Agenda August 22, Regional Council
In the fall of 2020 HRM adopted new planning rules to allow for secondary and backyard suites throughout the municipality. A secondary suite is a small secondary unit in a property’s main building, while a backyard suite is a small unit in an accessory building. The amendments effectively killed R-1 zoning by allowing every property to have at least two units. At the time, Council also requested that staff return with a report on the uptake of secondary units, which was before us on Tuesday.
Between November 2020 and February 2023, HRM issued 398 permits for new secondary units, of which, 269 were secondary suites and 129 were backyard suites. The secondary units were spread throughout HRM’s various planning areas, with the greatest concentration, 26%, in the Regional Centre (Peninsula Halifax and Dartmouth inside the Circ).
HRM would like to see further uptake in secondary units and staff will now investigate additional measures to make building secondary units even more appealing, which could include:
- A grant program, as some other jurisdictions have done
- A pre-approved design to simplify and speed-up permitting, such as has been done in Kelowna and Edmonton (great youtube video here by CBC Vancouver and ex-Haligonian/Planifax Uytae Lee)
- Changing accessory building provisions that limit uptake, such as accessory building height limits
Staff will return in future with a possible design competition for a pre-approved backyard suite, and bylaw changes. A grant program will depend on the outcome of conversations with the Province and other potential partners. Secondary units have to meet the building code requirements around accessibility, but staff have also prepared an accessibility guidelines for secondary units to try and encourage property owners to go beyond the minimums prescribed in the code.
It was a strange Council meeting in that what attracted the most public attention didn’t even formally make it onto the agenda: potentially delaying HRM’s new short-term rental rules. Under HRM’s old plans, short-term rentals were generally not permitted in residential zones, but there was a lack of clarity and enforcement, and as a result, they proliferated in the grey areas of HRM’s plans. Back in February, HRM adopted clear rules that restrict short-term rentals to primary residences in residential zones, although restrict is kind of a funny word since they were never legal land-uses in most of these areas in the first place.
The new rules means that, in residential zones, only the person who lives in a space is allowed to rent it out as a short-term rental. That can be an extra bedroom or the whole space when they’re not home. Short-term rentals are still permitted without a primary residence requirement in mixed-use commercial areas where hotels are allowed, but in residential zones, the space you live in is the space you can lease. HRM’s new rules are set to come into effect on September 1.
The incoming rules have generated a lot of push back and lobbying from short-term rental hosts. There have been calls to delay to gather more data and/or grandfather existing short-term rentals. There are some individual circumstances in District 5 that I’m sympathetic to, like the resident that tried to follow the rules but got terrible advice from 311 (always get a zoning confirmation letter from planning!), or the resident who uses the short-term rental income from one set of flats to subsidize the really deeply affordable rents in her other set of flats. I’m sympathetic to those situations and if I could make an exception for those specific folks I would, but it’s impossible to make laws that apply to every unique circumstance. Making law is about trying to do what’s best for the overall community and there are always going to be some unintended consequences. In that regard, I haven’t heard anything new over the last few months that leads me to conclude HRM should change direction. Should someone be able to operate what is essentially a hotel in a residential zone with all the resulting impacts on the housing market and the community? For me, the answer to that is a clear no. Leasing a bedroom or the space you live in when you’re not home is different than buying up housing for the sole purpose of leasing it as a short-term rental.
As it turned out, short-term rentals didn’t make it onto the agenda. Councillor Cleary’s added item to delay implementation was ruled out of order since it’s tied to a planning matter and planning decisions can’t be rescinded. Once they’re done, they’re done. The only way to change the short-term rental rules would be to start a new planning process, which would include public engagement, and eventually a new public hearing. It can’t be done just by a motion at the eleventh hour. So Council didn’t have a conversation or a vote on short-term rentals at all.
A few people who emailed Council expressed concern that the potential delay in the short-term rental rules was coming with no advanced public notice. Just to clarify, Council is made up of 17 individuals. We’re not like MLAs or MPs where party discipline limits our independence. All it takes to put something on the agenda is one Councillor. That’s the easy part. Making a change, however, requires nine votes. The two require very different thresholds!
The agenda for our Tuesday meetings is finalized by noon on Thursday. Added items that come in after noon on Thursday, but before noon on Monday can be added to the agenda by a two-thirds vote. This has always been part of Council’s rules of procedure (Administrative Order 1). Had the short-term rental motion been in order, it would have needed 2/3rds to get onto the agenda as an added item and then nine votes to pass. The 2/3rds rule pushes Councillors to submit motions on time since motions submitted before noon on Thursday are automatically on the agenda. Late additions are always possible and are, at times, necessary, but they face the additional barrier of needing a strong majority on Council to approve.
Halifax Water Fees and Affordable Housing
Over the last several years, HRM has changed its policies regarding permitting fees related to affordable housing. The municipality has recognized that affordable housing is a public good and that one way for HRM to support efforts by non-profits to build more is to waive permitting fees (Councillor Mancini successfully championed that work over the last few years).
Although the municipality has given up its fees on new non-profit affordable housing, the same isn’t true of Halifax Water. Halifax Water collects regional development charges, which ensures that new development contributes to both the cost of water and wastewater infrastructure. Halifax Water fees for multi-unit buildings are charged on a per unit basis ($1,290 per unit for water, $4,115 per unit for wastewater), which means the bill for larger projects can run into the $100,000s. The economics of building truly affordable housing are challenging and aren’t helped by these charges.
Halifax Water has looked at the issue and their regulator, the Utility and Review Board, has weighed in as well (October 2020 decision here). Unfortunately, the Board’s conclusion is that Halifax Water can’t legally waive permitting fees. Thg legislation that governs Halifax Water doesn’t allow the Utility to have one customer subsidize another, no matter how worthy the cause. The most that they can do is allow non-profits to pay the fees out over a longer time-period (10 years). Conversations I have had with non-profits is that deferring the fees is nice, but it’s of limited help since Halifax Water has to charge interest on the outstanding balance. Not a great situation.
Council has talked about this issue a few times now, but we’ve never had a formal staff report to look at the options around Halifax Water. The discussion basically stopped at the point of the Utility and Review Board concluding that the Public Utilities Act doesn’t allow Halifax Water to waive the fees. I changed that on Tuesday with a motion for a report. The report will include, as a minimum, (1) a look at a possible HRM grant program and (2) legislative changes that would allow Halifax Water to waive the fees directly. Either option could work, but I suspect it would be cleaner and simpler and likely financially better for non-profits to have Halifax Water to eliminate the fees directly rather than requiring non-profits to pay the fees only to have them reimbursed later as an HRM grant. The Halifax Water option, unfortunately, requires the Province to change the underlying legislation, which they may or may not be willing to do. A grant program would be messier, but might be what we’re stuck with as a work around. We’ll hopefully see what’s possible sometime in 2024.
- Council concluded a public hearing into changing planning bylaws in Hammonds Plains and initiated a process to give property owners with existing permits for seniors housing three years to initiate their projects
- Directed that the restoration of Flemming Cottage at the Dingle be brought forward as a possible project in 2023/2024 budget deliberation
- Approved a flypast for Halifax’s first Fleet Week on September 8-9
- Finalized the new bylaw for land-lease communities (trailer parks)
- Initiated a planning process to consider an office development on a former church property in Hammonds Plains
- Adopted the new marketing levy bylaw to increase the room rate and asked the Province to amend legislation to require short-term rental operators, such as Air BNB, to collect the room rate and provide it to HRM directly (the alternative is 1000s of individual remittances from each host)
- Finalized the new temporary signs bylaw, new taxi bylaw, and the new transit bylaw
- Scheduled a public hearing to consider amendments to the Bedford Plan to consider a new apartment building and commercial development along the Bedford Highway near Southgate Drive
- Scheduled a public hearing to officially close a small portion of Windmill Road that is indistinguishable from the adjacent private property, and closed a portion of Parkstone Road
- Adopted changes to Council’s procedures with revisions to Administrative Order 1
- Approved a contribution agreement allowing the Lakeview, Windsor Junction, and Fall River (LWF) ratepayers association to contribute to the LWF Fireman’s Association
- Increased the budget for the Spring Garden Road Streetscaping project to install new bus shelters, make some minor changes to the planters, and change some of the cobblestone sections in busier areas to pavers
- Awarded a contract to Bell to continue work on streamlining Planning and Development’s permit system
- Directed the CAO to apply to become a Bee City within one year of HRM hiring a naturalization coordinator (hiring process currently underway)
- Made a number of changes to the public appointment process to streamline the process and better reflect how it actually works
- Approved allowing the Board of Police Commissionaires to use the Halifax Regional Municipality logo as part of their own logo
- Approved the 2023 amounts for HRM’s tax relief for non-profit program and grants for rural transit funding
- Referred the grants for search and rescue organizations back to the Grants Committee to consider increases to reflect the uptake in calls this year and funding for the Sheet Harbour group who missed the deadline
- Approved substantial alterations to a registered heritage property at 10 Kirk Road in Halifax (removal of 1960s addition, and new development on the property)
- Approved a heritage grant for 1099 Tower Road in Halifax as a one-off after administrative error caused 1099 Tower Road’s application to be missed when HRM considered the other 2023 heritage grants
- Requested staff reports on (1) colour coding street signs to identify if the road is owned by HRM or the Province, (2) on an empty lot tax, (3) managing fire risk in areas at risk of wildfire, (4) allocating the remaining funds in the Herring Cove Treatment Plant integration fund, (5) increasing fines for aggressive dogs, and (6) on providing support for the upcoming Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Halifax