Halifax City Hall in August 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Halifax will provide grants to non-profit organizations building or renovating affordable housing using a new program approved by regional council on Wednesday.

When council passed the first half of the Centre Plan — the land-use bylaw governing peninsular Halifax and Dartmouth within Highway 111 — last year, it agreed to a density bonusing policy where developers have to provide a public benefit to access maximum development rights on their properties. Those public benefits include affordable housing; heritage conservation; public art; improvements to municipal parks; and affordable community cultural indoor spaces.

Developers can choose to pay the municipality, rather than provide those benefits on site, and when they do so, 60% of what they pay has to go to affordable housing.

That money will be placed in a new reserve account, which will be used to pay non-profits through the new grant program.

In the staff report to council this week, municipal planners Ben Sivak and Jill MacLellan wrote that deposits to the account are expected to total $2.1 million this year, and an average of $1.1 million annually in the first seven years.

“They can be expected to double in the following years,” Sivak and MacLellan wrote.

The majority of the deposit expected this year will come from the Willow Tree development, after the previous owners, Armco, negotiated $1.8 million in lieu of providing relatively short-term below-market housing on site. Shannex has since purchased the property and is developing a new seniors residence there.

Rather than requiring developers to provide so-called affordable housing in their buildings under 15-year agreements with the provincial government, the new grant program will help subsidize more deeply affordable units being built or maintained by non-profits.

The housing reserve fund and associated grant program are not new ideas. In fact, developer and consultant Ross Cantwell presented them to Halifax in 2004, along with a suite of other ideas.

The grants could help a non-profit pay for a big, unexpected cost like a new roof, or even routine renovations or maintenance to keep their buildings up to date, but they could also be used for new development. And staff said the potential uses are broad.

“The proposed grant program is broad in nature to enable larger projects to leverage federal and provincial funding while also still supporting smaller projects that would be ineligible for such funding,” Sivak and MacLellan wrote. “The program allows for funding for projects solely undertaken by a non-profit or registered charity, as well as partnerships between private developers and non-profits.”

Non-profits can’t begin applying for grants until April 2021.

Rural and suburban councillors raised the concern that the new program doesn’t apply to their areas, meaning the grants can’t be used to build or renovate housing outside the regional centre.

That’s a sticking point for a proposal in Dartmouth — just outside the regional centre — that the Examiner covered last month.

The municipality is able to provide such a program outside the regional centre, but plans to do so later as part of a bylaw reviewing process.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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