On July 31, 2018, HRM’s Department of Planning and Development presented the Affordable Housing Work Plan to council. The work plan did not include any definitive timeline or real goals. The strongest commitment made is “consider.” It’s not a real plan to have more affordable units available to renters. It is more a plan of how to make affordable housing easier for developers to consider.
On November 17, 2020, nearly three years after the plan was introduced, Chief Administrative Officer Jacques Dubé penned an interim update. The update is interesting for what it includes and what it doesn’t.
Dubé writes in the update that housing is both a responsibility of the province and of the municipality. This sounds like a different tune than the municipality has previously sung. The municipality has previously left housing up to the province. As Mayor Mike Savage put it in an interview with The Star on March 21, 2019, “It is a ridiculous anachronism of the past that we still have a lot of governance rules that hold cities back from doing things… The feds have the money, the provinces have the jurisdiction, but the cities have the problem.” That’s how affordable housing is seen.
Dubé writes, “HRM plays an important part by… Providing the use of surplus land to develop.”
If so, it is interesting that HRM chose to sell both Saint Pat’s on Quinpool Road and Saint Pat’s Alexandra on Maitland Street to private developers rather than use them for accessible and affordable housing, and is in the process of looking for a buyer for Bloomfield on Agricola Street.
This is despite the fact that since 2014 Halifax has been a member of the Housing and Homelessness Partnership (HHP), where Dubé says the municipality has had a great opportunity to make partnerships with local non-profits and service providers. Why then did Halifax choose to sell rather than use the surplus land to help lower Halifax’s rental prices, which have increased the most in North America this year according to internet rental sites Zumper and Padmapper?
I know that HRM might argue that the proceeds from the sale will be put into a fund for affordable housing, but considering one of the largest costs of development is purchasing land, it might be smarter to put land that is in prominent places in the community in the hands of non-profits. As the Rapid Housing Initiative Agreement that was before Council on November 24, 2020, proved, there are a number of very active non-profit groups working in the municipality.
Dubé talks about density bonusing in great detail but fails to mention if the funds have resulted in creating any actual units of accessible, affordable housing.
Dubé also fails to mention the number of affordable units that have been lost in the time between when the report was commissioned and the present. In the development of the Four Towers on Spring Garden Road, between Carlton and Robie Street, there will be 90 units of small-scale affordable housing and businesses lost to demolition.
If affordable housing is really partly HRM’s responsibility, why doesn’t HRM use the provision it has under the HRM charter? Section 188 of the HRM charter states, “The Council may make by-laws, for municipal purposes, respecting (a) the health, well-being, safety and protection of persons.” Housing certainly impacts a person’s health, well-being, safety and protection.
HRM councillors should make a by-law about inclusive zoning, where moderately priced units are included with higher priced units in the same building. They should also make a by-law requiring that any development destroying affordable units replace them, such as is required in Toronto and Montreal. The province didn’t give HRM a specific clause in the charter to do inclusive zoning, but neither did they say ‘No’ to the request. They didn’t say anything. According to a lawyer I talked to, “there are a lot of court cases from recent years that have interpreted municipal powers fairly expansively.”
If housing is a human right according to the UN’s 1948 Declaration, why is HRM leaving it up to the market to provide?