Councillors commended Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr for stepping into the “lion’s den,” and that’s about it.
Lohr made a presentation to Halifax regional council at the start of its meeting on Tuesday, and heard councillors’ numerous concerns with his government’s approach to housing, and Bill 225.
That bill gives Lohr the power to nullify any HRM bylaw passed within the last six months if it has anything to do with housing and development. It’s ostensibly designed to reverse council’s recent amendments to HRM’s noise bylaw, ending the construction workday at 8pm, rather than 9:30pm. As the Halifax Examiner reported last week, councillors don’t like the bill.
Lohr told councillors he wants to work together to fix the housing crisis.
“I have no pleasure in being at odds with you, but if necessary I will be,” Lohr said.
“I don’t think that is necessary. I think we can work together and achieve this. That is my ask.”
Halifax planning too slow, says minister
Lohr cited a study from the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. It ranked Halifax 20th out of 23 cities for planning approval timelines, and noted “significantly above average rates of staffing.” The same study ranked HRM 10th overall, tied with Ottawa and ahead of Toronto and Vancouver.
That report, along with what he was “hearing from the building community,” moved the Lohr to convene the unelected housing task force.
Lohr called out the municipality for taking too long to issue a tender for studies on four proposed developments, for which the province provided $2.3 million in funding.
“We were very dismayed that it took seven months for your staff to issue the first request for proposal,” Lohr said.
Lohr noted he’s restructuring public housing in the province, and said fixing the housing crisis is his goal.
“Previous governments have not had either the appetite, or maybe the social licence, to make the changes. A housing crisis, plus for us a damning auditor general’s report about public housing, has given me as minister the social licence to tackle the problems in housing and I’m doing that. To state what we all know, a crisis is also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make changes. You, HRM, now have that opportunity, to look at your approval processes and planning department to modernize and get those timelines nearer the top in the country than near dead last,” Lohr said.
“It feels to me like my government is forcing this upon you, and my preference would be that we together would take this task head-on.”
On Bill 225, Lohr claimed HRM’s noise bylaw amendment would add two months to the timeline of a development that would otherwise take two years. That means, Lohr reasoned, more noise for neighbours.
“All of those factors led to my understanding that the noise bylaw would add to the cost of construction, and further reduce access to housing for those with the least resources, ultimately, the most vulnerable,” Lohr said.
“Finally I had to ask myself if I really believed this was a case of weighing one inconvenience, noise, against another inconvenience, not having a place to live. To me, those weren’t comparable inconveniences. Noise may be an inconvenience, but not having a place to live, an affordable place to live, is not an inconvenience, it’s much more significant than that.”
Councillors clap back
For the next half hour, councillors addressed their concerns with the bill, and the government’s past intrusions into municipal decision-making.
Mayor Mike Savage told Lohr he was “disappointed.”
“You and I have met a fair number of times, we’ve broken bread a few times, and I had no heads-up on this whatsoever,” Savage said.
Savage said council approved several developments after public hearings where people didn’t want development.
“Council forged ahead and we have record development,” Savage said.
There was nothing in the PC campaign about a housing task force and it “came out of nowhere,” Savage said.
Savage said Lohr unfairly targeted HRM staff when he talked about delays in getting a tender out.
“I think it’s demoralizing. That wouldn’t be your intent, but that is the byproduct, and it’s seeping into provincial staff as well, I can tell you that.”
Savage said he hopes the two levels of government can repair their relationship. He said Halifax wants to work with the province.
Coun. Waye Mason agreed.
“We do want to work with you, but we need to talk before you bring stuff into the house,” he said.
Councillor says Lohr is getting bad advice
He rejected the idea that the municipality is slow to approve development.
“I feel your government is taking power away from HRM because of this idea that our processes are NIMBY-supporting or council is anti-development … That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Mason said.
“Drive around the city. Have a look at the growth that is happening out there. We enabled that growth.”
Lohr is listening to the wrong developers, the Halifax South Downtown councillor said.
“I know you’re getting advice from a small group of developers. That isn’t healthy or appropriate in my opinion. I think you need to hear from a larger group of voices, especially based on what I’m hearing today,” Mason said.
“Minister, not all developers know what they’re talking about. I can’t be more blunt than this: some developments should be said no to because some of them aren’t very good.”
Coun. Becky Kent questioned Lohr’s claim that the amended noise bylaw would increase construction costs.
“The special interest groups, developers and construction folks, spin a narrative of the impact on it, and I’d like to see the data that supports that,” Kent said.
Government’s housing work has eliminated public input
Coun. Sam Austin said, like other councillors, he was impressed Lohr showed up, and not many people in politics would “come into the lion’s den, willingly.”
Austin said he worried when the government created a special planning area in his district, at the Eisner Cove wetland, that public engagement would be thrown away.
“Planning is best done when it’s done with everybody, and the big fear was that these special planning areas would eliminate the public, and that’s basically what’s happened,” Austin said.
“The Southdale area, there’s people in that community, they have no say in the future of what that’s going to be, and that’s going to be there for decades … As a planner, I don’t think that’s a good place to start from. We certainly have many examples in history of great planning mistakes that came from hubris like that.”
After Lohr was gone, a handful of demonstrators gathered in Grand Parade in opposition to that development.
Their protest happened at 3pm, as Lohr was originally scheduled for 3:30pm. But on Tuesday morning, Lohr’s time slot changed to 1pm.
“This minister has proven he doesn’t care about listening to people,” Bill Zebedee of the Save Our Southdale Wetland Society, told the Examiner.
“I think it was just the minister trying to avoid public discourse with us out here.”
Zebedee said the protesters feel Bill 225 represent the minister “taking more totalitarian action, to take control.”
Bill’s effect on African Nova Scotian communities
Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace asked Lohr to withdraw the bill.
“Bill 225 removes not only community voice, but it destroys the relationship we’ve been building with developers, with contractors, with construction workers, and with community,” Lovelace said.
“I’m asking you to drop Bill 225. Let’s go back to the table. Let’s have a conversation, and let’s look at the facts.”
Opposition MLAs made the same call down the street in the legislature Tuesday evening. They noted concerns around systemic racism in the bill.
The African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition raised those concerns in an open letter to Premier Tim Houston last week. The coalition argued the bill would “allow the further gentrification and possible erasure of” historic African Nova Scotia communities.”
The government amended the bill last week to address those concerns, requiring consultation when the bylaw being reversed “exclusively impacts marginalized communities, including African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities.”
Bill 225 passed third reading Tuesday night and will become law.