From Study to Reality: The Establishment of Public Housing In Halifax, 1930-1953

“DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION, A NEW vision of shelter for low income families received widespread support from surprisingly varied sectors of the population. Yet, despite the encouragement of labour unions, social workers, planners, architects and important parts of the construction industry, the first public housing project did not actually open until 1949 in Toronto’s Regent Park. The second arose in St. John’s, Newfoundland, immediately after Confederation, and the third, despite the myth of Maritime “conservatism”, was located in Halifax. In fact, Halifax had been one of the first centres of continued agitation for public housing, which began in 1930. The long and tortured history of the public housing campaigns in Halifax tells much about the social forces which both promoted and delayed the birth of public housing across the nation.

Like other Canadian cities, Halifax had experienced pressures for public housing prior to the depression. In 1913, the Nova Scotia legislature passed a measure for the establishment of limited dividend housing corporations, in response to concerns in the city. There was, however, no housing constructed under this act and the efforts to build limited dividend housing collapsed under the impact of the Halifax explosion.1 The city participated in the short-lived federal post-war public housing scheme. It was also the site of the first public housing in Canada, the Hydrostone complex designed by international planning expert Thomas Adams to provide medium income rental housing for those displaced by the Halifax disaster. As in other Canadian cities, the campaign for better low income housing quieted down after the nation experienced a boom in residential construction starting in 1923.2 At the end of 1930, however, an alliance of labour unions, professionals concerned with housing and social work, religious leaders and the building industry, began to come together.”

“On 31 March 1931, the Labor Council’s newspaper, the Citizen, announced that labour had begun a major campaign for low rental housing. Pledging that “Filthy Tenements Must Go”, the Citizen warned “greedy dabblers in real estate, hungry landlords who thrive on human poverty and want” that “organized labor” was “girding its loins” for the coming “battle”. By this time, as the Citizen noted, organized labour had received the support of service clubs and “the churches in the city of all denominations”, for low rental housing. Representatives of Halifax’s service clubs, churches and unions all served on the Citizens’ Housing Committee. Its members included Major Tibbs of the Halifax Relief Commission, who was favourably impressed by the public housing projects he viewed while on a visit to Vienna. Another prominent member was S.H. Prince, an Anglican priest and social worker, who had been active in relief efforts following the Halifax explosion and who wrote a study of the disaster published by Columbia University”

“At the outset of assuming his housing duties, the federal Cabinet suggested to Cousins that the removal of 4,000 persons from the city would create “the equivalent of 1,000 homes”.30 Wisely, however, Cousins decided against immediate evictions and commissioned a special housing census. Under his orders, the navy also provided barracks for an additional 3,000 officers and ratings by mid-April 1944. Rejecting entrance controls, Cousins had the federal government undertake a publicity campaign against unwarranted travel to Halifax, “through the C.B.C. news, moving pictures in every theatre in Canada, general press publicity and warnings as to travel in the Halifax-Dartmouth area in the various railway stations in Canada”. Another 4,000 service personnel were removed from the Halifax area, largely through the RCAF’s moving out of the city.

The view that the indolent caused Halifax’s housing problems was finally abandoned by Cousins in his report of 17 July 1944, based on a Halifax-Dartmouth population census, conducted under a special Order-in-Council. This census found that 19,195 arrivals had been added to the city’s pre-war population of 65,000. With the exception of 501 women married to service personnel, only a “very few” were unemployed, or not “members of families whose heads are in business employed in Halifax”. The 501 women did not cause housing shortages, as all but 119 lived in rooming houses, which currently had 349 vacant rooms, and 46 of the 119 persons “living in houses, flats or apartments” were employed in “necessary war work”. The 73 women eligible for eviction consequently amounted to “.890 per thousand of the population” and their deportation would provide only “negligible” relief. The census revealed very clearly that housing shortages continued, as witnessed by cases of a family of eight living in a single room, 25 persons in a four-room house, and 36 in a twelve-room structure. Some 270 houses had been condemned by the Health department, but tenants could not be evicted due to the prevailing overcrowding. A surprising 43 per cent of Halifax’s dwelling units were “not structurally good”. Some 18 per cent had inadequate sanitary facilities; 400 dwellings lacked inside toilets and 2,500 both bathtubs and showers. Another 5,800 homes were heated by stoves.”

“The bizarre proposals for evictions epitomize the strong opposition within the federal government to expanding Wartime Housing’s operations. This conservative tenor was also reflected in the 1944 National Housing Act. It rejected proposals of the Curtis sub-committee of the James Advisory Committee on Post-war Reconstruction, whose members included NSHC Chairman S.H. Prince, for federally subsidized but municipally administered non-profit housing development. Instead, the legislation provided the same unworkable provisions for limited dividend housing as the NHA of 1938 and once again private investors refused to participate in the program. Typically, a 1947 memorandum from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Halifax office concluded that there was no interest apart from “some well-intentioned people who have no money to put into such a scheme themselves but who think it would be excellent for the general good”.

Since legislation for permanent low rental housing was unworkable, Wartime Housing was perpetuated from 1945 to 1949 to construct rental housing for returning veterans. These projects in Halifax had higher standards than those set by Wartime Housing for the homes of munitions workers. Wartime dwellings originally built in Halifax were placed on top of wood pilings, but the initial 274 units of veterans’ housing had permanent foundations. In 1948, CMHC developed two large veteran rental housing complexes, with 221 units in the first and 66 in the second. These projects on a former military base were developed along the lines of a limited access subdivision with attractive landscaping features. Even these large projects could not meet the demand for veteran rental housing; in 1948, Halifax had a waiting list of 900 persons for such shelter.”

“Although it went only part way to meeting the housing problems reformers decried, the final building of Halifax’s first public housing project was eloquent testimony to the long years of effort of pioneers such as S.H. Prince who had worked for over 20 years to bring it to the city. The Bayers Road public housing project was an achievement of the dedication of almost two decades of efforts by religious leaders and social service agencies, which had been sustained by the continual pressure of the city’s labour movement. In fact, organized labour had played the most important role in the achievement of public housing in Halifax, since its interest continued when that of other sectors of the community lagged or fell dormant.

It took so long to achieve public housing in Halifax largely because of the resistance to the idea that low income families needed subsidized shelter from the body that controlled the purse strings, the federal Department of Finance. Local conservatism also played a role in the long delay between the conception and birth of public housing in Halifax. Although there was a consensus that public subsidies were needed to house low income families, progress was stalled over the insistence that such shelter be operated by private limited dividend companies. Resistance to the innovation of public housing was deep enough to persist by making it taboo even after private investors indicated they did not wish to become involved in carrying out the development of low income housing envisaged for them. Despite such local opposition, when federal policy became flexible enough to develop a workable public housing program, the support nurtured for many years by housing reformers at the municipal and provincial levels permitted its relatively rapid introduction to Halifax. Rather than a bastion of supposed Maritime “conservatism”, Halifax became an important area of innovation for housing programs.”

BACHER, JOHN. “From Study to Reality: The Establishment of Public Housing In Halifax, 1930-1953” Acadiensis, vol. 18, no. 1, 1988, pp. 120–135. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30302990.