Land fast-tracked for residential builds in HRM could add more than 22,000 units

The Nova Scotia government is fast-tracking nine major residential construction projects in the Halifax Regional Municipality, a move the province’s housing minister said Friday will help address the “particularly severe” shortage of available units in the area.

John Lohr said the designation of nine areas located throughout the municipality will create as many as 22,600 new residential units. The projects were put forward by a panel made up of municipal and provincial officials charged with speeding up housing development in the capital region.

“These nine special planning areas could offer a significant number of new homes for people in the region, and save months, even years, in approval time,” Lohr said in a news release. “I want to thank the municipality for its support and collaboration as we work on solutions.”

The designation allows Lohr to assume authority for development approvals in the nine areas as outlined in the Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipal Act. The law, passed last fall, was originally criticized by Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, who said he was concerned the province would undo years of planning work by the municipality.

Mayor says public participation remains a concern

Savage, who attended Friday’s announcement, said he was pleased overall with the panel’s work.

“This wasn’t a process that we welcomed and we still have concerns about public participation, but what we’ve seen is good faith from the provincial government, good faith from the panel to recognize and support those plans we have in place,” Savage told reporters.

“The work of this panel, led by [former Liberal housing minister] Geoff MacLellan has indeed been collegial, focused, and I think productive.”

A conceptual rendering of the proposed development on the former Penhorn Mall lands. (Clayton Developments/Halifax Regional Municipality)

Lohr acknowledged in the release that while housing is a challenge across the province, the shortage in the Halifax area is especially acute.

“We need to act now to address it,” he said.

According to the provincial government, the housing deficit in the Halifax region is estimated at 17,000 units and growing.

The nine planning areas include:

Savage said all the projects were at some stage of the approval process or were slated to be brought before council.

1 project rejected by community council

In fact, the North West Community Council recently rejected the plan by Armco Capital Inc. for the Indigo Shores project.

Lisa Blackburn, the councilor for Middle Sackville, said the decision was based on the fact local schools in the area are already beyond capacity.

“The decision that the community council made was based largely on the overcrowding at the Millwood family of schools, in particular the elementary school, Sackville Heights Elementary,” said Blackburn.

She said the school has six portable units and has lost common rooms, including the cafeteria and music room, to create classroom space.

The councilor for Bedford-Wentworth, Tim Outhit, also expressed concern about the province taking over the approval process for these projects.

“What we don’t want to do is just build for the sake of building,” said Outhit. “We want good development. We want complete communities.

“Complete communities come with recreation, transit, transportation improvements, a plan for schools, green space, and they come with well-designed neighborhoods.”

$2.3M to study key development questions

The Nova Scotia government is offering the municipality $2.3 million to fund studies to that effect.

Savage said the money will be put toward answering key development questions surrounding transportation, recreation, the need for schools, and the protection of biodiversity, lakes and wildlife.

“We want to have complete communities for people to live so they don’t have to jump in a car and drive into the city to get what they need,” said Savage.

Concerns about affordability

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said he was disappointed with the announcement because of a lack of commitment to affordable housing units.

“When you’ve got a project in the middle of an affordable housing crisis for over 20,000 units, and the total that are guaranteed for affordability is none and something that might happen, that’s not good enough,” said Burrill.

“That doesn’t address the real situation, the real composition of the crisis that we’re in.”

The Ecology Action Centre’s sustainable cities co-ordinator echoed those concerns.

“As far as I understand it, there’s nothing in the legislation or the task force … to say that they’re required to respond to the range of housing needs across the housing spectrum,” Kortney Dunsby said in an interview Friday.

“It’s very clear in Halifax that we need all types of housing.”

Dunsby said she thinks the province is operating under the assumption that more units will bring the overall cost of housing down. But she said “it’s important that all of the future developments have this lens of affordability …. so that we’re building for exactly the needs of our community.”

Like Savage, she raised concerns about public participation. Dunsby said she’s worried about developments being approved without additional input from the public.

In particular, she raised concerns regarding development around Sandy Lake, one of the municipality’s last remaining wilderness areas.

“It’s an incredibly valuable ecosystem, not just for humans, but also wilderness as a wilderness corridor,” Dunsby said

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