A Municipal Role in Affordable Housing

The issue of affordable housing is one of several – climate change, poverty, population growth, mental health/addictions, unemployment, healthcare – that will challenge this and other municipalities in the coming years. These are the issues that define our health, wellbeing, safety, and quality of life.

The following appeared in the Cape Breton Post on March 11th and March 18th, 2022.

Dear Mayor and Council,

In early February, CBRM Council unanimously passed a motion that “staff bring back an Issue Paper to a future meeting of Council, concerning how CBRM can support affordable housing. A few items to consider: Can surplus land be sold for $1.00 to accommodate affordable housing? Can permit fees, subdivision fees, and zone amendment fees be waived when affordable housing projects are in the making? Can CBRM install sewer and water for these projects to support affordable housing?”

As providers of affordable housing, and organizations serving vulnerable populations, many of whom are in need of safe, sustained affordable housing, we offer the following comments respectfully and in the hopes of contributing to a CBRM in which there is enough safe, sustainable, affordable housing for all.

We are grateful to Councilor Gordon MacDonald for keeping affordable housing on the Council agenda. As has been pointed out around the Council table, affordable housing is not a municipal responsibility. It is a provincial and federal responsibility. Thankfully though this doesn’t mean it can’t be a municipal priority. Population growth – one of Council’s five strategic priorities for their term in office – is not a municipal responsibility. It too is a provincial and federal responsibility, and yet it is being pursued as a municipal priority because of its critical importance to a healthy, sustainable, vibrant community.

Without the efforts of Councilor MacDonald and his peers who believe that together we can make meaningful progress on the issue of affordable housing, we risk losing sight of it amongst the many things constantly competing for our attention and investment.

In November 2021, Council heard from affordable housing providers and researchers on the state of affordable housing in the CBRM. In these presentations, it was noted that 8669 of 41,680 households in the CBRM, or 21%, are spending more than 30% of their income on housing. If we look at just those who rent, 42% are spending more than 30% of their income on housing (2016 Census). Moreover, the community’s last service-based count identified 278 individuals experiencing homelessness.

Today we know that our housing impacts our short and long-term health, longevity, mental and emotional wellbeing, and the health, wellbeing, behaviour, and school performance of children. Housing is, in fact, one of the most-researched social determinants of health.

While affordable housing did not make the list of Council’s five strategic priorities for their 4-year term (economic development, a CBRM charter, development of harbours, population growth and inclusivity, diversified revenue sources), as Director of Planning Michael Ruus pointed out in the November 2021 meeting, housing was one of the major themes brought up by residents in the community engagement phase of CBRM Forward, CBRM’s economic development and municipal planning study.

In these consultations, half of all housing-related comments were focused on the supply of affordable housing, and called for more affordable housing units for workers, students, and families.

Councilor Earlene McMullin shared in the same November 2021 meeting that she receives calls numerous times a week from residents who are not just inquiring about the availability of affordable housing but are themselves in an emergency housing situation. Housing is, without a doubt, top of mind for many in our municipality.

There are many ways that staff could respond to the question, “how can CBRM support affordable housing”. We offer below a few general observations followed by some concrete actions the CBRM could take, all of which fall within their current powers, contained within the MGA.

First, if the actions we decide to take are dictated by what we perceive to be our current constraints (our budget as it is presently structured, for example, or the way we’ve always done things) then we’re likely to get more of what we’ve already got. Our current systems have created our current outcomes. Do we allow our constraints to dictate our priorities, or do we allow our priorities to dictate the changes we need to make, to in turn accomplish our priorities?

Second, what the municipality can do and what affordable housing providers need are not necessarily the same thing. The municipality can (and already does) sell surplus land to non-profit housing providers for $1.00. Is this what affordable housing providers need? Not necessarily. The municipality can decide it will waive building permit fees. Will this lead to more affordable housing developments? Not necessarily. This leads us to our third point.

Council will end up with a much more robust and useful Issue Paper if staff consult with affordable housing providers in the course of drafting the Issue Paper. Such a consultation would allow staff to focus on what the CBRM can do that would also be useful to affordable housing providers. Such a conversation with affordable housing providers will also shed light on how the CBRM can help to bring about change to the policies and funding programs of other levels of government.

In light of the above, we respectfully submit the following as recommendations. These represent the beginning of an answer to the question “how can the municipality support affordable housing”.

The first two recommendations urge further dialogue with the affordable housing sector to ensure that the Issue Paper (1) captures what is truly needed and (2) CBRM efforts to support affordable housing can then be focused where they can make the biggest difference:

  • Meet with the Affordable Housing and Homelessness Working Group, prior to drafting the issue paper to explore with the Working Group which of the Municipality’s current tools are likely to have a meaningful impact on affordable housing development and which tools the municipality might not yet have but that would have a meaningful impact.
  • Convene a meeting of local non-profit affordable housing providers to better understand impediments to affordable housing development. In particular, on which issues should the CBRM be lobbying other levels of government, in a sustained manner, for changes to their affordable housing programs, and to ensure that the responsibility higher levels of government hold for housing are upheld?
  • Develop a definition of affordability that is clear and will be required for accessing incentives that the municipality elects to offer and articulate how this will be monitored and enforced; this is of particular importance if the municipality intends to add inclusionary zoning to its toolbox.
  • Create an inventory of tax sale properties that include a habitable dwelling; conduct the preliminary investigations (hazardous materials and structural integrity) of the dwellings prior to placing them in the inventory. We appreciate that this would come with costs. Such a bank of existing dwellings, would however, considerably advance the availability of affordable units.
  • Where non-profits can already access surplus municipal lands for a reasonable price for affordable housing development, and where affordable housing pressures are likely to increase significantly in the coming years, create a municipally or non-profit owned and managed land trust into which desirable pieces of land are placed for future affordable housing developments, should they not be able to be used for affordable housing developments at the present time.
  • Begin the process of tracking, with the intention of regulating, vacation (short term) rentals in residential dwellings with the understanding that the growth in these kinds of rentals has a detrimental impact on the rental housing rent rates and availability. Proactively begin a municipal plan for balancing the need for both vacation rentals in owner-occupied dwellings and affordable housing in CBRM communities.
  • When participating in housing data collection exercises (i.e., the upcoming provincial study of housing needs in municipalities) urge researchers to speak directly with local housing researchers and community groups serving vulnerable populations.
  • Determine the cash contribution the municipality is willing to make to affordable housing developments. This can be done through a direct contribution to capital costs and/or through property tax abatements. This can be a percentage of the total cost of the project (as CMHC does), a capped figure per affordable unit (as Housing NS does), or a value related to the property taxes that CBRM will collect on the property over the next 25 years (i.e., a contribution equal to the first three years of property taxes to be paid).
  • A cash contribution from the municipality to construction costs or to operating costs by way of reduced property taxes, will help to spur the creation of new affordable housing units. The amount and mechanism of the contribution should reflect, as noted above, that affordable housing remains a provincial and federal responsibilities (i.e., any contribution from the municipality should be far less than other levels of government contribute). At the same time, the contribution should be greater than the equivalent of waiving building/permit fees, which represent approximately 0.4% of total capital costs. Once determined, this is then the contribution available to all affordable housing developments that meet the municipal definition of affordability.
  • Once each quarter, have staff provide Council with an update on shelter data and public housing waitlists so as to keep housing and homelessness top of mind for Council and the community. As new census data on core housing need is released (once every five years), and Point-in-Time and Service-Based counts of the homeless population are available (once every two years), include these in the quarterly updates.
  • Join with the United Nations, the federal government, and other state, national, and local governments from around the world in declaring that CBRM recognizes housing as a human right.

The issue of affordable housing is one of several – climate change, poverty, population growth, mental health/addictions, unemployment, healthcare – that will challenge this and other municipalities in the coming years. These are the issues that define our health, wellbeing, safety, and quality of life. They are the issues that citizens are talking about, calling about, and worrying about. And they are the issues that prospective residents are looking at when considering Cape Breton as a place to live and work.

And yet they are issues that are not the responsibility of municipal governments. Declaring them to be municipal priorities does not make them municipal responsibilities. Rather, it means that we commit to staying with them (lobbying, supporting, consulting, listening, pivoting, negotiating, and lobbying some more) until we achieve the outcomes that we know are possible, and that residents of the CBRM both need, and deserve.

All of which is respectfully submitted,

Fred Deveaux, Cape Breton Community Housing

Dorothy Halliday, Community CARES Youth Outreach

Dr. Catherine Leviten-Reid, Cape Breton University

Jenna MacKenzie, Pathways to Employment

Jodi McDavid, Transition House

Patti McDonald, Town House, Glace Bay Citizens Service League

Jody Nelson, Project Lead, Northside Rising

Christine Porter, The Ally Centre of Cape Breton

Erika Shea, New Dawn Enterprises

Bernie LaRusic