When Tiffany Campbell returned to the East Coast after years of working and saving in Alberta, she dreamed of buying a house and raising her son in Nova Scotia. But after a few months, her plans changed dramatically.
The 32-year-old says she has been refurbished from the first apartment she rented in Halifax. She and her 7-year-old son moved twice more in a year, looking for affordable housing.
And they still haven’t found it. Campbell says she spends more than 50 percent of her income on an apartment in the city’s North End, where she and her son share a bedroom.
“By the time I got here, it was just impossible,” Campbell said. “I love this city, but I didn’t think we’d come here if we were put in a position like that. Things are really excellent in Halifax. I didn’t imagine this for the Maritimes.”
Campbell came to Nova Scotia to earn a PhD in social anthropology from Dalhousie University. Growing up on the East Coast, she thought housing would be affordable in the region.
But despite a full scholarship, two part-time jobs, no car and use of her university’s food bank, she says staying in Halifax is unsustainable.
Campbell is one of more than 30 young adults who spoke to TUSEN News this fall and say they feel compelled to leave the county they had hoped to make a living in because rent is too expensive and they believe owning a house is inaccessible.
Some said they plan to move in with relatives in other provinces or move to a country where wages are higher. But the common theme is the struggle to find housing in Nova Scotia.
“It reminds me of what happened when I was in high school… A lot of young people had to go west,” Campbell said. “It makes me sad because I feel like I have to constantly rewrite the story of my life.”
Rents rose the most in Atlantic Canada
According to data from rental website Rentals.ca that was analyzed by data company Urbanation, rents in Atlantic Canada have risen 32.2 percent over the past year, making it the highest jump in Canada.
While Nova Scotia temporarily has a two percent rent cap on existing leases, the rent can be increased for a new lease if a tenant moves out or is evicted. Rentals.ca measures the asking price of vacant properties.
According to a sample of about 150 rental units in Halifax, Rentals.ca says the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city is $1,819, and the average for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,240.
The company says Halifax is the 18th most expensive city for rental, in a list of 35 urban centers nationwide. Some of the most affordable cities on that list include Edmonton, Quebec City, and Regina.
“Halifax, for a mid-sized city, has had a lot of problems with housing,” said Paul Danison, content director at Rentals.ca.
“During the pandemic, a lot of people discovered Halifax and decided to move there, which increased demand. Immigration is very high in Halifax, which also increases demand… there’s just not enough supply in Halifax.”
Data from Statistics Canada reflects this trend. Immigration to Nova Scotia from abroad more than doubled last year from pre-pandemic levels. And after decades of emigration to other provinces, a total of 14,079 people were added to Nova Scotia’s population last year as a result of migration from other provinces. Eighty percent of them came from Ontario.
However, the number of people leaving the province for other parts of Canada also reached a six-year high in 2021-2022. People between the ages of 20 and 40 make up more than half of those moving to other provinces.
High house prices
Average prices for residential real estate in Nova Scotia have also risen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, peaking in April this year at more than $450,000, according to the Nova Scotia Association of Realtors.
While the median price of housing units has since dropped to less than $400,000, it’s still nearly double the average compared to five years ago.
Paul Kershaw, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, said the numbers are startling.
“In the mid-1970s, when today’s baby boomers were young adults and coming of age, it took about four years of full-time work to save a 20 percent down payment on a mid-priced home in Halifax,” Kershaw said. “If you look ahead to today, it’s now 12 years.”
Marius Normore, 29, and his partner started saving for a down payment on a Halifax home in 2018, when average prices were around $225,000.
In 2021 they viewed 20 homes and bid on four homes. Normore said they bid from $50,000 to $87,000 above asking prices, and were outbid each time.
As of mid-2022, the couple was still spending most of their income renting an apartment in Bedford, and they felt they would never get ahead by staying in Nova Scotia.
“The best analogy I can use is that it’s like football,” Normore said. “You run for the touchdown and the closer you get, the farther away the goal line moves.”
They are not alone. According to 2021 Statistics Canada data, 45 percent of Halifax households spend nearly a third or more of their income on housing. That’s the highest percentage of any Canadian city, ahead of both Toronto and Vancouver.
Normore said for years he had been optimistic about staying in Nova Scotia, but “that optimism slowly turned into pessimism”.
“I’m not by any means the only person … going through this,” he said. “The majority of the people you know, my former colleagues around my age, are all in the same boat. We rent. We don’t have a realistic path to owning a home right now.”
So Normore and his partner made the difficult decision to leave. They moved to Newfoundland to buy a house and got their keys in early November.
Kershaw is also the founder of Generation Squeeze, a charitable think tank that studies the impact of systemic problems across generations.
He said young people in Halifax are now facing the “affordability constraint” that has long been talked about in British Columbia and Ontario, and it is pushing them further back than previous generations.
Young people are disproportionately affected
Kershaw said now is the time for policy change at all levels of government to prioritize housing affordability.
“We often joke about a younger demographic eating too many pieces of avocado toast or drinking too many lattes, or that they’re entitled, that they’re lazy. But that’s not the case. The data is clear,” he said.
“The younger demographic is moving more toward post-secondary, paying more for the privilege, and more often going into student debt, to find jobs that, when adjusted for inflation, pay thousands of dollars less.”
He said that not being able to afford a house or paying rent could have a major impact on young people’s lives at a time when they may want to settle down and start a family.
“It has a huge impact on your mental health,” she said. “There’s just a huge amount of insecurity between my colleagues and myself, so that’s something we all struggle with.”