Affordable housing, anyone? After nearly two years of promising to do something about it, the City’s draft Centre Plan being discussed at a series of public meetings and online could actually deliver some of the 5,000 units promised by 2021.

That is, if — and it’s a big IF — HRM regional council approves and then actually sticks to the plan.

“This is all well and good, I’m impressed with its professionalism,” said Halifax resident Susan McCurdy after yesterday’s briefing on the Centre Plan held at Dalhousie University. “But how is Council going to respond when Tsimiklis rips down houses on Young Avenue and Wellington Street is bastardized? How can we have any trust in City Hall not to politicize it?”

That answer may well depend on how much “buy in” the plan and the public consultation process generates, according to planning applications program manager Carl Purvis. He told the small audience on Tuesday afternoon that councillors “own” the plan and are within their authority to approve red doors for every house one week and change the plan to require blue doors the next week.

Readers will recall Council has continued to allow developers building on the peninsula to colour outside the lines and height restrictions of the Downtown Plan approved as part of HRM By Design. (Queens Marque on the waterfront, Nova Centre, and the Pavilion/YMCA  highrise on South Park are a few prominent exceptions).

The slogan for the public consultation is “turning what if into how to.” Enlisting allies (citizens and developers) who will endorse a coherent policy and hold council accountable may represent the last chance to control development in neighbourhoods outside the downtown cores where the results have been controversial.

But back to affordable housing. The Centre Plan predicts the creation of 18,000 residential units by 2031 among four types of development in Dartmouth and Halifax.  Have a look at this map to see where they are (click here for the interactive map):

Examples of “Corridor” areas include Robie Street and Prince Albert Road, where a mix of commercial and residential buildings between four and eight storeys high could be built.

“High Order Residential” areas are not convents but multi-unit apartment or condo complexes with commercial and office space from four to six storeys high. Examples include Highfield Park in Dartmouth, Wellington Street in Halifax, and potentially the eastern tip of Inglis Street where it meets Barrington Street.

“Future Growth Nodes” are not cancers but large areas of virgin land where commercial developments of up to 1,000 square metres are envisioned beside what will be planned neighbourhoods, parks, and new transit routes. (Note: the plan allows residents to keep hens and one hive in the backyard.) There are rough “concept” plans for Shannon Park, Young Street lands, and an area behind the Penhorn Mall in Dartmouth, but no plans yet for  identified “nodes”along Joseph Howe Drive (railyard ) and near the Micmac Mall.

“Centre zones” are areas such as Quinpool Road in Halifax and Wyse Road in Dartmouth where there is a  mix of commercial and residential buildings along a major artery close to downtown. The Plan envisions buildings between four and and a maximum of 20 storeys high.

Under the Centre Plan, any building taller than seven storeys has the potential to create affordable housing units. Height is one factor; the second factor is based on a calculation that divides the square footage of the new building by the size of the lot. If that Floor Area Ratio is more than 3.5 — Bingo — the Centre Plan requires the developer to provide a number of affordable housing units at 40 per cent of the market price for 15 years.

Sounds promising. Still, several participants at the first public meeting held at St-Joseph-MacKay school questioned why the plan would prevent someone from staying more than 15 years, “ageing in place,” when the building itself is likely to be around for decades. Some speakers urged the plan be changed to scrap the 15 year limit.

Planning manager Carl Purvis acknowledged “it’s a good question and one we have been struggling with. Our policy mirrors that of Housing Nova Scotia.”

Housing Nova Scotia does have program called “new rental housing” which pays developers a maximum subsidy of $50,000 per rental unit for a  period of 15 years. The agency didn’t have an immediate explanation for the 15-year time limit but promises to look into it.

With or without the limit, fewer than 300 new affordable housing units have been built by the province in the past five years, according to Housing Nova Scotia.

Another participant at the first public meeting was critical of the lack of government support at all levels for people on fixed incomes looking for shelter.

“In the past 15 years governments have done nothing to create more affordable housing,” said Bill Grace, the owner of Grace Factory Homes in Sackville. “In 10 years, 70 per cent of the rental units in HRM will be owned by five to 10 families,” he predicted.

“Density bonusing won’t solve the affordable housing problem but it will be a start and it shows leadership on the issue,” countered Purvis.

How many affordable units a developer must build to offset making a larger footprint in areas near existing neighbourhoods depends on a new calculation included in the Centre Plan.

Essentially, it multiplies the pre-determined cost of a square meter of land in the immediate area by the amount of additional square meters of floor space  generally above seven storeys. The plan requires three-quarters of the dollar amount to be spent on affordable housing—the remainder can be used to protect heritage or to create a public space. Planners call this “bonus density” and it’s a tool that could generate some additional affordable housing in the City.

Here’s how that might play out if the Centre Plan applied to the latest version of the Willow Tree tower proposed by George Armoyan for the corner of Robie Street and Quinpool Road. Earlier versions of the proposal were higher and one included two towers. The Willow Tree development now before regional council proposes one tower — a mix of residential and commercial tenants — 25 storeys high. Under the existing rules, 20 storeys is the maximum. Under the new Centre Plan, 20 storeys would also be the maximum for a development in a “Centres” zone.

Before we get to the math, the bottom line if the draft Centre Plan was approved and followed, Armoyan would have to include a minimum of 27 affordable housing units. That represents 75 per cent of the density bonus. If Armoyan wanted to spend the entire amount on affordable housing, he could create 36 affordable spaces. Here’s the calculation from the supplementary staff report that went to council on March 20:

Planning staff recommended councillors stick with 20 storeys (the current height restriction) but if they weren’t so inclined, they could consider the number of affordable units referenced in the Centre Plan. The developer has volunteered to include 10 affordable units and provide wider sidewalks and bury the overhead wires in return for permission to build five storeys higher, improving the return on investment.

Some city councillors, concerned Armoyan might walk away from a development that’s been on the table since 2014, asked planners to calculate the number of affordable units the developer would need to add based on the difference between 20 and 25 storeys. The answer is seven affordable units; although the response in the staff report dated March 20 said that question would not have been considered under the Centre Plan:

Staff advise that a key principle of density bonusing as a tool is that the provision of public amenities does not rationalize increased building heights or densities over and above those deemed contextually appropriate. In the draft Centre Plan policies, density bonusing above the maximum height and density stipulated is not possible.

So Council doesn’t seem to get it. Will the public? Consultations on the draft Centre Plan run until May. At this point, council has made no final decision and the revamped Willow Tree proposal will get yet another public hearing. Meanwhile, how effective the new plan will be if and when it becomes law remains to be seen. That will depend on political will.

“What If”, indeed.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Providing 15 years of affordability will do nothing to solve a long term and systemic problem. Housing NS and HRM are both misguided in their approach by promoting the 15 year rule. I wonder if the bureaucrats writing this legislation all rent their homes? what would they do in year 16 when the rent goes to market rates?

  2. As far a I’m aware, Queen’s Marque was not colouring outside the lines of the Downtown Plan. It was done without any plan amendments, and all variances were within the scope permitted by the Downtown By-law and Design Manual. You are correct on the Nova Centre and YMCA/Pavilion though; they were both the beneficiaries of plan amendments.

      1. Yes, but that is totally within the scope of the Downtown Plan. Pretty much every development that has happened since the Plan was approved has received some form of variance (I think the only one that didn’t ask for and receive some sort of variance was the development on the site of the former Citadel Hotel). This is by design; the Downtown Plan specifically allows these, and there is language in the Downtown By-law and Design Manual about them. It’s basically a recognition that it’s really hard to quantify “good” architecture. So the approach is to have a set of stringent numbers as a baseline, and then enable designers to go outside these stringent numbers (within a certain limited range) if they can show that it improves the design and better aligns with the goals of the Design Manual. This isn’t outside the rules, it is specifically enabled by the rules.

        The only two developments that could be argued to be outside the scope of the Downtown Plan are the Nova Centre and YMCA/Pavilion. These two actually required the Plan to be amended. The other attempt at this was Skye Halifax, and Council turned down the amendments to the Plan for that one.