Canadian municipalities have a vested interest in rental housing, and some have been very innovative in their policies, programs, and tools. While they still face obstacles to the preservation of existing rental housing, they have seen some success in developing new units, especially those municipalities who have strong relationships with their provincial government.

This is the first of a few updates I’ll be posting on a study I’m leading on the barriers and solutions to rental housing implementation in Canadian municipalities. The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and runs from 2017-2020. This update focuses on the results from Phase 1 of the study (September 2017-September 2018), in which a policy analysis and survey aimed to capture the range of policies, barriers and solutions to implementation across 15 municipalities.

Methods

The 15 cities were chosen for their population size (at least 200,000) and range of approaches to rental housing policy, plans, and programs (from minimal, standard approaches to more advanced, unique approaches). The cities range in population size from 200,000 to 4.0 million; all are Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) except for Mississauga, which is a Census Subdivision of the Toronto CMA. The cities can be broken down into three categories:

  • Small to mid-size (200,000-400,000):Victoria, Regina, Saskatoon, Windsor, Sherbrooke
  • Mid-size (400,000-1,000,000): Winnipeg, Waterloo, Mississauga, Hamilton, Halifax
  • Large (over 1,000,000):Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal

Phase I of the study examined policy documents, plans, by-laws, and programs related to the provision of rental housing from the cases and their provincial governments (where applicable, e.g. in delivery of a joint program to fund new rental unit construction). A survey of municipal planners, developers, and non-profit housing developers involved in rental housing provision was then conducted (May-October 2018), and provides more firsthand insights into the municipal approaches, such as aspects of implementation or the success of key policies, which are not typically presented in publicly available documents.

Research Results

The policy analysis revealed four groups of policies: those common to all municipalities, those common to some, uncommon policies, and policies unique to a single case.

Particularly in the middle categories, there was a lot of variation in the strength of the policy and the intent of the municipality to actually implement it. For example, inclusionary zoning is a strong policy in Sherbrooke, Montreal, Vancouver, and Winnipeg, where municipal governments have had success in implementing the approach particularly in large developments requiring rezoning. Regina, Waterloo, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Winnipeg are particularly advanced in their use of capital grants to support the development of rental housing, but Saskatoon offers a higher level of capital and has strong affordability requirements. A number of unique policies were found, which may be a result of the particular constraints in the municipality (e.g. Vancouver has historically seen very high housing costs and low rental vacancy rates), or unusually strong provincial-municipal collaboration (e.g. Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Montréal, and Sherbrooke). These unique policies include:

  • Vancouver’ Housing 100 Policy, Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program, Foreign Buyers Tax and Vacancy Tax By-Law
  • Saskatoon’s Rental Development Program (in partnership with the Province of Saskatchewan)
  • Province of Québec’s AccèsLogis program, which can be seen in Montréal and Sherbrooke
  • Province of Manitoba’s Rental Housing Construction Tax Credit Program, which can be seen in Winnipeg

The survey contained a number of closed ended questions on the responsibilities of the respondent’s organization, their policies addressing rental housing, their success at protecting units and building new units, and their relationships with other organizations in their region as well as the provincial and federal governments. There were a total of 102 completed responses to the survey, with a response rate of 25.5%.

Public Private Non-Profit Total
45 18 39 102
44.1% 17.6% 38.2% 100%

Some of the barriers to implementation and protection of rental housing were expected: lack of funding from provincial and federal governments, lack of resident support for higher densities and multifamily housing, and difficulty enforcing standards/policies. Other barriers raised by the participants were more surprising: lack of collaboration/communication among organizations/institutions involved in the development of rental housing and inflexible government programs. Some cities have overcome their identified barriers and seen increased cross-sector collaboration/communication, capacity building, and political will; appreciation of the need for rental housing; and introduction of incentives/tools. New federal funding is anticipated to help municipalities overcome persistent funding issues, particularly in protecting existing rental housing which has been a weak area for most municipalities.

The new National Housing Strategy, which was introduced in November 2017, is just starting to have an impact on increasing the municipal rental housing supply. In particular, the NHS is expected to play a role in preservation of existing non-profit and co-operative housing through funding for renovations and extension of existing housing agreements.

Conclusions

In summary, Canadian municipalities are taking a range of approaches to address the preservation of existing rental housing and the development of new rental housing. Some municipalities, in particular Saskatoon, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Montreal have very innovative programs and approaches and stronger policy tools. Others, such as Halifax, Regina, Mississauga, and Ottawa, are less innovative and use weaker policy language. These similarities and differences will be examined further in the meta-analysis in Phase 2 of the study, with the end goal of presenting a range of successful policy tools to municipal planners, developers, and non-profit housing organizations in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

For a more in-depth discussion of the Phase 1 results, please see my presentation files.

I’m pleased to announce that I have just been appointed a Founding Fellow of the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance. The MacEachen Institute aims to bring together people in the public, private, and non-profit sectors to develop policy solutions to pressing problems in society. The Institute is named for Allan J. MacEachen, who was influential in the development of some of Canada’s key social programs and policies, including reforming labour law and minimum wage as Minister of Labour in the 1950s and guiding the development of the Medical Care Act (1966) as Minister of National Health and Welfare.

The MacEachen Institute was founded in 2015, and has an impressive External Advisory Committee, Research Committee, and Junior Fellows. This year four Founding Fellows were appointed for a two-year term: myself, Ahsan Habib (Planning), Jacqueline Gahagan (Health) and Larry Hughes (Engineering). Each of us has specific goals about how to use research to catalyze idea generation, spur debate and discussion on pressing social and environmental issues, and inform policy development. In fact, Jacquie is already planning a workshop on LGBTQ housing at the end of the month; she has a long history in working in the public sector in health promotion. Larry’s work is in emissions decoupling and the transition to a low-carbon economy. Ahsan, my colleague at the School of Planning, works with communities on transportation modelling, including planning for disasters and evacuation. I bring the housing and policy side of transportation, with two current studies on Canadian rental housing policy and supports for non-profit housing in Halifax. I’ll be holding a workshop on rental housing policy in the winter to bring ideas from across the country to public, private, and non-profit housing experts in Halifax.

 

HRM active transportation coordinator Hanita Koblents discusses her redesign of Argyle Street. The students, who live all over the region, had never been on this street before.

Last Friday, May 18th, the Dalhousie School of Planning was thrilled to offer a workshop for African Nova Scotian high school students in partnership with the Black Business Initiative in Halifax. Eight students attended our workshop on planning and ten attended the workshop on architecture held by the School of Architecture on the same day. Architecture professor James Forren pursued this idea with BBI throughout the fall, and then recommended that the School of Planning get in touch so we could possibly hold a parallel workshop. We all felt that this was a great way to introduce high school students to our disciplines, which most of them don’t know about until well into their undergrad degrees; BBI aims to introduce students to non-traditional careers. Our sponsors were all thrilled about the event, including our main funder, the provincial government, and the Dalhousie President’s Office, who paid for books for each of the planning students. BBI representatives Laurissa Manning (Director, Stakeholder and Community Relations) and Tracey Williams (Business is Jammin’ Youth Coordinator), some of the parents, and a few of the sponsors observed the event.

Aaron Murnaghan, heritage planner at HRM, introduces students to some of the historic business district, with the Grand Parade and Barrington Street.

For our workshop, we planned a few activities: a brief primer to planning as a field and a mapping exercise that would get the students out into the city in the morning, and discussion in the afternoon. Colleagues Eric Rapaport, Dave Guyadeen led a mapping exercise on four nearby streets: Argyle, Barrington, Hollis, and Lower Water. We chose these for their proximity (Argyle begins just two blocks from our building on Spring Garden Road) but also because they show such a range: Argyle was just redesigned into a pedestrian-oriented strip; Barrington is the narrower, more traditional historic main street; Hollis is the 1950s car-oriented version; and Lower Water is both historic and tourist-driven. Students were given maps with one block of each street, and we got them to map things like lighting, seating, trees, retail and commercial land uses, and observe the way people used the street. HRM active transportation coordinator Hanita Koblents met us to discuss the redesign of Argyle street which she led, and then stayed to answer questions for the students; for Barrington Street, heritage planner Aaron Murnaghan discussed a bit of Halifax history; and urban designer TJ Maguire showed the students some of Waterfront Development Corporation‘s work on the sea bridge and the famous orange hammocks on the boardwalk.

HRM Councillor Lindell Smith dropped in to meet the kids and discussed how community support encouraged him to run for office, and the responsibility he feels to represent the community.

After a lunch break where students got to meet the students in the architecture workshop and representatives from BBI and the Dalhousie Presidents’ Office, we held a discussion on their observations. HRM City Councillor Lindell Smith dropped in to meet the students and discuss the responsibilities of holding public office as a member of the African Nova Scotian community; Smith made history in 2016 when he became the youngest councillor and the first African Nova Scotian councillor in over 20 years. Our current Bachelors students Taylor MacIntosh and Ryan Tram also shared their experiences in the BCD program, though by mid-afternoon it was a little more difficult to hold the students’ attention on what was for them a Professional Development day at school. BBI’s Tracey Williams asked the students to answer a few questions so they could evaluate the success of the workshop, and he asked whether they might consider planning as a career; we were surprised when half the students raised their hands! Each of them took home a copy of my edited book Planning Canada: A Case Study Approach, which will provide them with a more thorough introduction to the field, copies of Indigenous community plans completed by our School’s Cities and Environment Unit, and some information about our undergraduate degree. Check out the article about the workshop on the Dalhousie News site here.

Our team: Dave Guyadeen, Eric Rapaport, TJ Maguire from Waterfront Development, BCD students Taylor MacIntosh and Ryan Tram, and me on the sea bridge

Next year, Forren wants to hold a summer camp for youth to introduce them to architecture. We are strongly considering holding our own for planning, and many of the funders have indicated that they are on board, including a representative from TD Canada Trust and the President’s Office. Eric, Dave and I agreed that, as planning professors, this has been one of the most exciting initiatives we’ve been involved in so far! If we get the chance to do this for an entire week we’ll have time to introduce students to some of the interesting historical planning projects, like Africville and the Cogswell interchange projects which had major impacts on the African Nova Scotian community; social planning aspects like the community-driven initiatives in Mulgrave Park and the Halifax Local Immigration Partnership; transportation work being done by Halifax Cycling Coalition; and the Ecology Action Centre’s initiatives.

 

 

Students attending both planning and architecture workshops, along with the professors, BBI staff, and funders. Thanks to our Dalhousie photographer Nick Pearce for this shot.

Jennifer Keesmaat, former director of planning for the City of Toronto, has conducted an independent review of the proposed Halifax CentrePlan. Sponsored by Urban Development Institute of Nova Scotia, Keesmaat has produced a report with recommendations to Halifax planners: twenty-three suggestions to make the CentrePlan stronger. Tonight I’ll be live blogging from her presentation at Ondaatje Hall on Dalhousie’s main campus.

As would be expected, Keesmaat brought a lot of Toronto examples along with her to frame her comments. She did have some insights into the plan that matched those of many planners in the city, but these were coloured by Toronto’s spotty record of urban development and inconsistent planning efforts, many of which she used as examples of good planning. She began by stating that the city needs to ensure complete communities by adding amenities to neighbourhoods, instead of focusing so much on built form.

Keesmaat also says we need to think carefully about heritage conservation districts. This would confirm the social contract between residents and neighbourhoods on what will change and what will not. We need to preserve what makes Halifax unique, those things that are essential to the community, as a trade off for new development. These districts can be very detailed, down to the window type and size, or less prescriptive; the main thing is to protect the scale and overall feeling of the neighbourhood. She gave examples of heritage districts in Toronto, e.g. the MARS Innovation hub on College which still looks and feels very much like it did over a hundred years ago. She is right to some extent–the Victorian upper class Toronto neighbourhoods are fairly well preserved while others have seen rampant high-rise development (including a corner she referenced, Bloor and Bathurst).

Another key area to emphasize in the plan is character areas: Keesmaat says there is a risk in painting with broad brushstrokes across the region, e.g. in terms of density along corridors. Halifax needs to recognize special places in the city, similar to the Brickworks in Toronto, and divert growth to areas that can handle it better. She referenced Toronto’s mid-rise strategy. But, having read Toronto’s strategy in detail, I would say that it actually takes a similar approach to Halifax’s CentrePlan, designating corridors for mid-rise development to help support transit–in fact, I would bet Toronto’s strategy was the inspiration for the Halifax CentrePlan team.

Keesmaat felt that Halifax also needs to capitalize on density to deliver livability. It’s not easy to build a livable city anywhere, but it’s important to negotiate and go back and forth between developer and planning department to improve the quality of the projects, something she says she has read in Larry Beasley’s forthcoming book on planning in Vancouver. This helps build a shared vision based on complete communities. She gave the example of the southeast corner of Sheppard/Don Mills in Toronto, where targeted new retail, community centres, and public art were used to improve the cluster of high-rise residential buildings that had “no amenities and nothing to walk to.” I actually lived there during my PhD fieldwork; the Fairview Mall is on the northeast corner and the Don Mills subway stop is right there, generating a regular stream of traffic until it closes at 1:30am. But the interior section of the “neighbourhood” feels so dimly lit and unsafe that you actually don’t want to walk the 15 minutes to access these.

Keesmaat suggests Halifax needs to integrate its planning frameworks into a comprehensive vision, an interesting comment as Toronto has never had a vision for what the city could be like in 20, 30, or 40 years. Keesmat notes that the investments in density and growth need to be part of a bigger picture, again as part of the social contract with residents. The vision has to “pull you through the implementation and construction phase”, otherwise it’s too much change to ask of people. Halifax needs to link the Integrated Mobility Plan, built form strategy, and open space plan to the CentrePlan, for example. There’s an opportunity to strengthen what the municipality will do, e.g. partnering with the private sector on infrastructure or parks.

Modelling scenarios could help, e.g. what happens when you overlay the proposed CentrePlan, land use bylaw, and urban design guidelines? You might not get the densities that you need. She felt that HRM also needs to think about higher development standards for suburban areas, instead of focusing all the effort on the urban areas to achieve a walkable, low-impact community. Modelling will also help determine whether density bonusing will work, and in which areas. The municipality also needs to seriously consider giving city-owned land over to non-profits or developers to build affordable housing.

Many of Keesmaat’s recommendations are shared by local planners; I was part of a small group who developed comments on the CentrePlan and presented them to the municipal planners. We also noted the lack of overlap/reinforcement of the plan with other plans and strategies like the Integrated Mobility Plan, the need for more detail on how new affordable housing will be built and existing affordability protected, and the need to protect key heritage areas. So it was nice to hear this overlap.

But Keesmaat spent at least half of her time talking about the Toronto projects, referencing them even when audience members asked further questions about Halifax. She certainly made the Toronto examples seem like they were ideal, when many of them have been problematic: I worked a few blocks from the Honest Ed’s redevelopment at Bloor and Bathurst, which is planning to dump a whole lot of height and density on a fairly compact site, retaining two blocks of fine-grained historic buildings which will head decidedly upscale in service and clientele. Even when Keesmaat suggested removing a plan element, such as density bonusing, it was marred by Toronto’s experience: Ontario has only allowed amenity contributions from developers for a few years and Toronto has struggled with implementing it, so it’s no surprise that she suggested that it wouldn’t work in Halifax. Vancouver, Calgary, and New York don’t seem to have this problem, but as a mid-sized city there may be weak uptake from developers here.

Overall, Keesmaat’s review of the proposed Halifax CentrePlan is tinted by her rose-coloured perceptions of Toronto planning, which isn’t exactly the most innovative in the country. And that’s too bad, because actually admitting that planning is complex, and sometimes projects don’t work out the way we think they will, is a fantastic learning experience. Halifax planners could have learned just as much from Toronto’s failures as from its supposed successes. I’ll never forget a talk I attended back in 2006 by the transportation director for the Atlanta Olympics, and all the mistakes he acknowledged and joked about. These errors paved the way for a much more successful run the next time around, and proved highly instrumental for Vancouver, which was preparing for the 2010 Winter Games at the time. The Planning Institute of British Columbia recently held a “fail fair” where planners could share those not-so-great projects in order to learn from them. We’ll see what Halifax planners make of Keesmaat’s review and the public comments on the CentrePlan.

 

Most Canadian cities have been looking for affordable housing alternatives for several decades. Since purpose-built rental housing became so difficult to build starting in the 1980s, cities have grasped at the low-hanging fruit, such as allowing secondary suites and laneway housing. Both allow cities to add some smaller, more affordable units in established residential neighbourhoods; increased density is another bonus.

Secondary Suites

Secondary suites (self-contained units within existing dwellings) are allowed in cities such as Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and smaller cities such as Kelowna. CMHC surveyed 650 municipalities located within Canada’s Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations in 2014, and found that 88% of the large municipalities (populations over 100,000) permit secondary suites as well as 85% of medium-sized (30,000-99,999) and 82% of small (5,000-29,999) municipalities. Often they are basement apartments, but they can be arranged differently depending on the city’s bylaw.

Vancouver has a really easy to understand guide for property owners who want to create a secondary suite with diagrams showing the possible configurations. CMHC estimated that there were 26,000 secondary suites in Vancouver in 2014: one-fifth of the city’s rental housing stock. Vancouver and Edmonton allow the units as-of-right in residential land use zones. Calgary introduced new rules to streamline the process for approving secondary suites this spring, in part hoping that the many illegal units in the city would comply with the new rules during the two-year amnesty period. Other cities, like Mississauga, have struggled to implement secondary suites, introducing then modifying their by-law and process several times. Toronto has allowed secondary suites since 1996.

Laneway Housing

Laneway housing units are more unusual in Canadian cities. They are found in cities with the prewar grid street pattern, because they face onto back lanes and not onto the street. Edmonton first allowed them (calling them “garden suites”) in 2007 and eased restrictions on them in 2015 to allow them in most areas of the city. The city is expected to have a new laneway housing strategy in place this year. In Vancouver, a laneway housing guide, formal guidelines, regulations and an application checklist make it easy for property owners to develop them. Calgary has a guide to laneway suites that follows two households through the process of approval and building them. In Ottawa, rules allowing “coach houses” (secondary units that are not contained within the main dwelling) were just introduced last year and still face opposition in wealthier neighbourhoods like Rockcliffe Park.

Toronto has lagged behind these cities: Council rejected a proposal for laneway housing in 2006. They have objected to the idea on the grounds that laneway units would require servicing along the lanes, they would interfere with existing services like garbage collection, and they could change the character of existing neighbourhoods. The city has an astonishing 2,400 lanes available (300 km of underused space). They decided to review laneway suites last July, and held community meetings through the winter. A survey of 3,000 residents in December found that 91% of residents supported the idea. Finally, chief planner Greg Lintern acknowledges that even in traditional neighbourhoods, there has been gradual change such as decreasing family sizes. A new report recommending that the city adopt laneway housing will make its way to the East York Community council this week, then City Council next month.

Secondary suites and laneway housing are just two ways that cities can introduce affordable housing relatively easily, and with a reduced impact (visual, number of households/people, parking demands) compared to larger-scale rental apartments that are still difficult to build. There will still be communities that oppose them, though, so planners still face the challenge of public education and collaboration to make these successful.

 

Municipal authorities are not exactly known for being innovative in public transit provision. That’s what makes Innisfil, Ontario “revolutionary”, according to Ben Spurr’s article in the Toronto Star. But is its approach to serving low-density areas really that innovative?

Innisfil, population 36,000, recently partnered with Uber to deliver a service that combines the flexibility of ride-hailing with the public subsidies of municipal transit. The town subsidizes Uber for its residents, so they pay $2-$3 to travel to/from a list of common destinations like the Barrie South GO Station and the Innisfil Town Hall, or $5 to travel elsewhere in the town. They’re pooled with others using the UberPool service.

This is the first partnership of its kind in Canada, although Uber currently has 35 similar partnerships with public transit agencies around the world. It provides one solution to the pernicious problem of trying to provide viable transit service in low-density areas. Two bus routes would have cost the town $610,000 a year while the Uber partnership has cost the town $165,535 in its first eight months. The partnership provides a much more user-centered approach, like taxis and ride-hailing apps, than traditional transit where users have to adapt their travel patterns to fixed routes and infrastructure.

But is Innisfil’s Uber partnership really that innovative? There are lots of earlier models of public-private or public-cooperative partnerships: Montréal has been combining taxi services with public transit for many years, claiming they “deserve to be part of our transportation cocktail.” Société de transport de Montréal offers a shared taxibus option in low-density areas and integrates taxis for 88% of its paratransit trips. STM also gives transit card holders discounts with car sharing company Communauto and bike sharing organization Bixi. Dorina Pojani and Dominic Stead’s edited volume The Urban Transport Crisis in Emerging Economies (Springer, 2017) details many informal or private-sector transport services in places like Mexico (informal collectivos), Indonesia (Go-Jek), and Turkey (informal dolmus), some of which operated informally for many years before being adopted by the local transit authorities.

Critics warn that, like any public-private partnership, reliance on private companies to solve problems for public agencies can be problematic. Like other tech-centered approaches, there is the risk of municipalities becoming locked into a particular technology, product, or provider through contracts that specify them. Municipalities could be forced to pay ever-higher fees for a service, give up rights to any resulting data (e.g. on travel patterns), or continue with a partnership even if it ceases to yield benefits for them. And then there’s the more philosophical debate: does partnering with private sector companies allow transit authorities to pass the buck? Should they be essentially advertising the very same private sector transportation providers that many public authorities consider their competitors? Are private sector solutions “anathema”, as Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc (a TTC board member) would say? In Spurr’s article, Mihevc claims that “The ‘public’ in public transit is destroyed when public transit agencies start subsidizing private automobile use.” Indeed, a number of the authors in Pojani and Stead’s book seem to feel that any type of informal or private-sector transportation options are competing with public transit authorities for would-be public transit riders.

Integrating short-term pilot projects with contracts specifying the public benefits and evaluation methods before/after the pilot project ends could help. We’re in the era of the pilot project, with most municipalities unable to commit to long-term services without testing them first for economic viability and other factors like community acceptance. Studying existing partnerships STM’s long-term “transportation cocktail” will also provide useful insights for future partnerships aiming to serve areas or populations in a more user-centered way than they could before.

Planning education reaches far beyond the classroom. As practicing planners, we need to make sure that residents, business leaders, and city councillors understand planning concepts such as the need for increased density in urban corridors, growth management strategies and travel demand management. In this post, I’m going to introduce some videos that introduce people to planning concepts and issues.

Planning Discipline

Our amazing Dalhousie School of Planning alumni, Byung-Jun Kang and Uytae Lee, produced this video in partnership with the Licensed Professional Planners Association of Nova Scotia. It gives beginners a brief glimpse into the field of planning, and might be useful for conversations and presentations to the general public. We also use it on our School of Planning website to help potential students understand what kinds of work they will do when they graduate from our programs.

Housing

My colleagues on the HOUWEL project at the University of Amsterdam produced these videos on housing choice among young adults as part of their five-year study of housing markets and welfare state transformations (2012-2017). There are three in the series, and they use simple animation to illustrate  declining ownership and limited wealth transfer trends among young adults. These would be useful in conversations about the need for different housing types, affordable housing options, or changing demographic trends in international cities–although they may be less useful for countries without a solid history of social welfare and public housing. These are great examples of research dissemination for those of us developing grant applications that incorporate knowledge transfer strategies.

 

For students interested in Indigenous housing or engagement issues, this CBC News video profiles Ryerson University planning professor Shelagh McCartney and her students, who travelled to Nibinamik, a First Nations community. Their goal was to help the residents envision new housing to replace the substandard units that were built after a fire destroyed the original log homes built by the founding members. The piece focuses on the lack of cultural sensitivity in designing homes that reflect the needs of the people, but I would argue that there is a lot to be discussed in terms of the type of consultation used during this project, the role of governments, and the lack of a planning framework in which to situate the project. As a journalistic piece, it definitely takes an editorial stance on this complex issue.

Environmental Planning

My friend Sarah Church, a Postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, recently produced a video on water quality featuring interviews with farmers, local residents, and water quality experts in Indiana. Common Ground, Common Water is great primer on why we need to protect drinking water and aquifers, and shows examples of rain gardens and bioswales for those who are new to this area. I’m teaching an introduction to planning this fall and might use this resource during the week on environmental planning. It’s another example of research dissemination for faculty members.

Urban Renewal

I love using Remember Africville (1991), a 35-minute National Film Board piece that documents the destruction of a historic African Canadian neighbourhood in Halifax in the early 1960s. Featuring gut-wrenching testimonies from Africville residents from the 1980s and TV interviews with contemporary planners and city mayors, the film portrays the systemic racism that contributed to residents having little say in the demolition of their homes, church, and community and their forced relocation to newly built public housing. This year I paired this bleak film with Mulgrave Park (1961), a 12-minute promotional film made by the NFB and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation that demonstrates the hilarious optimism of the federal-provincial public housing projects that supposedly replaced Africville and other low-income neighbourhoods.

Social Planning

It’s often more difficult to find videos related to social planning or equity approaches to comprehensive planning. The One Baltimore approach is a unique example of applying an equity lens to the planning process. Incorporating resident ambassadors who worked to gather feedback within their own communities, a team lead for each city district, and consultation with 25 community groups, Baltimore’s Sustainability Plan revision process is a model for inclusion and addressing systemic inequities among African American communities. Interviews with the resident ambassadors are particularly inspiring. The video would be useful in a class on community engagement, or a theory class on participatory or collaborative planning processes.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Mobile Food Market video explains their pilot project to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved, low-income areas in the Halifax Regional District. I used it in a class on environmental justice, where we discussed the lack of shops and services in neighbourhoods with low-income or visible minority populations. Understanding that changing existing zoning can take a long time, mobile services like this present a quick, though temporary, fix.

There are a lot of great videos out there profiling interesting, challenging, and controversial projects, programs, and strategies. I’ve found that using these videos brings the issues to life and provokes strong feelings in the students–this term my students have channelled that energy into brief in-class written responses. These videos are useful in undergraduate teaching where students are still learning about planning practice and thinking about where they want to work in the future. But they’re also appropriate for members of the public (our friends, community and family members) for whom planning is a mystery!

 

Today I’ll be live blogging from this year’s Housing Symposium, organized by the Housing and Homelessness Partnership. Sponsors for the event include Halifax Regional Municipality and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

We started with a panel discussion on the state of housing and what’s expected from the National Housing Strategy with Brian Giacomo (Tawaak Housing), Karen Brodeur (Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada), and Claudia Jahn (Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia). Giacomo noted that their two main challenges were the potential expiration of operating agreements between CMHC and non-profit housing associations, and that 25% of their units were in poor quality–the organization does not have the funds to repair and rent them. Tawaak Housing’s main long-term issue is sustainability as they will be forced to sell some of their units in the future–since 1993 they no longer have access to an annual fund from CMHC to improve units. Brodeur noted that we have 74 housing co-ops in the province, which offer permanent affordability and are mixed-income communities. However, they are small (on average 27 units in size in Halifax and 41 units nationally) and therefore have limited reach, are subject to more financial risk, and have fewer members for leadership roles. Jahn noted that Halifax is tenth on the list of percentage of people who need affordable housing. They’re expecting the new National Housing Strategy to include an indigenous stream (with inherent treaty rights to housing, maintaining the number of units, providing funds for rehabilitation/renovation), funding to protect the current co-op housing stock and help create new units, and long-term consultation on the strategy to ensure it’s working over time.

The second panel on new affordable housing developments/lessons learned included Rich Gant (Habitat for Humanity Nova Scotia), Shaun MacLean (Pathways Cape Breton), and Colleen Cameron (Antigonish Affordable Housing Society). MacLean talked about the relationship between Pathways to Employment program, social enterprises (including wood shop, laundry, property maintenance, private cleaning services) that provide opportunities for employment for people with mental illnesses and other barriers, and their housing component SHIMI which provides high-quality, secure supportive housing for people with mental illnesses. There are 39 SHIMI units are scattered throughout the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Cameron spoke about the four units her volunteer organization built in Antigonish using land provided by the town, and the challenges they encountered in understanding the regulations, process funding, and programs that were available to create the units and obtain charitable status. Volunteers built the four units through fundraising, despite people telling them it wasn’t possible for a new organization or that there was no need for affordable housing in Antigonish (they had 50 applications for the four completed units, and intend to build another ten as soon as they can). Gant is overseeing construction of a 92-unit development in Spryfield through Habitat for Humanity. He noted that families often need to get over the stigma of getting a “handout”, and that once they know they will be putting in 500 hours towards building their home and then have a mortgage, they view it as more acceptable. Habitat NS had built just 46 units in the province before the Spryfield project.

In the afternoon, two of my students, Juniper Littlefield and Adriane Salah, and Grant Wanzel (Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia) discussed homelessness and poverty. Wanzel has been involved with AHANS since its establishment, and both Littlefield and Salah worked with the organization this summer. They researched Halifax to identify communities or housing resources that were at risk of falling into housing poverty or out of affordability. Littlefield examined four Census Tracts in Dartmouth North, an area that has long been of interest with a high percentage of residents living in poverty; Salah’s work was in Spryfield. Between the two of them, they covered about 250 sq. km (the CMA) while Wanzel examined the rest of HRM which includes quite a few towns and rural areas (about 25% of the population of the regional municipality). Their reports are available on the AHANS website. Littlefield’s work on Dartmouth North (Burnside/Pinecrest, Tuft’s Cover, Ocean Breeze Census Tracts) found that the vulnerable populations were female lone parents, single women and young heads of households, there are issues with mental health and addictions, and the neighbourhood has some of the lowest housing costs in the region influenced by residents’ very low incomes. The shelter-to-income ratio is between 25-43 percent. Salah’s study of private rental units in five neighbourhoods (Spryfield, Clayton Park, North Peninsula, Dartmouth South and Dartmouth East) found that the first two had an increasing number of households in core housing need, while the others had increasing housing costs (Dartmouth South, Clayton Park) but are accessible to more services nearby. In the HRM, Wanzel said the ratio of owner/renter is 60/40 in the CMA, but in the remainder area it’s just 8.2/91.8; 28% of renters and 5.5% of owners in the area were in core housing need, but there is quite a lot of diversity: in areas like Halifax County East, 56% of renters were in core housing need.

A second workshop on access and alternative models of service delivery features a panel with Ali Shaver (Mobile Food Market), Becky Marval (MOSH), and Dawn LeBlanc (Community Homes Action Group). Shaver discussed the Halifax Mobile Food Market, which addresses  food security in low-income neighbourhoods. The Market initially provided pop-up markets in six communities (e.g. East Preston) using a Halifax Transit bus. Partners include local producers, Atlantic Superstore, community associations, United Way and non-profit organizations. After two evaluations of their project, 90% of their customers say that the price and location make it easier for them to buy fruits and vegetables, 89% say it’s easier to buy those that meet their family and cultural needs, and 76% say they’re eating more fruits and vegetables. Marval introduced us to Mobile Outreach Street Health (MOSH), a primary health care team working with homeless or at-risk people in the city who either don’t have a physician or are unwilling to visit one due to drug use or other perceived stigma. They also have a Housing First program to find housing for their clients. The Community Homes Action Group work towards finding housing for people with intellectual disabilities (e.g. require support with daily activities).

We’re all looking forward to the announcement about CMHC’s new National Housing Strategy shortly!

Montréal is decidedly a different place after electing its first ever female mayor, Valérie Plante, on November 5th. Plante will take office during the city’s historic 375th year. Portraying herself as “l’homme de la situation”/the man for the job, Plante managed to unseat Denis Coderre (mayor since 2013 and elected six times as a federal MP) by focusing on everyday issues rather than ego-affirming projects like the $40 million Coderre spent to light up Jacques Cartier Bridge. Plante’s pedigree as a community organizer and activist is sure to change things up in the planning world, and someone described as “having no ego” is sure to excel in collaborating, forging partnerships, and facilitating action in areas like transportation planning and affordable housing.

Plante’s campaign promise for a new Metro line might take two terms to fulfil, but she’s already proposing that the Pink Line have stations named after women who have played roles in the city’s history. Whether the Pink Line will materialize will largely depend on available funding, considering the other mass transit priorities in the region. She’s also advocated for fare reductions for low-income residents and free transit for seniors and kids under 12. Improving safety for cyclists and increasing the number of dedicated bike lanes are also on the table.

Plante’s suggestion that businesses affected by construction be assisted with tax breaks from the city might resonate with Haligonians affected by the neverending Nova Centre construction and Argyle Street redesign. Inclusionary zoning, which would require builders to reserve 40% of their units for affordable and social housing, is also a priority for Plante as the traditionally affordable Montréal faces rising real estate prices.

Her win signals a desire for a change in leadership style. Projet Montréal, the municipal party Plante belongs to, also saw 11 borough mayors elected and have the majority with 65 seats on city council. With priorities on culture, sustainability, accessibility, democracy, and community, Projet Montréal was born out of community activism in 2004 and won 14 seats in the 2009 election and 28 seats in 2013.

It’s fall, which means that my fourth year undergraduate planning studio at Dalhousie University’s School of Planning is working on another complex project. As some of you know, last year my students worked on improving the social and open spaces in Mulgrave Park. This year, students are developing a proposal for affordable rental housing on Quinpool Road.

Students work on an in-class exercise

For students in the fourth year honours program in planning, it’s the first time they have worked in a studio setting. I’ve designed the course so that they can develop skills in drawing and design to help bring them up to similar levels (some of them have taken drawing classes and some have not). For example, in-class exercises teach them how to draw floor plans, axonometric drawings, and site analysis diagrams.

But because it’s a planning studio, and combines students from urban design and environmental planning, the course also incorporates financial aspects of development, demographics and policy aspects, and sustainability. Our partner on the project, Jeffry Haggett, is a planner at WSP. He helped determine the site for the project, a now-vacant lot on Quinpool Road where St. Patrick’s High School once stood, accompanied the students on a site visit, and has provided them with technical information such as GIS data. Neil Lovitt, a planner specializing in financial considerations at Turner Drake, taught them how to do a pro forma to determine whether their proposal is feasible. Both Jeffry and Neil are alumni of our planning program, the Bachelor of Community Design.

Councillor Lindell Smith (center) brought his own experiences of living in social and affordable housing to the class

Yesterday, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Councillor Lindell Smith came in to discuss his experiences living in social and affordable housing in North Halifax. Smith grew up in the Uniacke Square public housing and the Gottingen Street neighbourhood, where he still lives. Just 26 years old when he was elected last fall, he is the first African Nova Scotian elected to city council in 20 years. He encouraged the students to think about the needs of the demographic groups near their site, and everyday considerations of people living in mid-rise and high-rise developments (e.g. access to open space, services for the community). For the mid-term review next week, Bob Bjerke is our guest critic. In addition to working as the chief planner in both HRM and the City of Regina, Bjerke was Director of Housing for the City of Edmonton, which is doing innovative policy work on integrating affordable housing and community supports.

Students are working in groups on their proposals, which must include:

  • a site plan and landscape plan
  • floor plans for the proposed buildings
  • information on their target demographic groups and relevant policies (e.g. land use, funding programs)
  • financial feasibility (pro forma)
  • a sustainability framework (e.g. financial, social, and environmental characteristics)

Groups will continue to refine and redesign their proposals until the end of this term. They developed group contracts the beginning of the term and will have a chance to evaluate each other at the mid-term and end of term. This helps keep group members accountable to each other and identifies uneven participation. Their individual grades on the in-class exercises also help evaluate their skill development and performance. In this way, the course also blends structured (time-limited assignments) and unstructured learning (group dialogue, consensus building and decision-making).