Housing Accelerator Program
The main item on what was otherwise a fairly quiet Council meeting was HRM’s response to the federal government’s Housing Accelerator Program and its implications for zoning throughout HRM’s urban and suburban neighbourhoods. The federal program is meant to incentivize and support initiatives that are under the control of municipal governments that will accelerate the supply of housing. Basically the feds will provide municipalities with funding for planning. Applications for the program opened in June and HRM has applied. HRM’s application proposed the following:
- Streamline permitting process
- Reduce upfront costs for permit applications
- Facilitate non-residential conversions
- Encourage development on transit corridors
- Expedite development agreements for heritage properties
- Program for small scale residential construction
- Reduce permit fees for small scale residential
- Pre-approved small scale residential building plans
- Pre-approved small scale multiple unit residential building plans
- Expand affordable housing grant program
- Dedicate more surplus lands for affordable housing
A lot of this is stuff that we have partially done or were planning to do. The federal money, though, will increase our capacity, allowing things to happen much more quickly than would otherwise be the case. Last week, HRM received a response from federal housing minister, Sean Fraser. Fraser wrote that HRM’s application was strong, but that the feds would like to see HRM legalize four units as-of-right, allow four storeys in all residential zones in the Regional Centre, create a non-market housing strategy, and increase density and student housing close to the universities. On Tuesday, Council debated how HRM should respond.
There is a lot of politics swirling around here. In the seven years I have been on Council, I can never recall a letter from another order of government arriving while, at the same time, it was released to the press. That’s not how things are generally done. The feds were clearly looking to make a statement, and it’s not hard to understand why: the Liberals are down in the polls and they’re being pressed by the Conservatives to tie federal funding to zoning reform. In that context, I think no matter what HRM submitted, we were going to be asked to do more. The political dynamic is the feds need to not only help drive change, but be seen to drive change.
Political theatre can sometimes lead to less than ideal outcomes, but, luckily, that doesn’t appear to be the case here. For some municipalities, these federal asks will be a significant change, but HRM has been on the forefront of Canadian cities in reforming its zoning. The Centre Plan introduced a lot of as-of-right development options, got rid of almost all parking requirements, shared housing is allowed everywhere, and every property in HRM is already allowed at least two units. These are things that some of our peers are still struggling with. Through the Regional Plan review that is underway now, HRM was looking to further increase as-of-right units to three and the upcoming suburban plan is likely to be a Centre Plan for the suburbs that upzones a lot of land in places that can accommodate greater density (not having good plans for the suburbs is our biggest weakness right now).
HRM and the feds are already well aligned in spirit and in a lot of details. Allowing four units instead of three isn’t a huge change. Same for committing to an affordable housing strategy and more density around the universities. Being pressed to do more of what we’ve already been doing and to deliver on outcomes quicker (and funding to help with that) is good for everyone.
There was a fair bit of conversation about the federal ask for four storeys in low density residential neighbourhoods. I want to emphasize that this is only in the established residential zones. There are tons of places in the Centre Plan where much more height and density is allowed as-of-right. Focussing on four storeys in the established residential zones is really more symbolic than practical. There are practical reasons around building code requirements for things like elevators and the cost of construction that makes four storeys hard to do for small-scale multi-unit buildings. The more likely outcome of HRM allowing for four storeys in all established residential zones isn’t more multi-units, it’s monster home single units, which is maybe not the outcome the Minister was imagining when he wrote his letter. Council could have just mindlessly said “sure, what’s the real harm, let’s take their money and run,” but that’s really not the best basis for a policy change. It would be better to look at all the options to achieve the objective of more units in the residential zones and do something meaningful rather than symbolic.
So Council opted to write back committing to looking at a variety of options to facilitate missing middle housing. This might still include four storeys, but getting planning staff to look at it in detail is more likely to produce a better outcome. It’s anecdotal, but in the three years that the Centre Plan has been in place, I have never had anyone complain to me about height in the established residential zones curtailing their project. I have, however, had builders mention issues around lot coverage (percentage of a lot that can be covered by a building) and the unit count. I suspect focussing on those pieces is more likely to generate more units in established residential zones than allowing more height. Being more flexible about townhouses (currently only allowed in ER-3) might make sense too and I’m sure there are other options that our planning staff will identify in a more detailed look. We’ll see how the feds respond, but making this discussion all about four storeys so that we can enable buildings that almost no one is going to build due to building code and economics when there might be better options is just silly.
Potential Heritage Districts
I do think there needs to be one exception to upzoning the established residential areas: the potential heritage districts. Through the Centre Plan, HRM identified 13 potential heritage districts. Property rights in the potential districts are quite limited because HRM doesn’t want to encourage big changes in these areas until heritage districts are in place. Heritage districts are generally development friendly because HRM provides additional flexibility in exchange for adaptive reuse. Goal of a district isn’t to freeze a neighbourhood in time, it’s to preserve what makes it special while it continues to evolve. Experience since the Centre Plan was completed suggests it’s working as developers are increasingly opting to registers potential buildings to unlock additional development rights.
A heritage district, rather than suppressing development through zoning, is the best way to preserve heritage. Unfortunately, the issue in the here and now is that it takes 2-3 years to complete a heritage district. With current resources, HRM is able to do 1-2 districts at a time. Right now staff are working on the Downtown Halifax district and are hoping to get started on Downtown Dartmouth in the next few weeks. That’s two under way of the 13 identified in the Centre Plan, which means that, at the current pace, it’ll take 10-15 years to complete them all. HRM might be able to shave a bit of time off preparing each district, but it’s not going to suddenly become a six month endeavor. It takes time to do detailed research, public engagement, prepare the plan, and get Council approval. What speeding things up here likely looks like is doing more districts at once (maybe getting to three at a time rather than two).
All of this means that we should be very cautious about increasing units, height, lot coverage etc in the potential districts before heritage planning is complete. Places like Five Corners, Harbourview, the Hydrostones are part of what makes Halifax and Dartmouth unique. Harbourview offers some cautionary lessons too. There have already been some teardowns in Harbourview just for single unit builds because the water view in the neighbourhood is such a selling point. Allowing for more density there without any additional controls is almost certain to create more pressure.
The good news is that the potential heritage districts only occupy a small portion of the Regional Centre (you can see the areas affected here). Carving out exceptions in these areas that can be relaxed through future heritage planning makes sense. Staff are even thinking that we could allow for more units in these areas too, but via internal conversion rather than through demolition (i.e you get more if you use the existing structure rather than if you build new). We don’t need to tear down the Hydrostone, or Five Corners to solve our housing crisis. Staff will take this away to look at and hopefully, the feds will recognize the point that there are good reasons to tread lightly in a few special places. Perhaps some of that federal funding can even be used to speed up the implementation of some of the heritage districts.
- Nominated two councillors to serve on the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities board (I’m one of them)
- Endorsed Councillor Smith continuing to serve on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities committees
- Requested a staff report on amending Administrative Order 1 to allow in camera items to be approved as part of the general consent agenda, follow-up on provincial road transfers, and on emergency planning around schools
- Approved an events grant from the Marketing Levy Reserve for the Canada Soccer Toyota National Championships
- Directed the CAO to review the process for reviewing pre and post event evaluations for events that receive grants
- Entered into less than market value leases with the Kiwanis Club of Dartmouth, and the Dartmouth Dragon Boat Association for their space in the new building at Grahams Grove
- Approved this year’s grants to search and rescue groups in HRM
- Gave first reading for an area rate for newly paved streets on the Eastern Shore, and housekeeping changes to the vehicle immobilization (booting) bylaw
- Approved planned debt borrowing
- Directed staff to include planning for a new library at Mill Cove as part of future budgets
- Provided a $25,000 grant to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference taking place in Halifax in November