Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled to Nova Scotia on Thursday to announce $13.3 million in funding to fast-track construction of 367 housing units over the next three years.

Trudeau made the announcement from a snow-covered housing development inside the Membertou First Nation, a mostly urban community south of Sydney, the largest city in Cape Breton.

"People right across the country are facing tremendous pressures on housing, on rents on mortgages — on a range of things that are really top of mind," Trudeau told a news conference that featured massive snowdrifts in the background, the result of a historic nor'easter earlier this month that dumped up to 150 centimetres of snow on parts of the region.

"As a government, we've stepped … back into the housing business after previous Conservative governments in Ottawa stepped away from housing."

The prime minister said a $1.9-million agreement reached with Membertou and an $11-million agreement with the surrounding Cape Breton Regional Municipality could help spur the construction of more than 3,200 homes over the next 10 years.

The money is coming from the federal government's $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund, which was announced in March 2023. It's aimed at encouraging municipalities to make changes to bylaws and regulations that will increase housing construction. 

"We needed a way to change the speed housing was built in this country," Trudeau said. "We're looking at the tools that municipalities … have to unlock even more housing faster in their communities."

The program encourages municipalities to adopt denser zoning rules, speed up approvals for building permits and increase the use of public and underutilized lands. It also provides incentives for non-profit and private homebuilders to develop affordable housing projects.

The agreement with the regional municipality, for example, involves pre-approved building plans to fast-track construction and streamline the permitting process. As well, the municipality plans to cut construction time by providing financial incentives to developers for affordable housing.

Under the Membertou agreement, the First Nation will recruit housing administration staff and construction managers to hasten the building process. The funds will also be used to improve access to bridges, water and sewer services.

"It's going to put a big dent in our housing needs," said Terry Paul, chief of the Membertou First Nation. "It's going to provide what we call 'forever homes' for a lot of people here in Membertou."

As of Thursday, the federal government has signed 52 similar agreements since the launch of the fund. 

"Housing is a challenge right now, right across the country," the prime minister said. "But it's a challenge we've been able to solve before as a country. And we're going to solve it again."

His announcement in Cape Breton followed housing pledges he made earlier in the week in Alberta and British Columbia.

On Wednesday, Trudeau announced $175 million in housing accelerator funding for the construction of 5,200 housing units in Edmonton over the next three years. And on Tuesday, he was at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where he said Ottawa would add $2 billion to the province’s new BC Builds initiative aimed at fast-tracking the construction of middle-income rental housing. Earlier this week, six Alberta communities signed deals with Ottawa that provide nearly $14 million to help build 400 new homes over the next three years.

Trudeau's most recent trip to Atlantic Canada was on Jan. 18, when he travelled to Saint John, N.B., to announce $9.1 million in accelerator funding for 285 housing units over the next three years.

Before his announcement Thursday in Membertou, Trudeau visited a long-term care home under construction in the Eskasoni First Nation, about 40 kilometres southwest of Membertou. Norm Sylliboy, chief of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, greeted the prime minister in the foyer, where large trees run up and through the concrete ceiling, evoking the structure of a traditional wigwam. Ottawa contributed $19.7 million to the project.

“A lot of work has been done, and there’s still more to be done," Sylliboy said. 

The prime minister was then shown one of the 48 individual bedrooms, slated to be occupied in April 2024. 

Leroy Denny, chief of Eskasoni First Nation, said his mother, who has dementia, will be one of the first residents. 

“This place is special to me,” the chief said. "It's happy for me that she’ll have a home here."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2024.

With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax.