HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s government is inserting itself into the process of approving residential developments in Halifax, saying it needs to create a fast-track system to deal with housing shortages.
However, Halifax’s mayor says the bill by Housing Minister John Lohr will reduce city revenue, erode accountability and harm efforts to fund low-income housing.
“The proposed (provincial) legislation doesn’t do a lot to get more units built, but it does do a lot to potentially erode public accountability and consolidate power in the office of the minister,” Mayor Mike Savage told a news conference.
The bill would require the city to work with the province to allow pre-qualified developers to receive expedited approvals for residential units.
Lohr said the “express lane” for developers is needed because there are still unacceptable delays in getting projects off the ground in the Halifax area.
“When we came in (to power) we saw (housing) developments had been delayed as much as seven, eight or nine years, and we know that some of these professional developers are good developers,” the minister said.
“While things are moving quickly, they aren’t moving quickly enough,” he said.
The bill, which amends two pieces of legislation, calls for more flexibility in the types of units allowed in buildings, and increases minimum floor-plan and lot sizes for residential towers. It would also impose a two-year freeze on the fees the city levies on developers.
Savage said his initial reading of the legislation suggests to him that developers would be able to go directly to the minister for approval of projects.
“It seems to me that would be the shortcut available to them (developers),” he said, adding that developers could still bring proposals to the city.
Public meetings for proposed developments could be “long and tiring,” but that process has been part of the province’s democratic tradition, Savage said.
Cathie O’Toole, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the legislation’s limit on new fees could restrict the city’s ability to offer affordable housing grants. She said Halifax collects fees from developers in exchange for allowing high-density developments, and uses that money to fund affordable housing grants.
More generally, Savage said the loss of fee revenues would come at a time when the city is going through unprecedented growth and faces mounting bills to pay for improved infrastructure, including sewage lines and sidewalks.
The mayor said the main culprits for the slow pace of residential construction are high interest rates, a lack of qualified labour and problems in the construction industry supply chain.
“We (the City of Halifax) already have permits to build 11,000 (housing) units and we have development-ready land available for 200,000 units…we did all those with plans that incorporated public input,” Savage said.
Tenants who demonstrated outside the legislature said they had little confidence the bill would help address the acute shortage of affordable housing, defined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation as housing that consumes 30 per cent or less of a person’s income.
Jenn Laverty, who lives in a three-bedroom unit in the Halifax suburb of Dartmouth, said she and other tenants are facing an uncertain future due to a project to redevelop the townhouses in her area. Laverty said she’s worried the new units will be too expensive for her and that she and her children will be unable to find a viable option if they have to move.
“It’s definitely not attainable or affordable to move from where I am now. I will have to go into a one-unit apartment and give up my pets,” she said.
Asked about the announcement by Lohr, Laverty said she has little confidence it will assist her.
“The people the government are partnering with have lots of money. And that’s who they want in their buildings: people who have money,” she said.
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