The Homes Front: The Accommodation Crisis In Halifax, 1941-1951

“Cobbled thoroughfares, unpaved sidestreets, an overburdened public transportation system, obsolete water supply, inadequate health services, draconian liquor control regulations, and overcrowded restaurants, cafes, and cinemas combined to produce an atmosphere that would have been oppressive even without the damp climate, gasoline and food rationing, or blackout regulations. In many respects the city resembled a military camp more than an urban community, yet authorities refused to declare Halifax a restricted area.

Halifax landlords were roundly criticized in the national press for charging exorbitant rents, but in reality the cost of housing rose everywhere, as workers arriving from smaller communities to work in war industries competed for available accommodation. Unlike sugar or gasoline, the supply of housing remained essentially unregulated. Even after rent controls were imposed in mid-1941, tenants and landlords found ways to circumvent the system. Native Haligonians did not like what the war had done to their city, although many benefited economically from the war boom. There were too many strangers, too many ships, too many uniforms, too many camp followers.

Halifax was less prepared to house a large influx of workers than cities with a larger industrial and manufacturing base, since industry tended to stimulate housing construction. Under normal conditions, a revivified local economy would soon have spilled over into the building trades, and the housing stock would have expanded to meet the increased demand. That this did not happen in Halifax may be attributed to two main factors: military priorities affected the availability of labour and materials for residential construction, and the majority of the wartime transient population were not industrial workers, therefore the government made scant provisions for housing them.

This failure to expand the housing stock during the war only exacerbated an already chronic shortage of affordable, adequate accommodation caused by two decades of slow economic growth.

Many Hydrostone dwellings administered by the Halifax Relief Commission during the 1930s remained vacant for months on end because the rents were so high. Low income wage-earners— young adults, seasonal workers in primary resource industries, domestic servants—survived the depression by staying at home longer, working short term positions while living in rooming houses, taking cheaper accommodation outside the city and commuting, and returning to smaller communities—where the cost of living was lower—between jobs. New housing construction in Halifax was confined to a relatively small area in the western portion of the peninsula. In older sections of the city, conversion of large homes into apartments was more common than replacement of existing structures. The multiple-family apartment building was almost unknown in Halifax other than the occasional dilapidated tenement where sanitary facilities were often totally inadequate.”

Wartime Housing Limited bungalows for war workers under construction in Dartmouth, ca. 1942. A similar project, the first in Canada, was built by WHL in the north end of Halifax in 1941, and is visible in the background of this photograph. (SOURCE: Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Bollinger Collection #84)

White, Jay. “The Homes Front: The Accommodation Crisis In Halifax, 1941-1951.” Urban History Review / Revue D’histoire Urbaine, vol. 20, no. 2/3, 1991, pp. 117–127. JSTOR,