet another case of history repeating itself, in 1936, before the CMHC funded slum clearing, the Nova Scotia Housing Commission proposed a scheme where subsidies would be given to private investors who would then be exempt from paying municipal taxes. They offered developers low-interest loans to build affordable housing. But none of these projects met the goal of creating homes for low-income people.
The housing solutions we need are not ones that pad the profit margins of real estate investors. The solutions we need are the ones that increase the number of rental units available that cost less than 30 percent of a household’s income.
For those in the lowest income quintile in Nova Scotia, that is less than $700 a month.
This requires government investment to be directed specifically towards the creation and preservation of non-market housing (non-profit, co-operative or public housing), rather than into the pockets of the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ developer pals.
Ocean Breeze tenants just might win
“I want people to know that this could easily happen anywhere to anyone at almost every level of income.” – Celine
“We are angry that the owners have not said and done the things they have promised since their first meeting last October. Several times they’ve mentioned they’re trying to work with all levels of government to be able to build affordable housing but the actions just aren’t there to back it up. The current housing and rental markets are WAY out of control and they are going to force many, many people here into homelessness. There is NO reason why they can’t help build some affordable housing or co-op housing within this area aside from their pure greed.” – Jenn
Jenn and Celine are grandparents helping their children raise their families in a community they love. Other residents in Ocean Breeze are retired military members, single parents, or people who work for the provincial government in “good jobs”.
If they can lose their homes in this crisis, we all can.
Although it seems that the developers and their bulldozers have history, money and power on their side, the tenants of Ocean Breeze should not be counted out just yet. Unlike many tenants facing eviction, the 1000 residents of this neighbourhood saw it coming when the For Sale sign went up two years ago, and they have used that time to get organized.
There have been community meetings, and tenants have met with and written to their local councillor, and provincial and federal representatives. They have hosted information sessions with community legal organizations, and they know that their chances for success are better if they work together.
This month, the Ocean Breeze Residents’ Association officially registered as a society, and the group is thinking towards its next steps. This time – with a strikingly low vacancy rate, a historically high number of people actively homeless, sky-rocketing rents, wages that haven’t kept up with increasing costs, and a provincial election less than two years away – people in Halifax may not be willing to look the other way as 1000 more people lose their homes.
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