A new policy headed to council next week would require affordable housing in new developments, but just how affordable they’ll be is up for debate.

Inclusionary zoning would lower the price of a percentage of homes in a new building. There are varying approaches to the idea in use across North America, with both voluntary and mandatory programs and different percentages set aside at different rates.

Council requested the authority to use inclusionary zoning in December 2016 with a report suggesting HRM could create up to 250 new affordable units annually. After years of delay, the government passed amendments to the municipal charter in October 2021 to allow HRM to use inclusionary zoning.

In a report headed to council on Tuesday, planner Jamy-Ellen Proud recommended finally starting the process to adopt inclusionary zoning. Proud’s report is based on the recommendations of a consultant hired to conduct research on the subject.

“Inclusionary zoning programs have proven to be an effective tool to produce more affordable housing by leveraging private housing development,” Proud wrote.

“Existing programs in Canada and throughout the United States demonstrate that well-designed inclusionary zoning programs can have a significant, positive impact on housing affordability, without triggering increases to the price of market housing.”

Inclusionary zoning would apply everywhere in HRM

HRM should adopt a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy across the municipality, Proud recommended.

“Jurisdictional and best practice research consistently show that mandatory programs are more successful at creating new affordable units than voluntary programs,” Proud wrote.

“Mandatory programs are also more successful at distributing new affordable units throughout the program area instead of concentrating new units in areas that already provide more affordable housing.”

The municipality would first implement the policy in areas with highest growth, like the future growth nodes identified in the Centre Plan. Those include areas like the West End Mall site and Dartmouth Cove.

Planners would focus mostly on multi-unit buildings, whether rental or condominium, but the policy could also apply to commercial and industrial development through cash-in-lieu.

In the foreground, a worker carries an air nailer as he frames up a wall. In the background, there's another worker, and finished homes are seen behind him.
Workers frame new homes in a subdivision in Beechville on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. Credit: Zane Woodford

The policy would give preference to including affordable homes in the buildings, but set up options for cash-in-lieu or offsite housing that “fairly and proportionately reflect the cost of replacing the missing on-site housing.”

Still missing from the plan are two important aspects: the “set aside rate” and the “affordability standard.”

The set aside rate is what percentage of units in a building will be affordable. Common set aside rates in Canadian jurisdictions range from 5% to 20%, with higher rates creating more affordable homes. Edmonton uses a 5% rate and created just 26 new affordable units between 2015 and 2018. The rate in Richmond, BC is either 10% or 15% depending on the area and that city has created 900 new affordable units since 2007.

The 2016 report to council suggested a 10% rate could create 180 to 250 affordable units annually based on annual housing starts between 1,800 and 2,500 units.

How affordable?

The affordability standard can be determined based on market rent or median incomes in the surrounding area.

“The majority of Canadian jurisdictions with inclusionary zoning programs tie affordability to a percentage of market rent, typically between 80-90% of average market rent,” Proud wrote.

“Remaining jurisdictions tie affordability… to a defined range of low- to moderate-income.”

The consultant suggested the municipality could choose to base the affordability on either household or individual income.

Signs read: affordable housing for all, affordable housing now!
People hold signs at a housing rally outside Province House on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Credit: Zane Woodford

Also still to be ironed out is the time period of affordability, like 15 years, 99 years, or in perpetuity, and how the municipality will manage ownership and administration of the housing.

Proud recommended, in line with the consultant, that HRM hire another consultant to conduct a market fiscal impact analysis.

“Such a study is required to understand the potential impact of an inclusionary zoning program on the housing market in HRM, and could address the optimal affordability standard, set aside rate, delineation for market rate zones, minimum development size, and the appropriate amount of cash that could be paid in lieu of on-site units,” Proud wrote.

HRM would also conduct public consultation on the idea, including online and in-person engagement.

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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  1. Wow. Classic HRM as no one seems to understand the ECONOMICS of housing. One the one hand, they up zone the site behind the Dartmouth DoubleTree Hotel and approve something like 850 new units for a 200 room hotel property that the developer paid $4M for a few years earlier (and who is on the record saying he had no idea there was any surplus development potential – read, he paid $0 for the land). the market value of the land for these three 30 story buildings (my god, what is happening to our city) is just over $30M. Clearly, if you give someone $30M of free land, you can ask them to set aside a reasonable portion of the units as affordable housing. On the other hand, you have smaller sites that people have paid good money for, that suffer from bloated bylaws, development fees, design criteria that do nothing but jack up the cost of the building. Many of these developments are economically marginal, so asking them to subsidize units as affordable will likely kill the project (at a time when we need more housing). Dear Mr. Mayor and CAO, would you please hire some people with backgrounds in finance and economics to work in the planning department???? While you’re at it, a couple of architects wouldn’t hurt either (who designed the two homeless encampments on Cogswell and Alderney? they are atrocious, and could have looked so much better if someone had designed them). Finally, housing is expensive and getting more and more expensive due to material and labour costs. Something that could be built 10 years ago for $250,000 is now $400,000 to $450,000 per apartment unit. Operating costs for heat, lights, taxes, etc are $450 a month (old beater) to $700 a month for a new apartment. that is out of pocket costs BEFORE a developer pays for the mortgage. So the bigger question is this, why are so many people unable to pay modest market rents? Answer, we need better education, job / skills training, and child care so people can earn a decent wage. Canada’s GDP productivity per capita has been lagging the USA for a long time, and its this economic activity that pays for social programs. Yes, we need housing, but we also need to help people earn more money so they can pay market rents.

  2. A lot of schemes ostensibly created to help the poor are really ways to take money from the middle class, launder it through poor people, and give it to the rich.