Council Update: Encampments, Tax Changes

Mutual Aid Shelter and banner in Starr Park. Photo: local resident

Agenda May 3

Encampment Strategy:
The big item on Council’s agenda was the proposed encampment strategy. Staff recommended that Council designate several public spaces in HRM where either overnight sheltering (8:00 pm – 8:00 am) or long-term stays would be permitted. Designated encampment sites would be provided with services such as water, washrooms, garbage removal, etc, but the flipside is sheltering wouldn’t be permitted in other public spaces. It’s quite a controversial report that generated a lot of feedback. Some would like HRM to allow sheltering in all public parks with no limitations, while others object to HRM allowing any sheltering at all.

As a matter of principle, no one should be living outdoors. We’re a wealthy society that can and should do better. The number of people on the By Name List for housing as of May 3 is 570. There are just over 200 shelter spaces in HRM. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are 370 people living outdoors in HRM. The List is the number of people looking for housing, which includes people who are precariously housed, living in vehicles, or staying with friends and family. It’s not the total that are on the street. The exact count of people living outdoors is unknown (latest point in time count hasn’t been released yet) and it changes regularly. The best data HRM currently has suggests the number sleeping rough is somewhere between 20 and 80. There are 157 new supportive units in various stages of construction through the Rapid Housing Program, but even if we get to a place where there are enough units to meet the need, some small portion of those sleeping rough will remain outside due to what’s available not being a good fit, circumstance, and choice. All of this has implications for what HRM does.

The choice available to HRM isn’t (1) allow people to shelter in public spaces or (2) have no one sheltering in public spaces. The practical reality is people are going to be sheltering in our public spaces because there aren’t enough units, supports are inadequate, and a small number will never come inside. That means the actual choice available to HRM is (1) continue the status quo of having encampments pop up anywhere with no supporting services, or (2) designate some spaces and actually plan for the need to shelter there. There is no third option available to us in the here and now that involves no one living outdoors. Not all parks are the same and some are better able to handle sheltering without causing problems for neighbours, or displacing other park users. Given all of that and the benefits of providing encampment residents with basic services, the least bad option seems to be putting some parameters around sheltering.

One of the main criticism of HRM’s plan from folks advocating to allow sheltering anywhere is that HRM is trying to put people in out of the way locations. This is definitely not the case. Staff and Council recognize that unhoused residents need options in the community where support is available. HRM’s proposed list of sites reflects that. In District 5, staff recommended Geary Street, Crathorne Park, and Woodside Regional Park as sites for longer-term shelters and Penhorn, Albro, and Green Road as sites for 8-8 overnight stays. All of those locations have people sheltering in them now or have in the past. People have voted with their feet on those spots being suitable! Geary, Crathorne, Woodside and Green Road are particularly close to services. There is no Burnside location or one mega site. These are not out of the way locations.

Geary Street already houses an encampment. Photo: Robert Short, CBC

Another frequent concern with HRM’s plan for designated locations is that the available space won’t match the demand. Some of that comes from people confusing the 570 people on the by name list as the number of people living outdoors or incorrectly simplifying the list by deducting the number of shelter beds from 570. Confusion about what the List number actually means was compounded by a few gaps in HRM’s own report. From the discussion at Council, we clarified that the proposed Barrington Street site could actually accommodate multiple groups of four since the space is a long linear strip. We also clarified that, if demand exceeds the available space, HRM would have to respond by creating more spaces. The intent isn’t to cap the number and then tell everyone else “sorry there is no room, we have no place for you.” That could have been better communicated in the report!

Council did end up amending staff’s recommendation to scrap the short-term site idea. The concern with the 8-8 locations was that people would call bylaw or police at 8:01 if someone’s tent wasn’t taken down on time. The feeling was that 8-8 sites would set the stage for unnecessary conflict. So Council instead directed staff to return with a revised list of only long term locations. I’m not sure what that means at this point for the District 5 sites, particularly Albro, Penhorn, and Green Road that had been previously identified as 8-8 locations. Albro and Penhorn have active public beaches and they might not work well as long term locations given that intensive summer use (there is also likely to be trail construction at Penhorn this summer). I’m not sure what the remaining long term site recommendations will end up being and would like some specific details about the suggested site in Woodside. We will have to see what staff come back with.

The other thing that Council asked for was options to deal with encampments that minimize police enforcement. The emphasis in the report is on getting people to voluntarily move from sites that aren’t designated to sites that are by using non-police resources. That makes sense because there isn’t a lot of trust of police in marginalized groups. Making sure there is a clear plan for police being an absolute last resort in dealing with encampment issues is important.

I don’t like designating outdoor spaces, but having designated spaces that have been chosen to minimize conflicts with others, that are centrally located, and that have supports in place is a better situation than our current status quo of any park anywhere with no support at all. The violence at Starr Park last week is a tragedy both for the neighbour who was assaulted, but also for the shelter occupant and is an example of the problems that come with unplanned encampments. We need to make sheltering outdoors better and clearer for everyone while we wait for more units and supportive services to become available. Staff will return to Council with a new report and a revised list of potential sites.

Tax Changes:
HRM gave final approval for changes to our tax system for both residential and commercial properties. Details below

Residential:
During our budget deliberations this year, Council opted to put more money into the low-income residential tax relief program because of the higher than normal increase in the tax bill (tax bill is the combined impact of the tax rate and assessment). On Tuesday, Council approved changes to the program that will make it possible for more households to qualify and for more generous exemptions for existing participants.

The way the program works is eligibility is calculated based on the low-income cutoff for a three person household as reported by Statistics Canada. HRM has changed the calculation to a four-person household, which moves the program cutoff from $36,000 to $43,000. $43,000 exceeds the calculated living wage for HRM ($40,131).

Increasing the threshold allows more households to qualify, but it doesn’t change the program’s benefit for those already participating. To do that, HRM has increased the maximum possible exemption from $1,050 to $1,200, and increased the income thresholds, meaning more people will also qualify for the lower tiers where the exemptions are the most valuable. This is what the revised figures will mean across the household income spectrums.

Council also amended the program to index it so the thresholds will rise automatically each year going forward rather than needing to be adjusted by Council.

The net impact of the changes is that HRM is expecting an additional 600 low-income households to be able to qualify for tax reductions, with an average rebate of $323, while the average reduction for the existing 1,600 program participants will increase from $641 to $866.

Commercial:
Council adopted the new commercial development districts bylaw in order to begin averaging increases in commercial assessments. The idea of averaging is to phase in large increases in assessment over three years rather than expecting a business to absorb suddenly rising costs all at once. The way the system will work is businesses that see more than a 5% increase in their assessment will automatically have the increase phased in. There will be an assessment change cap of $1,500,000 to minimize the impact of businesses qualifying due to the redevelopment of their property rather than just market changes (we have no ability to separate out new construction so have to capture it this way instead). The table below shows how the assessment averaging will work.

The one clear downside of assessment averaging is that since the goal is for the program to be revenue neutral, businesses with below average increases will end up paying slightly more in taxes to reduce the cost for businesses with above average increases. The way I have been thinking about that is this is basically an assessment insurance program: everyone pays a modest amount into the system in hopes that they won’t need it, but they benefit from having it just in case. It’s a reasonable approach since the only other alternative to making it revenue neutral would be to shift the cost difference onto the residential rate, something that Council wasn’t prepared to do.

Commercial averaging is expected to come into force in 2023/2024 alongside the new differential tax rate system that will lower rates on main streets while increasing them in Big Box areas. HRM had hoped to implement averaging this year, but it requires the tax software to be upgraded and that upgrade is a few months behind schedule. So 2023/2024 fiscal it is.

Other

  • Directed the CAO to develop friendship accords with our Mi’kmaq partners
  • Awarded HRM’s insurance contract
  • Increased the budget for several contracts including the architect’s for the new building at Grahams Grove, construction administration for the Lady Hammond Bridge, Woodside Ferry Terminal
  • Amended the Solid Waste Fee Administrative Order to increase tipping fees for commercial recycling and compost
  • Approved a $50,000 grant to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation to help support humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine
  • Authorized the CAO to complete a less than market value lease for the Needham Preschool and Daycare
  • Requested a staff report on amending the Halifax Charter to allow the municipality to enter into and enforce community benefit agreements

7 Comments

  1. Sam, great update on the council discussion on homelessness. Yes, I agree that the overnight stays in certain parks was ridiculous and am glad it is gone. I’m still dismayed by the serial nature of our response; why aren’t we mobilizing on what has been agreed to; I.e., begin providing utilities in the agreed to parks.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Sam: Penhorn as an active public beache with children running around in swim suites playing and swimming plus using the washroom. The unelected staff must need to understand children play areas are off limits.

    Cheers

  3. Hi Councilor Austin. These days would be a great time for persons to be able to access some of the various employment’s available, where there are not enough people to fill jobs. Get some training programs going for the persons available to be employed. Situations should not just be handed to individuals, these persons should have to earn their life’s reaps. Times are a changing for the worst; work at it to make it not so. Thanks Sam

    • The problem is you can offer them all the training and jobs you want. If the desire is not there to want more and work for things it doesn’t matter.

  4. There should be no encampments anywhere. Grow a spine and stop just letting people put up these shelters anywhere they want. The garbage, needles, alcohol bottles are not what is needed in neighborhoods . And don’t start with the whining that the people in these shelters are just falling on hard times and the government should be responsible for them for the rest of their adult lives. They are adults and it’s time to start acting like it and change your situation if you don’t like it. Start holding people responsible for the choices in life that they make. There are opportunities out there if you are willing to work for it and stop acting like you are the victim all the time.

  5. “As a matter of principle, no one should be living outdoors. We’re a wealthy society that can and should do better.”

    What ‘principle’ is this, exactly? In societies characterized by fundamental human rights and rule of law people are entitled to — and will — live where they want, as long as their choices do not violate the rights of others and are not in violation of the law. If it is decided not to enforce such laws, then the possibilities for living outdoors become even more extensive.

    The reality is that government (municipal or provincial) could provide 1,000 designated safe overnight year-round indoor shelter spaces in HRM, but if laws enacted to prevent over-nighting in public spaces are not enforced there will still be individuals who do so — to ‘sleep rough’ in the jargon of the homelessness hobbyists.

    Apart from the current misguided practice of not enforcing existing laws, what will have the most counterproductive implication for the outdoor living phenomenon in HRM is formally designating public spaces where homeless encampments will be permitted. The result will be the same as in every other city where this has been adopted as public policy: more, not less, homelessness and attendant societal issues.

  6. Encampments in public parks and spaces need to be removed regardless of the individual circumstances. If the municipality wants to tackle this issue (and it is very complicated – mental health, addictions etc) then place sanctioned shelters somewhere safe – perhaps a large parking lot with port a potties etc., which do not negatively impact the safety and enjoyment of public spaces. Perhaps those who like having these “box shelters ” pop up anywhere could take one and put them in their own back yards. Then they could help the homeless directly, offering their own washroom facilities etc.

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