Halifax regional council is considering its options on a controversial housing bill, including taking the province to court over the proposed legislation.
Bill 329, which was introduced in the legislature last Friday, would give Housing Minister John Lohr power to approve any development in HRM.
As Jennifer Henderson reported Wednesday, Housing Minister John Lohr is “absolutely committed” to pushing Bill 329. That legislation could be passed as early as Friday.
At the legislature’s law amendments committee on Monday, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage called Bill 329 “egregious overreach.” CAO Cathie O’Toole, municipal solicitor John Traves, and other HRM staff were also present.
Tuesday’s regular meeting of council was the first time all councillors had a chance to discuss and ask questions about Bill 329. Several staff from HRM’s planning department and Halifax Water were on hand to talk about Bill 329 with council and answer any questions.
O’Toole said HRM did request some of the amendments in Bill 329, but many surprised them. She said HRM staff did meet with provincial staff on Monday to further discuss the bill and “get clarification” on some of the clauses.
She said further amendments could be made at third reading of the bill or at the committee of the whole.
“We are very hopeful in some of the discussions that have occurred as a result of some of the presentations that we have made that there is a better understanding of the impact of some of the clauses now, and that there will be amendments made before the bill is finalized,” O’Toole said.
Mayor Mike Savage said the bill was a “complete surprise,” saying he received a text from Lohr late Thursday night, but the details of the bill were a “mystery.”
“There had been discussions, but there was no indication the bill was going to be introduced and certainly as far reaching and as much of a dramatic approach to municipal affairs as it is.”
‘That’s what the courts decide’
Coun. Tim Outhit was the first councillor to suggest HRM take the province to court over the bill.
“If we are convinced that this flies in the face of the spirit of Joe Howe and what others fought for, let’s do a court challenge,” Outhit said. “Don’t tell me they can do this under the legislature. I know they can do it under the legislature, but are they following the spirit and the intention of the legislation? That’s what courts decide.”
“If we are so upset, then put our money where our mouth is and challenge it.”
Outhit also said it was HRM who threw “the first stone” by telling the province it has ignored building new housing for decades, but added the province doesn’t understand the difference between social housing and development.
Outhit also criticized HRM for being too slow in the past in approving developments, and suggested it was up to HRM to educate and work with the province on decisions.
“They [province] do not know what they do,” Outhit said.
Coun. Kathryn Morse agreed with the idea of taking the province to court to protect residents from increased tax costs.
“I struggle with how to amend legislation I am opposed to that may have been done in ignorance, that certainly has been done in a way that is unfair to the municipality and blindsiding us. So, what are our legal options, if any, to oppose this legislation rather than amend it?” Morse asked.
Municipal solicitor John Traves said HRM’s legal department has been going through the bill “clause by clause” to determine its legal options.
“Generally speaking, municipalities are creatures of the legislature, and we are bound by legislation that passes,” Traves said. “One of the biggest challenges on this, obviously, has been the lack of consultation, and it relates to us to go back on this to try and convince people to reconsider before it’s too late.”
Traves said he was more concerned about the longer-term impacts of Bill 329 when a new party would be leading the province, and no discussions with council or the public would be required to take place because all the power would be under another housing minister.
“We’ll have to go back and take some time now that the dust is settling to see what it is we can do, and there may be some options, I don’t know,” Traves said.
He said that it was up to the legislature to proceed with the bill as it is or take council’s suggested changes into consideration.
“It’s not in our hands,” Traves said.
Morse asked again if the province could be challenged in court.
“At this point, we have people starting to look at some of that stuff,” Traves said.
Savage told council “we have to fight” the bill.
“This is terrible legislation. It’s not based on fact. It doesn’t answer the problem it proposes to fix, and it could be dangerous to not only people who aren’t housed, but to every taxpayer as well,” Savage said.
Bill’s impact on density bonuses
Deputy mayor Sam Austin asked about the implication of Bill 329 on HRM’s affordable housing programs.
“It’s my understanding, just from where we left off on Friday, is that this could imperil density bonusing and inclusionary zoning, which I really think is worth emphasizing for the public because if that’s how this plays out, this bill could block us from investing in non-proftis doing deeply affordable housing in the midst of the housing crisis in order to subsidize for-profit development, which is maybe not what people were intending.”
Density bonusing is a program that collects funds from developers who want increased permissions on projects. About 60% to 70% of funds from density bonuses are used for HRM’s affordable housing grant program.
Director of regional planning Kate Greene said in her discussions with planning staff, Bill 329 will mean that density bonuses could be applied to developments, but those amounts wouldn’t be able to be increased.
“So, we do have it written in that we will be able to increase to the equivalent of CPI [Canadian Price Index] on an annual basis,” Greene told council.
Greene said as the department currently understands Bill 329, HRM would not be permitted to have density bonuses on suburban developments.
Greene also said the department is not clear on how inclusionary zoning will be affected by Bill 329, and they are asking provincial staff for more information on the impacts.