This Should Be Housing…it’s about time we repurposed hundreds of vacant buildings for housing

Today it is not a house, or an apartment building. 

But it could be.  Right now it’s a website.

This Should Be Housing is a website that shows most of the empty or abandoned buildings in HRM which could be turned into housing.  Some buildings are owned by the feds, others by the province, some by the city and large number are privately owned.  All the buildings have four walls and a roof.  Why can’t they be turned into housing?

This Should Be Housing website.Coloured Dots represent which level of government or private company owns each dot.

This Should Be Housing is created independently by coders and journalists in collaboration with Halifax Mutual Aid and coder Lorax Horne. In HRM, there is a need for tens of thousands of homes and affordability is key.  By 2030 Nova Scotians will need 50,000 more affordable units of housing.

According to a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) national report in February 2022, Halifax’s residential vacancy rate was 1%, the lowest in Canada. The average two bedroom apartment ranged from $1335 to $1530 a month.    But things have changed in six months and NOT for the better. Padmapper, a commercial site surveyed rents of 138 two-bedroom units in Halifax (not Dartmouth), it lists the average rents at $2225 per month, up 14.10% from June a month ago.  Granted, these units are mainly in new buildings, but most two-bedroom apartments across metro do rent for more than $2000 a month. 

176 Portland St

Let’s get back to This Should be Housing.  Here’s a building I walk by often which I recently added to the map: 176 Portland St. in Dartmouth.  It’s up for sale (I think) by the Treasury Board’s Directory of Federal Real Property. It’s called Marine House, and used to be a home for the federal Dept of Fisheries and Oceans.  My guess it it’s been vacant since the early 2000s.

176 Portland St., Dartmouth

Built in 1984, it’s less than forty years old.  According to the Treasury Board file, its condition is “poor” – no doubt it’s been allowed to run down. This is called “demolition by neglect” and is what most of the unsavoury property owners and developers do here in HRM.  They allow a building to remain vacant for years, pay no attention to repairs, rodents, or roofing so its condition deteriorates.  Then the only solution for the owners is to tear it down.  My crystal ball predicts 176 Portland  will be fractured by a wrecking ball only to become a parking lot in the short term, and then morph into a brand new high-end rental or condo building.  

Today, Marine House is an 6-storey, red brick building of more than 61,440 square feet; it has 29 parking spaces.  By my reckoning, if you set aside 8% of the square footage for common space, elevators, hallways, etc. we are still left with more than 59,000 square feet for apartments.  That’s enough for about 40 apartments each measuring 1400 square feet.   That’s housing for 120 to 160 people in Dartmouth’s centre.

Amenities: Timmie’s around the corner, a school 7 minutes’ walk, ferry down the street and a view to die for

So what’s going on with Marine House?  Well, Treasury Board has never got back to me about the building –has it been sold to some land speculators or developers? It is doubtful that the government is planning to refurbish it—after 38 years.  Yet there it stands, within steps of several major bus routes.  Downtown Dartmouth is a 5 minute walk away.  Marine House has floor to ceiling windows with what I imagine are panoramic views of the harbour and easy access to parks, the Dartmouth ferry, and even Tim Horton’s.  Marine House is a 7 minute walk to the local elementary school.  

If the feds gave the vacant property to a non-profit or co-op housing group, and added ten million dollars for refurbishment and renovation, this property could provide excellent housing—for many families for years to come.

In case anyone’s worried about the cost, let’s think about this.  HRM Council approved up to $4.9 million to build 64 modular units, 26 near Alderney Landing in Dartmouth and 38 near the Centennial Pool in Halifax.  Each of the 64 units are built for one occupant only, with shared bath, and a shared kitchen.  At $4.9 million, It works out to $75,000 per one room unit.  For twice that amount– $10 million — Marine House could become  permanent apartments – each suite with a private kitchen, a bathroom  and use of common space.  About 140 people, including families, the disabled and the elderly would live there.  The federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative could be tapped for some money from its $1.5 billion budget allocated for the next two years.  Residents of 176 Portland would pay a monthly housing charge, or rent, geared to their incomes, which would ultimately pay off the loan(s).  It would be a sustainable remedy for our housing woes. 

Featured image: Halifax from Dartmouth, 1838 by William Henry Bartlett (British, 1809-1854) For more on this artist, see this.


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