Nova Scotia

'We don't have a home to return to': Nova Scotians displaced by wildfires struggle to find rentals

Families whose homes were destroyed in the Upper Tantallon wildfire are now looking for a place to live for at least a year while they try to rebuild. They say the availability and prices in the Halifax rental market pose a major challenge.

'We're seeing very little availability, very small homes, outrageous prices,' says one evacuee

A woman looks worried, standing in a park
Brianne Carlson said she's most worried about finding a stable "temporary permanent" home for her two-year-old son. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

When Brianne Carlson found out a rapidly growing forest fire was moving toward her neighbourhood, she grabbed what she could and packed an overnight bag.

By the time she opened her front door to leave with her husband and two-year-old son, she was met with a terrifying scene. 

"There was hot embers falling down on our house," Carlson said in an interview Thursday. "Our front yard was on fire and very quickly our whole driveway became engulfed in smoke. We just couldn't even see the drive to get out."

At that moment, Carlson knew she might never see her home standing again.

"Deep down we knew that [the fire] was going to roll right through the house, unless there was going to be some act of God, some miracle."

Remains of homes, vehicles show devastation of Halifax-area wildfires

4 months ago
Duration 1:09
Deputy Chief David Meldrum with Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency accompanied media through parts of Tantallon and Hammonds Plains on Tuesday. The communities were hit hard by wildfires that started on May 28.

The wildfire that forced Carlson from her home started May 28 in the area of Upper Tantallon, just 25 kilometres outside Halifax. That led to evacuation orders for about 16,400 residents — stretching from Upper Tantallon to Sackville.

While many have since been able to return, Carlson's family is one of 150 who lost their homes there.

Authorities believe another 60 homes have been destroyed by a wildfire in Shelburne County, in the southwest end of the province. 

These families are now looking for a place to live for at least a year while they try to rebuild. But they're being met with the reality of renting in a province that is experiencing skyrocketing rents and low vacancy rates.

Smoke from a wildfire drifts upward near a singed area that contains children's playground with basketball hoop.
The Tantallon fire destroyed 150 homes, including this one in the Westwood subdivision. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

According to the latest rental market report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Halifax saw the highest year-over-year spike in residential rent across the country between 2021 and 2022, with the average for a two-bedroom unit jumping 9.3 per cent. 

Halifax's vacancy rate stayed around one per cent, the second-lowest in the country.

Carlson said she and her husband are witnessing this as they search. 

"We're seeing very little availability, very small homes, outrageous prices," she said. "I haven't rented in many years, but we're looking at rentals that are a fraction of the size of our house, and that rent is probably two to three times what our mortgage is."

On top of rent, they will still be on the hook for paying their mortgage even though their house is rubble. Their insurance company will cover those payments but only up to a set amount, and Carlson worries they will hit the limit before they can rebuild. 

"We don't have a home to return to. We don't know when we will get back into our home that we will eventually rebuild. We don't know where our temporary permanent home is going to be."

Could take years to rebuild

Insurance and construction experts say that due to labour and supply shortages, it will take a significant amount of time to rebuild.

"It could be up to two years based on other events that we've seen, certainly with Fort McMurray, Slave Lake, other fire events that have happened," said Amanda Dean, vice-president Atlantic with the Insurance Bureau of Canada. "It all depends how many contractors are going to spring up."

A home and garden is shown
A photo of Ben McDonald's home before the fire, on the day he and his wife got married in the yard. (Submitted by Ben McDonald)

Ben McDonald also lost his family home in the Tantallon wildfire. Like Carlson, he has young children that he is focused on.

"It's been emotionally exhausting," McDonald said. "It's been very stressful because we're trying to manage the priorities of getting a house built, finding somewhere to live now, and just giving our kids a normal childhood."

Both families said the outpouring of support from the community has been touching. But McDonald said most of the housing being offered just wouldn't work long-term. 

"We've gotten really generous offers where people are like, 'You can stay at this house for three weeks or for a couple of months' ... which is extremely, extremely kind," McDonald said. "But we want to make sure that our kids have a little bit of stability."

McDonald found that most of the available rentals weren't pet friendly, and his family has a dog. He also said many of the rentals were $2,800 or more monthly for one floor of a house, or $1,000 per month for a single room. 

And when he responded to rental ads, he often didn't get a response. 

"It's not a knock on those people offering those properties. It's just a testament to how competitive it is."

While they were hoping to stay close to their children's daycare and their neighbourhood, McDonald said they could only find a rental that's a 30-minute drive to the daycare and an hour's drive to McDonald's work.

Call 211, says province

In a media release Wednesday, the province said those displaced by the wildfires can call 211 "for information on short- and long-term accommodations available in their area."

When asked by reporters at a media briefing later in the day what sort of options would be offered, Minister of Natural Resources Tory Rushton said it would depend on the family's circumstances.

"There may be individuals with just two seniors that are in a home that might need something totally different" than a larger family that has pets, Rushton said. "So it's going to be an individual basis. But look, we wanted to set something up to ensure that people had an outreach point." 

A spokesperson for 211 Nova Scotia told CBC News the accommodation options include "referral information for hotel rooms, university dorm rooms and rental housing."

The province has also said modular homes could be a temporary housing solution for those who are displaced, but little information on that has been released so far. 

"The needs of those households that have been evacuated and those who have unfortunately lost their homes are immeasurable," a spokesperson for the Department of Housing said in an email. "We have heard from a number of manufacturers of modular housing and are continuing to work through the details."


Nicola Seguin is a TV, radio, and online journalist with CBC Nova Scotia, based in Halifax. She often covers issues surrounding housing and homelessness. If you have a story idea, email her at or find her on twitter @nicseg95.

With files from Kayla Hounsell

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