Despite some rural and suburban concerns about parking, Halifax regional councillors have legalized so-called shared housing across the municipality.
Council held a public hearing at its meeting on Tuesday to consider second reading of land-use bylaw amendments to permit shared housing uses like rooming houses or single-room occupancies, or supportive housing.
“Shared housing is a broad term that describes housing shared by a group of individuals living under separate leases where support services may be provided,” social policy planner Jillian MacLellan told council.
“This can be in the form of rooming houses or a dormitory setting where individuals rent a room but share common living areas such as a kitchen and living room with other tenants.”
Rooming houses are more affordable than bachelor or one-bedroom apartments, but the municipality basically regulated them out of existence by requiring licensing and registration in the early 2000s. (This 2017 Planifax video sums it up well.)
The Centre Plan legalized shared housing in the urban areas of HRM, and the bylaw amendments before council on Tuesday made the change across the municipality.
The amendments add the same language to planning documents in all areas of HRM, defining a shared housing use as a building containing four or more bedrooms that are rented out, or operated by a nonprofit or charity providing support services. There’s also language about shared housing with special care, which could be assisted care or seniors housing, and will require higher building code standards.
In low to medium density zones, HRM will allow up to 10 bedrooms. In higher density zones, there’ll be more bedrooms permitted.
For Wade Johnston, the executive director of Chisholm Services for Children in the south end, the changes are a big deal. Johnston told councillors the nonprofit, which provides “safe, community-based care for children 12 years of age and younger,” has been looking for a new building for two years.
“Possible relocation options that we found and explored today are not zoned accordingly and there was quite a process for that,” Johnston said.
“But with the shared housing amendments, our search would end today. Our program and our home for children could be located in a community that they belong in and be developed as of right.”
Councillors were generally supportive of the bylaw amendments too.
“This is a critical piece to making sure that we make it as easy as possible to provide single-room occupancies, boarding houses and all the other kinds of uses that were mentioned in the staff report with a minimal amount of fuss and over regulation,” Coun. Waye Mason said.
But one aspect was an issue for some suburban and rural representatives: There are no minimum parking requirements in the bylaw amendments. MacLellan said parking can be a barrier to the viability of shared housing, especially if one space were required for each bedroom, and it makes the development more expensive.
“We are relying on the developers to provide the parking, to know who they’re building for and to be able to provide that appropriate amount of parking, or the user to say, ‘Hey, I have a car so I’m not necessarily going to live in this space because I actually want to have a parking space,”‘ MacLellan said.
“By not including a minimum parking requirement, we are leaving that sort of flexibility so that the parking can be provided based on the user.”
Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace was concerned about rural areas, where there is no access to transit and people rely on cars. She worried about cars lining the shoulders of Peggy’s Cove Road.
“It seems to me like what we’re doing is creating an unintended consequence where developers or builders will take every square inch of the property. They don’t need a driveway now, they don’t need any space to park a vehicle,” Lovelace said.
“I can’t support this. This is not good policy.”
MacLellan reminded Lovelace there are still lot coverage restrictions, meaning a builder can’t use “every square inch of property.”
The motion ultimately passed unanimously. Lovelace left the room to get water during debate and so couldn’t vote, as council’s administrative order requires all councillors to hear the entire public hearing and debate on a planning issue. Councillors Tim Outhit and Cathy Deagle-Gammon were concerned about parking too, but it didn’t change their votes.
There were two other speakers, aside from Johnston, during the public hearing.
Collins Ellison was first, wanting to talk about HRM’s approach to homeless encampments. Mayor Mike Savage shut him down.
“We’re not talking about encampments today. We’re talking about specifically this policy that’s in front of us, so I’d ask you to maintain your comments on that,” Savage said.
Joseph Kirby argued council should allow developers to build more multi-unit buildings, and to do so without making applications to city hall.
“Just let them build it. As long as they’re doing everything to code, I think it’s perfectly fine,” Kirby said.
Savage joked that Kirby was advocating for Premier Tim Houston’s preferred regulations.
“We’ll take the Houston planning principles — anything anywhere. Not gonna do it,” Savage said.
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Planning staff and Regional Council deserve a lot of credit for putting these amendments into effect. The changes will provide an opportunity to improve housing affordability at the lower end of the income scale and will certainly be more effective than the provincial approach to subsidizing suburban developers through “special planning areas”.