Agenda, February 21
Agenda, February 22 (Budget)
The main item on Council’s agenda this week was the regulation of short-term rentals (Air BNB, VRBO, etc). Most of HRM’s existing land-use bylaws don’t allow for short-term rentals in residential areas. Short-term rentals are considered a tourist accommodation use, which was generally not permitted except in commercial and rural areas. The legality of short-term rentals, however, hasn’t stopped people from operating them. HRM’s complaint-based process, the ambiguity of not having short-term rentals clearly defined in HRM’s bylaws, and a lack of regulation on the Provincial side has made education and enforcement difficult. Since short-term rentals really didn’t exist in the way they do now when HRM’s plans were created, it has also been an open question for the municipality as to how they should or shouldn’t operate. The Province is requiring all short-term rentals to register as tourist accommodations by April 1. The remaining question has been what should the rules be in HRM?
The main goal of regulating short-term rentals is to limit their impact on housing supply. There are several buildings around the periphery of Downtown Dartmouth that I’m aware of that used to be long-term rentals that were converted into short-term rentals. Over the last few years, I have heard from residents in District 5 who were evicted from their apartment so that their landlord could switch to short-term rentals. It’s hard to quantify the full impact, but work at McGill University’s Urban Politics and Governance Research Group suggests that short-term rentals have removed enough housing supply in HRM to drive vacancy rates down by a full percentage point. They have had an impact on the housing market.
Short-term rentals can also become problematic when there are too many in one spot because they, mostly, replace people who have an ongoing commitment to their neighbourhood with a revolving door of visitors. People on vacation have different interests, which can drive nuisance complaints about parking, parties, noise, garbage, etc. We’re not in the same league, but it’s an acute pressure felt in some big tourist destinations. Due to both their impact on housing supply and on community character, municipalities are increasingly turning to regulation to mitigate the negative impacts of short-term rentals.
What was before Council was to clearly define short-term rentals in the municipality’s land-use bylaw as rentals of less than 28 days and limit their use to (1) commercial and mixed use areas where hotels are normally allowed (2) rural areas where tourist accommodations have generally been allowed and (3) to primary residences in residential areas.
There has been some confusion about the primary residence requirement in residential areas. The primary residence requirements means the space you live in. You can rent out your whole home when you’re not there, or a room in your home when you are. You can’t, however, rent out a separate unit that you don’t live in, even if that unit is something like a basement apartment or a secondary suite located on the same lot as your primary residence. Council may relax the primary residence restriction on separate units located on the same lot in future, but for now short-term rentals are restricted to the unit you live in in residential areas. In District 5, the primary residence only areas are the established residential and higher-order residential zones (orange and beige in the map below, click to enlarge)
One of the odd aspects of the short-term rental discussion is the idea that limits on their use in HRM is new. The reality is this: a large proportion of the existing short-term rentals were operating in places where the existing rules didn’t allow for them to be by people who either didn’t know they were breaking the rules or didn’t care. What was before Council allows short-term rentals in established residential zones, in primary residences, which was previously not permitted. The existing rules are being made clearer, but they’re actually being relaxed! The primary residence requirement makes sense to me as neighbourhoods were never meant to be hotels. HRM’s new rules are a reasonable limitation to try and protect the housing supply, while still allowing people to make a little extra money off of space in their primary residence. HRM’s rules are very much in line with those elsewhere in Canada and are, arguably, more on the permissive side since in some cities the primary residence requirement also applies to mixed-use areas and there are limits on how many days a short-term rental can operate in a primary residence.
I have heard from a few small-scale short-term rental owners in District 5 and some of them make a compelling case for why short-term rentals worked well, like the one who is using short-term rentals in one building to subsidize the extremely cheap rents in her second building. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to make a law that fits perfectly with every individual’s situation. All that Council can do is make change that best fits the needs of the community as a whole. That always means some winners and losers and some unintended consequences. Council’s job is to try and find the best overall fit. Leaving the situation around short-term rentals unclear and poorly enforced had the potential to have further negative impacts on the housing supply and communities. The short-term rental changes passed 13-3, with Councillors Cleary, Kent and Purdy voting no.
Council has approved a framework for homelessness. The framework identified four key roles for HRM: (1) Support residents living outside, (2) support precariously housed people to stay housed (3) support public education efforts and (4) facilitate the construction and maintenance of deeply affordable housing. HRM is committing through the framework to continue designated encampments and provide water and electrical service at each location, to consider a potential tiny home project, and help support organizations that work to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.
The major new commitment in the Framework from HRM is the municipality’s potential for a joint partnership with the Province on a day centre. The idea of a day centre is to give people experiencing homelessness a place to go during the day for support since most shelter spaces are only open overnight. The Centre would likely have laundry, showers, and access to services. The estimated cost for a day centre is $1,500,000. HRM is, in principle, agreeable to providing half of the funding if the Province provides the other half.
Council voted to add funding for the day centre and HRM’s existing homeless initiatives to the budget adjustment list for consideration. Council will look at this again in late March with the rest of the budget options and, if funding is provided, staff will engage further with the Province and return in future with more information on a potential day centre.
Council approved a less than market value lease with the Back to the Sea Society for the Alderney Centre. The Alderney Centre is the HRM building located in Martin’s Park alongside Alderney Drive and the Shubenacadie Canal. The building was originally constructed as an interpretative centre for the Shubenacadie Canal. It ran for a number of years, but eventually the Canal Commission ceased operating the Centre. The vacant centre was then leased out by the Commission as retail space.
Through leasing the building, the Commission and HRM eventually identified legal issues stemming back to the building’s construction where the building’s ownership wasn’t properly assigned to the Commission. HRM and the Commission looked at options to resolve the ownership issue, but the Commission ultimately decided to relinquish any claim to the building instead. Since the building sits in an HRM park, it’s an HRM building, and something that the municipality is responsible for.
So the big question has been, what to do with the vacant Alderney Centre? I have had a number of people approach me with ideas over the last few years from coffee shop to micro-brewery, but the zoning (Park and Community Facility) limits options to reuse the space. I have been pressuring staff ever since the building’s status was clarified to identify options as a vacant building provides no benefit to anyone! I’m very pleased with what has come forward with the Back to the Sea Society.
Back to the Sea operates the touch tank at Alderney Landing and hopes to eventually evolve their operations into a community-run aquarium like those that exist in Petty Harbour, NL (an excellent facility!) or Uceleut, BC. Their mission is education and interpretation, which is an excellent fit for what the Alderney Centre was originally designed to be. The building’s waterfront location is also a good fit for the Centre’s mission. Back to the Sea is a non-profit that brings a lot of community benefit. With any luck, the Alderney Centre will provide a platform to advance the Society’s dream of an aquarium in HRM (ideally on the Dartmouth waterfront!). HRM is providing Back to the Sea the space for five years at a rate of $1 a year. Hopefully there will be tanks and sea creatures there this summer!
Budget (Parks and Rec)
Council has completed its review of the Parks and Rec budget and Council advanced no significant cuts that would impact services. That means the Dartmouth Heritage Museum Society’s grant will remain, arts funding won’t be cut (might even be increased) and the partnership with Canoe-Kayak for the Banook racecourse will continue. Council did take a look at a few items though, including the Downtown concert series.
In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, HRM cancelled outdoor events, including the Canada Day concert that has been held at Alderney Landing for many years. As things began to open up again, HRM didn’t restart the Canada Day concert, favouring instead a series of weekend concerts at Ferry Terminal Park. The weekend concerts also included shows at Grand Parade in Halifax and the series received significant support from other orders of government and sponsors. Funding from other sources has dried up and the proposal form staff was that the $600,000 budget could be eliminated.
The Grand Parade concert series was new and there are lots of other events on the Halifax side of the Harbour such as Pride, and the Jazz Festival, and, this year, the North American Indigenous Games showcase on the Halifax Common. Cutting concerts from Grand Parade, therefore, hits a little differently than cutting HRM’s long-standing programming on the Dartmouth waterfront. There aren’t lots of other events or other municipal investments on the Dartmouth side. Council wasn’t unsympathetic to my point and the motion was modified to reduce the budget by $400,000, with the remaining $200,000 to continue programming (likely primarily on the Dartmouth side). Staff will return with details when we look at the Budget Adjustment List in late March.
A reduction that I advanced is to scale-back on mowing in the street right-of-way. HRM’s Streets Bylaw assigns responsibility for mowing the space between the curb and the sidewalk (boulevard) to the adjacent property owner. HRM, however, decided in 2007 to mow boulevards along major streets. The Council of the day wanted to make sure the grass looked neat and trimmed on key corridors and not just trust the adjacent property owners to do the work.
There are places where HRM will always have to do the mowing, but a lot of the streets on the 2007 mowing list don’t make any sense. In District 5, for example, Woodland Avenue is mowed by HRM even though homeowners on the street mow their own lawns right next to the boulevard space. When I have heard from residents in the past about this mowing, the general consensus has been that HRM’s mowing efforts really add nothing as many property owners do it themselves. It seems odd that HRM expects homeowners on side streets to mow their boulevards while HRM mows boulevards on major streets that are basically indistinguishable in layout and character. It seems like a very reasonable place to save $50,000.
Council added a potential $125,000 increase in funding for HRM arts grants to the budget adjustment list. HRM’s grant program provides funding to professional arts organizations for projects and for operations. The program began in 2014 with a budget of $300,000 which increased slightly over the years to $500,000. Last year, 37 organizations and 13 projects received funding from HRM, but requests to the program totaled $1,155,829, more than double the available funding. Arts funding in HRM lags behind the national average on a per capita basis and the situation is exacerbated by the fact that Provincial funding has been frozen for more than a decade. Council will look at arts funding along with everything else on the list at the end of March.
- Approved a fly-past in Point Pleasant Park for the Battle of the Atlantic commemoration on May 7
- Made a number of changes to the parking permit process
- First reading for potential amendments to our planning bylaws to allow density bonusing to be extended to the suburban and rural areas
- Approved a permanent encroachment for 5550 Bilby Street (building was built a few inches off of where it was supposed to be, resulting in balconies overhanging into the street right-of-way)
- Wrote the Province to ask them to amend the HRM Charter to allow HRM to set the term for the municipality’s auditor general
- Requested staff reports on planning for new fire stations in new communities and on right-sizing the Library collection