Correspondence from Councillor Mason to Minister Lohr Regarding Housing

I wanted to share this letter with you that I sent to Minister Lohr last week regarding his appearance and subsequent discussion at Halifax Regional Council.

It is important residents know about efforts being made to respond to the affordable housing crisis while respecting the community and environmental importance of good planning and community engagement.

The current power grab by the provincial government is both concerning and I argue not needed, as you can read below.

The Honorable John Lohr
Minister, Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing
1505 Barrington Street
P.O. Box 216
Halifax, NS B3J 2M4

November 10, 2022

Dear Minister,

I want to thank you again for coming to Council to discuss the current divergent approaches to addressing the need for housing development in Halifax.

I also thank you for agreeing to meet with me when we spoke at NSFM, and now that the House has risen I look forward to confirming a time soon.

Your address to Council served to underline how very important it is for the Province and the Municipality to reboot our relationship so we can ensure you are not making any more decisions based on false and incomplete information such as what you presented to Council last Tuesday.

I would like to reiterate the points I made to you Tuesday in response to your address:

1.     Inclusionary Zoning and Density Bonus – you spoke of density bonusing as a tax and then suggested inclusionary zoning could deliver affordable housing at no similar cost.  This is simply incorrect on both counts.  A density bonus is an additional development levy charged on density over and above a pre-bonus building allowance.  In essence, they are paying for additional air rights. The programs are used in cities around the world. The money is used for public benefits, from public art to park improvements, but 2/3s the bonus funds our affordable housing grant program.

Inclusionary Zoning will require developers to include affordable housing in large buildings and developments. This will place the burden of covering the cost of creating a below-market unit on the developer.   For the sake of argument, let’s say 1 unit in 20 has to be affordable.  The average unit cost to build right now is higher than $400,000 in HRM, but for the math let’s use $400K.  The rent on that will probably be $2400 a month.  If you want the rent to be truly affordable market rent, it would need to be around half that, $1200.  You will need to find $200,000 in investment to reduce the cost of that unit to half.  That cost is going to be added to all the market units, the other units will all go up in cost by about $10,500 to $410,500.

This is an overly simplistic example, but simply put there is no free ride.  Someone, government and the taxpayer, or the renters/purchasers through the developer, will have to pay to make the unit affordable.   In either scenario, the incentive for developers to create affordable housing or at their cost or pay density bonus is that the developers receive additional density as compensation.

2.     Southdale – As I said, Councillors have been working to advance this file for some time.  I am concerned that under provincial control this appears to have become a rental development when it was pitched as an affordable home ownership and condo unit proposal.  Our concern with this and any affordable housing commitment is tenure and affordability.  The term of affordability of units should be 25 years, and some should be in perpetuity.  Rents should be 50 to 60 per cent of the area median income.  They do this in New York City, they do this around the world, we need to do it here. If you are relying on market actors to build new housing for residents who 20-30 years ago would have moved into social, state-owned housing, you need to dig deeper than 20 years at 80% of the market.  Demand more.

3.     Tendering – In late March, you provided funding to support the watershed, land suitability assessments, transportation, and water and wastewater studies for four future growth areas.These sites comprise large acreages of potential development and these studies serve to identify important and sensitive ecological and cultural areas and ensure adequate and efficient servicing for the communities.

To ensure value for money and that the use of taxpayer funds is not wasted, there is a certain level of due diligence that is necessary to be clear on defining study deliverables for those bidding on the work.  This was vetted through technical experts and is articulated over 12 pages in the RFP.

Compiling this information and packaging it for release over the course of 6 months – the RFP was posted on October 6th – as well as advancing other near term development projects championed by the Province – Penhorn Mall, Port Wallace, Southdale-Mount Hope – by the same staff teams is to be applauded, not diminished.
4.     Noise Bylaw – The noise bylaw is an excellent example of this.  Our approach is reasonable and still more permissive than most large fast-growing cities, and the staff can now issue an exemption if there is a good reason to do so.  The construction industry identified an issue with concrete curing and floor finishing, and I already made a motion to fix that and put that work back to a 9:30 pm finish, as requested by the Urban Development Institute and other developers.

If you and your staff had talked to us before bringing Bill 225l, we could have had a dialogue about whatever additional concerns you may have heard, and introduced you to a wider group of developers and builders than you appear to be engaging with, to give you a more fulsome view of the issue.

5.     Canadian Home Builders Report – I could go into this at length but instead I will share a message I received from a senior Halifax area private sector planner, which sums up the concerns better than I would:

I watch the housing minister present to Council yesterday and I thought you had great responses to his comments. One thing I was interested in was the reference to the Canadian Home Builders Report. He mentioned some statistics from there that didn’t quite pass the sniff test for me so I did a bit of digging.

1.     He referenced that the report states that Halifax had the most employees per 1000 housing starts. This is only partially true. The report compared ALL employees to housing starts, not just P&D employees. So completely irrelevant to the actual number of staff handing applications or building permits.

2.     He mentioned that Halifax finished 20/22 on approval timelines. While I agree that there needs to be an improvement in the timelines for approvals (particularly discretionary approvals). I was curious as to how they determined this ranking. They took whatever data they could find from different municipalities (of all sizes) on timelines for plan amendment, rezonings, site plan approvals, and development permits, and then AVERAGED the timelines for all types of approvals. If there wasn’t data on a particular type of approval in a municipality, they just didn’t use it in the average. It’s a very lazy way of looking at timelines and pretty disingenuous in my opinion!

We must work together for the good of all Nova Scotians, but this approach, with half the information, is not going to achieve any of our goals.

I also want to recap some of the suggestions I had for things the Province should collaborate with us on doing:

1.     Set goals and timelines for all NS municipalities to make plans within say 18-24 months that can accommodate a doubling of our population. To expand on what I said in Council, you could require province-wide policy changes for things that we know are good planning, like eliminating parking minimums and single-family zoning province-wide. There may be a role for you to force the issue with politically difficult changes that are hard at the local level, but less so provincially. But I don’t see a role for the Province or the Executive Panel for site-specific approvals.  Let us do our work publicly and democratically using our processes.

2.     Require that all internal and external reviewers must participate in a plan or development agreement process. Time and again we hear that the delays are made worse by slow or no response by NS Power, NS Dept of Environment, and NS Public Works.  Port Wallace was delayed for years because of slow response to access to the highway and environmental issues beyond HRMs control.

3.     Unlock the funding for transit sitting in the PITF2 agreement with the Feds since 2018, so we can get to work building bus rapid transit.  We’ve been waiting for this announcement for almost five years and the Feds are threatening to pull the funding.

4.     Finally and most importantly, you are responsible for affordable housing construction in Nova Scotia.  In the election, Premier Houston promised to deliver the Affordable Housing Commission report.  That report talks extensively about the need for social or below-market housing.   I say again to you Minister, the market will not produce below-market housing.

You need to have a massive plan to build affordable housing, and you needed it a year ago.  With the coming global housing price collapse, high-interest rates and recession, there has never been a better time for the government to help preserve our labour force by funding affordable housing construction.

I hope we can work together on these positive, collaborative approaches.

I look forward to meeting with you to discuss these and other issues in a constructive manner.


Waye Mason
Councillor | Le Conseiller | Wunaqapeme’j