(This Opinion Piece was originally published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald Jan. 25, 2024)
That Halifax is in a housing crisis is not news.
Many people are struggling with high rents, high mortgage payments and watching more of their hard-earned dollars go toward keeping roofs over their heads. Many of us know about, and see, the worst end result of the crisis: Haligonians living in tents, in shelters and on couches. If we want to fix this — and I hear daily that we do — we need change. We cannot embrace NIMBYism at the expense of newcomers, young people and downsizing seniors, nor anyone else struggling to find a place to live.
The change is going to happen in every backyard. And it must move at whiplash speed. Halifax’s population has unexpectedly grown by 10 per cent in since 2021, with no signs of slowing.
And that 10 per cent is just where we need to play catch-up.
We need to come to terms with — and plan for — every neighbourhood, community, and district doubling its population, even though that growth will take place over decades. We hope.
Today, Haligonians are being asked to give feedback on the new proposal for significant changes to HRM’s land use rules.
I know, I know: land use sounds boring. It’s not flashy. It sounds like it can’t possibly help — can’t possibly be a momentous enough tool for digging us out of the dire straits our housing is in. But land use regulation is foundational. And make no mistake: the proposed changes are big. They build on the paradigm shift for land use in Halifax started with the Centre Plan and accelerate similar needed changes in the suburbs.
Of course, there are many contributors to the housing crisis in addition to our without-warning population boom, most notably a lack of skilled labour, the rising cost of construction and high interest rates. But we must make certain that land-use rules don’t needlessly get in the way of good housing.
My council motion of July 2023 started HRM on a review of the Centre Plan, with an aim to encourage more units and incentivise conversions from single family homes to multi-units. By the end of September the Federal and Provincial governments were asking for the same thing, and more.
We need this.
We need more residents in community centres — bigger buildings on main streets in suburbs and on other main transit corridors. We need “missing middle” housing on arteries that connect to those centres. We need more units in what have traditionally been single-family-home neighbourhoods.
We need this now. We need it yesterday.
But we must — must — make sure we don’t throw away what makes Halifax special. That’s why public input is essential.
When I made that motion last July, my council colleagues agreed and we directed the updates to begin. Staff worked speedily; the proposals were ready in an amazingly fast three-month turnaround. The feds were on the same page, and in September, Minister Fraser wrote to HRM requesting more aggressive changes to our plans, both in the regional centre and all of the suburbs. The province agreed, too, supporting similar changes.
Rarely does this alignment of three orders of government take place.
But, then, rarely have we been in such a crisis.
Halifax still needs our federal and provincial partners to come to the table with multi-year funding for the huge amount of infrastructure — from water, to roads, to trails, to buses and ferries — this growth will require. But the immediate work for all of us, now, is to go through the proposed land-use changes with a fine-tooth comb, to bring forward concerns, address and eliminate problems and help the proposal do what it’s intended to do: help ease Halifax’s spiralling housing crisis, and help set up the city to flourish.
Everyone who cares about Halifax’s future should care about this. The only way we can ensure an equitable, liveable, beautiful, prosperous city that has housing options for all is if we pitch in together now. The status quo is not an option.