The mayor of Halifax says he’s happy to have a response from the federal housing minister, but he has concerns about adding more height in the city centre.

And while one urban planner doesn’t think four storeys should be an issue, the councillor for downtown Halifax and the south end shares the mayor’s concerns.

As first reported by the Halifax Examiner, Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Sean Fraser wrote to Mayor Mike Savage on Thursday placing conditions on the municipality’s application under the federal Housing Accelerator Fund.

Fraser wants to see HRM allow four units on any lot in the municipality; allow four storeys in residential areas in the regional centre; develop a non-market affordable housing strategy with dedicated staff; and increase density and student rental housing near universities.

In an interview on Friday, Savage said he thinks council will consider Fraser’s requests. Savage said the draft regional plan already calls for three units on every residential lot in HRM, so he thinks council will look at four.

Four storeys ‘troublesome,’ says Savage

Allowing four storeys everywhere in the regional centre, however, is a “little bit troublesome,” Savage said. The Centre Plan currently caps heights in established residential areas at about three storeys.

“Four storeys is a little bit trickier and I’m a little more surprised by that, but we’ll have to have a conversation,” Savage said.

Mayor Mike Savage speaks at a podium, which has a sign on front saying "More affordable housing".
Mayor Mike Savage speaks during a federal housing announcement in 2021. Credit: Zane Woodford

Savage said in areas like Schmidtville and the Hydrostone, four storeys wouldn’t be suitable.

“It wouldn’t be good planning,” Savage said.

“I think we can come to a place that we can all agree makes sense where we increase density but don’t completely destroy the planning processes that we have undertaken.”

Planner says four storeys can work

Houssam Elokda is managing principal at Happy Cities, an urban planning, design, and research firm. He also happens to live in Schmidtville.

“Allowing four storeys doesn’t mean you’re forcing everyone to build four storeys,” Elokda said in an interview.

“It enables up to four storeys, which means where people feel like the need for housing is higher, they will build up to four storeys.”

A sign reading Cultural District, Historic Schmidtville, on Morris Street in June 2021.
Schmidtville in June 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Elokda said the policy would allow neighbourhoods to build up over time, and there are other methods to protect heritage.

“Heritage and character has a lot to do with with what guidelines of design that are allowed here because there are more than two-storey buildings in Schmidtville,” he said.

“We can control design, we can control character without having to put an artificial cap on on density.”

Elokda said Savage’s concerns are valid, but the municipality doesn’t need to keep that cap across the regional centre.

“You still have many neighbourhoods in the regional centre that are capped at single-family zoning,” he said. “When you juxtapose that in front of people living in tents, it starts becoming an absolute necessity that we have to let more people live on the peninsula.”

Councillor not sure four storeys makes sense everywhere

Coun. Waye Mason, who represents the Peninsula South district, said he’s not necessarily opposed to the height, but four storeys wouldn’t work everywhere.

“Four storeys everywhere, including non-proclaimed heritage areas, means the Hydrostone gets torn down. I think we need to be careful about that,” Mason said.

“I have no problem with a lot of what’s proposed, just I don’t think you can do a blanket everywhere.”

Mason said four storeys isn’t necessary to get four units on one lot, and it adds “political chafe.” Besides, it might not work for developers, Mason said.

“No developer is going to build four storeys because you need to put in an elevator and you have to put in sprinklers,” Mason said.

“It’s not practical from a build point of view and it’s not necessary.”

That’s why the Centre Plan opts for three storeys in residential neighbourhoods, he said, and then jumps to six in more intense areas.

Mason suggested the municipality could look at going from three to five storeys instead to see if it’s more practical.

He’s also already asked staff to look into more density in the regional centre, moving for a staff report in July to allow internal conversions up to five units.

Sewer, septic issues

Mason is also unsure about Fraser’s four units per lot across the municipality.

In suburban and rural areas, there are issues with septic and well capacity. And even on some parts of the peninsula, there are concerns about wastewater.

A construction crew at work in Dartmouth last year, with two diggers and many pylons.
A Halifax Water crew at work in Dartmouth in 2020. Credit: Zane Woodford

As a compromise, Mason said the municipality could quickly upzone the suburban areas around the municipality’s proposed bus rapid transit network, and then work to complete water and sewer studies later.

Elokda suggested fourplexes shouldn’t be an issue anywhere.

“You can have fourplexes like you see in some cases in the South End, where you just see four doors, but it still looks like a two- or three-storey house,” Elokda said.

“This extra step to get the housing funding is not going to negatively affect our communities. Quite the opposite, it can bring a lot of benefits.”

Affordable, student housing conditions

On Fraser’s third and fourth points, Savage and Mason are more agreeable.

The municipality “basically” already has a team in place working on non-market housing, Savage said, and more hiring was part of its application. He said HRM will do everything it can to support student housing.

“Most of the universities, I know, are already considering building on or close to campus, either themselves or with private partners,” Savage said.

As Savage told the Examiner earlier this week, the municipality believed its application was good.

“I think the letter indicates it was, but everybody’s sort of ramping things up now trying to seem to make the biggest difference possible,” he said.

Council will discuss the issue in the coming weeks, Savage said, but he didn’t indicate whether it would happen at this coming Tuesday’s meeting.

The mayor suggested the potential for the provincial government to get involved in the discussion. Premier Tim Houston’s PC government has previously stepped into municipal jurisdiction to advance its housing agenda.

“I can’t tell you what legislative tools could be used by any other order of government,” Savage said.

“From our point of view, we’re going to take it seriously, and we’re going to discuss it, and we’re going to do whatever we can to continue to build housing for people, including, hopefully, affordable housing and housing for those who right now are living on the street and need support.”

Savage says city was on housing before province, feds

Savage said the Centre Plan shows the municipality was thinking about and debating housing policy long before the federal and provincial governments were interested. It was a long process, culminating in a new set of planning rules for peninsular Halifax and downtown Dartmouth finalized in 2021.

“We’re on this. We’ve been on this. Centre Plan is part of that,” Savage said. “I think the Centre Plan itself is great. I think it’s important. It stretched people’s expectations, and we know we’re going to have to consider doing that again.”

People stand over a table pointing at a colourful map. They're indoors, but the sun is shining in the windows. In the foreground there's a poster board reading, "CENTRE PLAN, PURPOSE — WHAT IS PACKAGE B?" with a cut off description underneath.
People give feedback at a public consultation session on the Centre Plan in Dartmouth in March 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

The Centre Plan was based on extensive public consultation, Savage said, and anything HRM does now will also be subject to public input.

“The way that we do things, has always been that there’s a process, which includes public consultation,” Savage said.

“Public consultation doesn’t necessarily mean that we change our minds. There was a lot of opposition to Centre Plan. We passed it, and the province have since approved it.”

“We’re open minded, but we also want to make sure that whatever building we do, it needs to be rapid, respects the environment, respects safety, that we’re putting up projects that are good, not just in the short term, but are going to survive in the long term and not destroy the environment or destroy neighbourhoods, or be unsafe.”

Tough conversation to come, ‘war-level effort’ needed

Mason said he thinks this will be a tough conversation at council.

“I think it’s appropriate for the federal government, frankly, to be pushing us on these things and making us go faster,” Mason said. “But I don’t know what the outcome is going to be because I think council is going to freak out. It’s going to be a hard discussion because there’s a lot of people are going to be upset.”

Elokda said all those involved need to treat the matter with urgency, and Fraser is making “bold moves” based on evidence.

“We are so far behind this is the problem that is not one or two years in the making. This is a problem that is 15, 20 years in the making. When the demand has been outgrowing supply. We’re not going to fix it by making timid efforts,” Elokda said.

“This has to be a national effort, a war-level effort of building housing in this country to absolutely even come close to meeting the demands for population projection in the next 10 years.”

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. When developers have to fight tooth and nail to change zoning, they might as well shoot for 25-storey towers. Increasing the height limits throughout the peninsula should incentivize developers and make it easier to increase housing stock without completely altering the skyline. Seems like a good compromise between the “neighbourhood character” and “remove all zoning” crowds.

  2. An interesting additional issue. If the city goes to 4 units, one of the them would have to be built as an accessible unit, under the current Nova Scotia Building Code.

    They would be gaining accommodation suited for folks with mobility issues.

  3. Excellent article that highlights some of the issues related to city density – the need to increase it and the resistance to doing so. I often find myself shaking my head at the appearance that Halifax does not think itself to be anything but unique: we are not. Numerous papers have been written about addressing city density world-wide: sometimes, it feels as if no one on Council or in Provincial Government reads these. Also, objections to increasing density on behalf of residents who wish not to see a change to their neighbourhood (NIMBY) do not reflect the times in which we live, and the related challenges. It is a position of entitlement, it seems, a position that has only really flourished for the past 2-3 generations as we became societally more greedy. So, a couple of points from the research are the conclusions that a family of four needs only 1,000 sq ft in which to live and that the ideal approach to address density increases is buildings of 5-6 stories. This only seems “crazy” because North Americans have embraced the idea of bigger and bigger homes with more and more “stuff”. Urban sprawl complicates service provision – ie water, sewer, electricity. Some cities have turned to expropriation of properties for the purpose of building new accommodations that can handle higher population densities.

    1. Centre Plan enabled the ability to increase the population of the regional centre 2.5 times, so Council has embraced density. I already moved a motion (linked in the article) to raise the unit count in ER2 and ER3 in the regional centre to 4 units, and to 3 in ER1. If staff say the capacity is there in the sewer system to go to 4 units in ER1, I am ok with it. I just know there are some series 100% at capacity issues in a few areas (Robie Inglis is one)

  4. The comment about war level effort is refreshing. If we want these levels of immigration, we need to go on a war footing to build enough homes. To look back at the second world war for examples, that means an end to luxury home construction, the shutdown of certain industries to free workers for the war effort and so on – a war level response might mean requiring empty nest boomers to quarter international students in their homes, for example.

  5. A failure to build sufficient units just crams more people into existing units, who will put the same, ahem, load on the water and sewage system they would anyway if they had their own unit. Everybody poops.

    1. It’s not that the system doesn’t have the capacity, it’s that in some places there may be no capacity. I worry in the suburbs because there is no reason for a developer in the 60s onward to make any pipe in the ground any bigger than it barely needed to be. This may not be that big a deal, but that has to be studied and confirmed for the suburbs, like we did with Centre Plan.

    2. I truly wonder if Council understands the depth of this problem and how dramatically we need units of all types. We are many thousands of housing units behind population growth over the last four or five years. A solution to the housing crisis can’t be found without building more housing. I’m also really dissapointed by Councillors, MLAs, and the Premier throwing mud at each other, but I guess politicians gonna politic.