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Halifax councillor says N.S. premier's housing comments based on 'sheer ignorance'

Shawn Cleary is the municipal councillor of District 9 Halifax West Armdale. (Preston Mullligan/CBC - image credit)
Shawn Cleary is the municipal councillor of District 9 Halifax West Armdale. (Preston Mullligan/CBC - image credit)

A Halifax councillor is taking issue with Premier Tim Houston's laundry list of complaints about the city's failures to address red tape around housing, saying most of his points are simply wrong.

On Thursday, the Nova Scotia premier told Halifax councillors to "roll up your sleeves and get to work," just days after councillors blasted the province's failure to adequately help people experiencing homelessness amid a housing crisis.

Houston said the municipality is taking too long to approve housing projects, while fees for building, construction and waste water have climbed "through the roof" and are too expensive for developers to handle.

"Nobody should be surprised that there's an affordability crisis," Houston said.

"What I found interesting was … the sheer ignorance of the premier when it comes to this topic. So, I guess when you don't know very much it's easy to get emotional about an issue," Coun. Shawn Cleary said Friday.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston met with reporters Thursday following a cabinet meeting in Halifax.
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston met with reporters Thursday following a cabinet meeting in Halifax.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston criticized Halifax this week for not doing enough to fix the city's shortage of affordable housing. (CBC)

Cleary said it's unclear whether it's Houston personally who is not up to speed, his staff, or Housing Minister John Lohr — "but clearly someone is not providing him with correct information."

Data that planning staff presented to regional council in August shows Halifax has cut waiting times in half for construction and mixed-use permits, compared to last year. Other permit timelines, including residential, are either below or slightly over their targets depending on the project size.

Development agreements can take the longest, a range of eight months to more than two years, but staff said those lengthier waits are for complicated projects that might need new services or roads — like many of the special planning areas fast-tracked by the province that will create new neighbourhoods.

The city also has a new website where they post current permit volume and processing times.

In the urban core, Cleary said council has approved zoning changes so buildings can go up quickly — but even if thousands of units were approved tomorrow, labour and supply chain issues are the real holdup right now.

"The planning process is actually not as burdensome on most developments, particularly the type of developments we want which are more financially sustainable and more environmentally sustainable," Cleary said.

"The stuff where you're, you know, bulldozing forests and putting up all new infrastructure that takes a long time."

Fees have gone up in recent years, but not exponentially as suggested by the premier. In 2019, council approved an increase to planning and development fees after a staff report suggested moving them up from 13 per cent of the cost of processing these applications, to 33 per cent.

As part of this year's budget, council also raised building permit fees by 25 per cent as they had not been adjusted since 1997. A staff report noted that if fees had been increased annually to account for the consumer price index (CPI) up to 2022, they would be 69 per cent higher.

A tower crane is shown at a project on Spring Garden Road in Halifax.
A tower crane is shown at a project on Spring Garden Road in Halifax.

A construction crane is shown at a project on Spring Garden Road in Halifax. (CBC)

"Halifax actually has the lowest development charges of any major, or other city, across Canada and we're well below the national average when it comes to development charges," Cleary said.

Cleary did agree with Houston on one point — that waste water and water fees for building projects are certainly steep, and Cleary said some could run up to $6,000 a unit.

But, Halifax Water controls those fees, which are regulated through the Utility and Review Board (UARB).

"If the premier wanted Halifax Water charges to be lowered, council can't do that. But guess who can? The premier can," Cleary said.

Besides those points, Cleary said Houston's comment that more construction from the private sector will create homes for low-income residents isn't accurate.

He said the reality is developers will not build rentals or homes for the lower end of the market without government intervention which could come in the form of incentives. Or the government could build the housing itself.

"If the premier really thought that the market could take care of this, then why would the Province of Nova Scotia have rent supplements? Why would the province of Nova Scotia have publicly owned social housing?" Cleary said.

The Progressive Conservative Government has added 64 beds to the shelter system and opened 304 new supportive housing units this past year, a Halifax staff report said.

But the province also announced it ended the fiscal year with a $116-million surplus, which led Mayor Mike Savage to point out more funds could have gone toward helping people living in tents and cars around Halifax.

Homeless tent encampment Victoria Park and Grand Parade central Halifax.
Homeless tent encampment Victoria Park and Grand Parade central Halifax.

A tent encampment at Grand Parade in downtown Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

Cleary said the municipality has done more than enough already to fill that gap in housing, including spending millions on portable shelters for people experiencing homelessness. City staff are now looking for more parks to allow people living in tents, as well as vacant city or private land.

"Our sleeves are fairly rolled up, and I would say they're well over the elbow — they're into the bicep by now," Cleary said.

"I think the province may have just adjusted their cuffs a little bit above their watches."

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