Halifax Mayor Mike Savage slammed Bill 329 at the legislature’s Law Amendment Committee on Monday.
The bill, titled “Halifax Regional Municipality Charter and Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality Act,” dictates a radical change in development approval, giving Housing Minister John Lohr the sole and unfettered ability to give approval to developments.
“This legislation is unnecessary and it’s harmful,” Savage told the committee. “This legislation is built on a demonstrably false premise, introduced with absolutely no notice or discussion. It is an autocratic intrusion into municipal affairs and completely ignores the biggest problem that it claims to address.“
“By and large, this legislation is an egregious overreach and is not a solution to the housing crisis,” continued Savage. “This bill is performative and addresses a problem that doesn’t exist and is part of that regulatory solution that enables a single person — a single person with no planning experience or any knowledge of the municipality — to singlehandedly approve projects to go ahead with no requirement for accountability or justification.”
“Consolidating power with a provincial minister, any minister of any party, erodes public process and transparency and undermines HRM’s legislative mandate to deliver public service.”
11,000 units fully approved, not built
As described by Savage, the housing crisis is not a result of municipal regulation but rather other external issues.
Savage referenced an RBC report, “Soaring Construction Costs Will Hamper Canada’s Home Building Ambitions,” which blamed the slow housing construction market on high interest rates, the shortage of workers, supply chain issues, and a residential construction inflation rate of 51% since the beginning of the pandemic.
Specific to Halifax, Savage said that “right now, more than 11,000 units are completely approved — bills paid by the developer ready to go, but a big percentage of those are not being built, because what we have is an issue of math, not legislation.”
Savage said that Halifax has some of the lowest development fees in Canada, and has reduced the bureaucratic hurdles builders need to clear.
“In simple terms, we need 87,600 housing units to support our target of 650,000 people by 2030,” continued Savage. “We have 11,000 approved now and more to go. We’ve enabled another 250,000 housing units that can be developed, basically, as of right. When developers and property owners are ready to move forward HRM will support their projects with streamlined approvals and processes.”
Staff chimes in
Also speaking before the committee were three HRM staffers — CAO Cathie O’Toole, Director of Planning Jacqueline Hamilton, and Municipal Solicitor John Traves.
It’s unusual for municipal bureaucrats to make an appearance before a legislative committee without first being given direction by the municipality’s elected council, but as the province announced the legislation just last Thursday and council meets on Tuesdays, there was no time for the staffers to consult with councillors.
O’Toole began her remarks by noting that not only is she the municipality’s CAO, she’s also a chartered professional accountant and has significant experience in municipal utility, finance, and infrastructure, which was a reference to her position as director of Halifax Water before taking the top position at HRM.
Additionally, O’Toole said, “I have been qualified as an expert witness on these topics on several occasions and have served on national and international committees and boards working on these topics.”
“With its proposed freeze on all development charges, the bill constrains the municipality’s ability to pay for growth,” said O’Toole. “Halifax has one of the lowest permitting fees in the country, and the cost of facilitating development is highly subsidized by the public.”
O’Toole used the Port Wallace development to illustrate her point.
“The capital costs for basic infrastructure such as water, sewer, and transportation exceeds $30 million — this excludes costs for other services such as a library, recreation, transit, police service or fire service,” explained O’Toole.
“If growth does not pay for growth then existing taxpayers and utility ratepayers pay for the costs of new growth,” continued O’Toole. “Using the Port Wallace example alone, paying for just the water, wastewater, and transportation infrastructure would mean a 4% increase to municipal taxes. And that’s just one development that I’m using as an example. This would impact all taxpayers in HRM, commercial and residential, urban, suburban, and rural. And don’t forget, this is just the component related to water, wastewater, and transportation.”
If the municipality cannot increase fees on new development, said O’Toole, “there are only two possible outcomes — the infrastructure does not get built and the municipal service is not available or taxpayers will pay more.”
Jacqueline Hamilton, the planning director, repeated Savage’s point about 11,000 units having been approved but not yet built, then raised a new concern: “Creating a veto by the minister over decisions about Halifax’s growth will introduce uncertainty in our planning process and development process and fails to recognize the fundamental barriers for housing. Indeed, these changes could slow development as projects midstream may look to other options outside of our plans with new avenues to seek approval.”
In short, Hamilton was arguing that developers with municipally approved proposals could scuttle those projects and bring forth new projects directly to Lohr.
Both Hamilton and O’Toole said that Bill 329 may lead to an exodus of planning staff.
“We have no idea what involvement we will have in it or the implications it will have on staffing,” said O’Toole. “This has created a fair amount of uncertainty amongst our planning department staff at a time when we need to staff up. You know, last week the Housing Accelerator fund was announced and the federal government funding is enabling us to hire 29 new positions that will help us accelerate funding. I’m really concerned about who’s going to want to come work for the planning department in the municipality in the current environment.”
John Traves, the lawyer, had a packet of concerns directly related to the language of the legislation that he wanted to highlight to the committee, but as there was limited time, he wasn’t able to detail those.
“The recommendation, frankly, though, is that there be a pause and so that there would be an opportunity for actual discussion around what is the intent and whether, in fact, what has been drafted meets the intent of the government, because in our perspective, it does not,” said Traves. “Frankly, in many instances it leads to additional red tape or delays or additional costs of development, which we believe are anticipated.”