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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”