Published on: March 19, 2019 | Last Updated: March 19, 2019 6:12 PM EDT
Belleville’s housing summit has ended with a proposed plan to create more affordable housing by offering incentives, creating a community improvement plan and updating the city’s official plan. The special meeting of council, held in partnership with the Quinte Home Builders’ Assoc. and All-Together Affordable Housing Corp., ended early Tuesday afternoon at the Quinte Sports and Wellness Centre.
“I’m really proud of what we accomplished today. We’ve done more than we’ve ever done before when it comes to housing issues in Belleville,” Mayor Mitch Panciuk said afterward.
“I have no doubt that we are going to have a policy on using incentives through development charges and fast-tracking – prioritizing certain types of development – and this will make an impact quickly.”
A relatively united council agreed on several steps to spur development and, by increasing supply, hopefully lower rental rates. Council’s action unfolded fairly quickly, with a general consensus on each point and with results praised by a diverse group of delegates. Bob Cottrell, president of All-Together Affordable Housing Corp., noted people with four area agencies created that corporation 12 years ago because they knew there was a need.
“The key missing part … has been the city – and that player is here, big-time, at the table today and we are deeply grateful for that,” Cottrell told a room full of several dozen delegates and observers.
Council agreed to six resolutions. The first, a formality, simply accepted input received during the summit.
The second requires staff to review that information and advise council on some next steps, including creating a strategy for “affordable and attainable” housing. The resolutions also direct city staff to develop the terms of reference for a community improvement plan on housing. Such plans give the city the authority to spend money – or grant it to others – to achieve specific city goals. Belleville already has similar plans for its downtown and brownfield lands. The housing plan is to provide incentives for affordable rental units while capitalizing on opportunities
within the other two improvement plans. But such a plan would require city and provincial approval. In the meantime, another resolution aims to update Belleville’s development charges bylaw.
Once approved, the bylaw will halve the development charges for all apartment units being built so long as they’re constructed under an agreement with the city to charge rent at market rates or less for a defined period. Hastings County will establish market rates. The reduced development fee won’t apply to the city’s central business district – essentially downtown – which already receives the same benefit.
Council set a minimum six-unit limit and the reduced fee will apply only to the first 1,000 units built by 2025.
That maximum limit and deadline, said Panciuk, should increase participation by requiring developers to sign up quickly or miss out.
City staff are also expanding the terms of their update of the city’s official plan. The expanded terms will cover a modernization of housing policies plus intensification and mixed-use policies. It’s hoped that will increase the supply of land available for medium- and high-density home development and also mixed-use properties, such as businesses with apartments on upper floors.
Habitat for Humanity was also considered; staff are to study how to support that charity and similar organizations by providing land annually.
The final of the summit’s resolutions referred the proposed changes to council’s 2019 budget talks.
Unity on council
Every member of council cited the need to act.
“I think we’ve failed, but let’s move forward,” said Coun. Sean Kelly, suggesting council “do more with partnerships.”
Recalling several years of infrastructure investment, Coun. Bill Sandison pressed councillors to consider something almost “revolutionary,” saying it wasn’t enough to “chip away” at a problem.
“Now is the time that we need to invest – in a big way – in housing,” he said.
“We have to look at the larger solution” beyond strictly housing, Coun. Paul Carr said.
“We need to really consider and look at the income in our community. We’ve heard from various groups that there is some income suppression here.”
Carr said the summit revealed the average hourly wage in the northeast industrial park is $15. He encouraged employers to ask themselves whether their wages are “livable” and “sustainable in today’s economic environment” and, if possible, to increase pay rates to support both their workers and the community.
He also said all levels of government will have to fund solutions.
“Nothing or very little will get accomplished unless there’s private money in the game,” added Coun. Chris Malette.
Coun. Pat Culhane said she was concerned seniors “who have worked all their lives” yet are now worried about their housing hadn’t been mentioned.
“That is an entire class that I don’t see addressed,” she said, adding not enough focus had been placed upon housing for the working poor.
Many speakers and councillors endorsed the creation of secondary units in existing homes. Several of those invited to speak pushed for fewer restrictions on parking requirements, etc.
“Seniors could be staying in their homes for longer, with maybe a family member living on a lower level,” said Coun. Kelly McCaw.
“This is probably the worst housing market I’ve ever seen,” the former real estate agent said.
She said current agents are now reporting bidding wars: not just over new homes, but on rental units. McCaw said that has increased rates for some by 20 per cent.
City policies took the predictable hit from those saying there were too many requirements or approvals were too slow.
“Surely we can make a conscious effort to streamline the process,” said Malette.
“Let’s look at our fee structures and approvals.”
Coun. Ryan Williams said skilled labour for builder firms, the growth of smaller building companies, investors, municipal fees, identifying surplus city land, and materials are all obstacles.
The city can’t rely solely on charities, including the Canadian Mental Health Association and Three Oaks Foundation, to do all the work, Coun. Garnet Thompson said.
“We need to be the ones coming up with ideas,” he said, adding it must be done “without taxing people to death.”
Encouraged by progress
Hastings County’s housing services manager, Michelle Ogden, called the summit “wonderful.
“I was really, really encouraged by it,” she said. “It’s nice to see that they’re looking at the things that developers have been upset about for many, many years.
Seeking results by the end of council’s term in 2022 is “incredible, she said.
“It will go a long way to helping address the affordable housing issue in the City of Belleville,” said Ogden.
“I think there’s a real will here,” said Quinte Region Landlords Assoc. member Ken Horricks, expressing optimism it would lead to improvements.
“I think enough elements are converging to make it plausible.”
Mayor Panciuk said the shortage of affordable housing took time to develop and will take time to fix.
“No matter how fast we move, we know this is going to take a year to two years before we see additional supply on the market – at minimum,” Panciuk said.
However, he said, council’s actions during the summit mean the process “is taking much less time than it would have in the past.”
The Intelligencer’s coverage of the summit will continue this week.