Housing Minister Sean Fraser asked for a storey. Halifax councillors weren’t willing to give a metre, calling height a “distraction.”

Instead, they focused on allowing four units on every serviced lot in the municipality, hoping that would satisfy the minister’s requests.

On Tuesday, councillors debated their response to Fraser’s letter last week calling for more density before the federal government will approve HRM’s application for the Housing Accelerator Fund.

As the Halifax Examiner reported, Fraser made four requests of council: legalize four units per lot across the municipality; legalize four storeys everywhere in the regional centre; create and staff a non-market housing strategy; and increase housing near universities.

Central Nova MP Sean Fraser, a white man with dark hair and a beard in his forties, stands at a podium.
Central Nova MP Sean Fraser speaks during an announcement in Halifax in 2021. Credit: Zane Woodford

Mayor Mike Savage and Coun. Waye Mason told the Examiner the added height might be an issue. But in a report to council on Tuesday, municipal planners Kate Greene and Kasia Tota wrote that in their view, HRM already allows four storeys in most of the regional centre.

“Staff advise that the objective of four storeys is already achieved by the current permissions of allowing a maximum height of 11 metres in most ER areas with the exception of heritage districts and registered heritage properties,” Greene and Tota wrote.

That provides a storey height of 2.75 metres, or nine feet. That’s less than the typical three metres required for residential or four metres required for commercial buildings.

Greene and Tota recommended moving to 12 metres “for more flexibility.” They noted the Centre Plan also provides a three-metre exemption for “rooftop features.”

Councillor says height a ‘distraction’ from density

Mason, acknowledging 12 metres still isn’t four storeys in many areas, said he thinks it’s more important to get to four units than four storeys.

“They’re focusing on four storeys in the [Established Residential] zone, but they’re only asking for four units which we should do in the ER zone,” Mason said.

“And we don’t need four storeys to do that. I think that’s a distraction.”

Mason amended the motion to remove the increase to 12 metres. He moved to replace that clause and direct staff to explore bylaw amendments “that would enable more missing middle housing, with a particular focus on smaller, faster building forms and construction, and wood frame construction, while ensuring water supply and wastewater capacity is considered and existing and proposed heritage conservation areas are exempted.”

A white man in a suit wearing a medal with a blue ribbon smiles.
Coun. Waye Mason at council’s swearing-in ceremony in 2020. Credit: Zane Woodford

The Peninsula South councillor said increasing lot coverage to make a bigger footprint on a lot would be more effective than more height.

“You’re going to see four-storey McMansions on Banook and on the Northwest Arm if we allow four storeys,” Mason said.

The amendment directed planning staff to figure out the fastest and cheapest way to get more so-called gentle density or missing middle housing in the regional centre.

Another councillor would’ve supported more height

Coun. Shawn Cleary said he’d be happy with four storeys, but he supported the amendment.

“If we look at four storeys, four units, I don’t know why anyone would be opposed to that,” Cleary said.

“Four storeys actually allows for more missing middle options.”

Cleary cautioned that allowing four units on every lot won’t necessarily translate to more housing.

“The bottlenecks are not in the zoning, so far, especially in Halifax,” Cleary said.

“This is not going to help someone to mitigate the supply chain issues, this is not going to help someone decrease interest rates, this is not going to help someone get financing for affordable housing through CMHC.”

Requests are a negotiation, says mayor

Coun. Trish Purdy asked whether amending the requirements from Fraser might jeopardize HRM’s application.

Savage said he thinks it’s a negotiation.

“I don’t see why the motion we’re discussing now should be a sticking point for the federal government, I don’t think, because we think we can build more housing doing this than the other way,” Savage said.

“I think there should be some openness.”

Savage noted there was no requirement for four storeys in Fraser’s letters to London and Calgary, the first two cities to sign onto the Housing Accelerator Fund.

Deputy Mayor Sam Austin said it’s about politics.

“We could have submitted the best plan in the world and we still would have been asked for something because the climate is such that they need to be pushing for something here,” Austin said.

Lots with water, sewer, transit to be allowed four units

The motion before council on Tuesday also directed staff to expedite amendments to the regional plan to make good on Fraser’s request for four units per lot.

Based on feedback the municipality received from Fraser’s office, Greene said that meant four units per lot in areas with municipal water, sewer, and transit services.

Cleary amended the motion to reflect that the municipality would rezone all residential lots in the urban service boundary to allow four units.

The motion also directed staff to create “a public-facing affordable housing strategy, including a non-market component;” and to “work with HRM post-secondary institutions to increase density and create opportunities for student housing within a walking distance from post-secondary institutions across HRM.”

Addressing affordability

Coun. Kathryn Morse expressed concerns that making the allowances Fraser requested won’t help create more affordable housing.

“Where I’m struggling a little bit is to try to understand how this, how the letter and what’s being proposed will actually address the urgency of the below-market housing that we need,” Morse said.

Morse asked how many below-market units are needed for Halifax. Greene said HRM is waiting on the province to release the findings of a housing needs assessment for the municipality, along with its housing strategy. (The province has scheduled a housing announcement for Wednesday afternoon.)

The application under the Housing Accelerator Fund includes plans to expand the existing affordable housing grant program and staff a plan to offer up surplus municipal properties for affordable housing.

But Mason said this program is more about boosting the housing supply.

“We need more market units. That’s what this will do. It will not create below-market units,” Mason said. “The market doesn’t create below-market units. It won’t do that. That’s the province’s job, they need to step in for that.”

Additionally, staff recommended council ask chief administrative officer Cathie O’Toole to write to the provincial government “requesting a legislative amendment to grant the Chief Administrative Officer the authority to discharge existing development agreements where the development agreement is more restrictive than the as-of-right zoning.”

Council approved the full motion, as amended. Chief administrative officer Cathie O’Toole said staff believe they can implement all the changes, including public consultation on the zoning, by the end of the year.

Council agrees to fund conference on ending homelessness

Also during council on Tuesday, Mayor Mike Savage moved to contribute $25,000 in sponsorship funding to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference, happening in Halifax in November.

“It might even be a little bit uncomfortable, because it should be, and we need to have those conversations,” Savage said of the conference.

Three tents are seen on the grass in front of Halifax City Hall on a grey day.
Tents in Grand Parade on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. Credit: Zane Woodford

“I know some people may say, ‘Well, it’s not really in our bailiwick,’ but I would argue, look outside the window.”

The $25,000 represents an increase over the $20,000 staff recommended, but it’s half what the conference organizers requested.

That motion passed unanimously.

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. Glad to see a councillor acknowledge the need for more traditional construction. Concrete and steel megatowers may hold more people than the classic Halifax wooden rowhouse but the construction costs are so high on those things that developers and landlords don’t dare think about putting up anything but luxury units and condos.

    That said, wish council could come up with a plan for truly affordable housing that isn’t ‘wait for the NDP to win the provincial election and hope they fix everything. I imagine the $100,000,000 being spent on a new cop shop could be put to much much better use if the city would simply bite the bullet and start its own public housing department.

    1. From what I understand HRM is actually not allowed to create its own Public Housing. They used to, but it was pulled from them by the province a long time ago.

      Personally I think Public Housing ran best when the Feds provided money and some frameworks, and municipalities ran it.

      In fact I think a lot of programs run better that way