Why Windsor said no to $70 million in Liberal housing cash

Windsor applied for $70 million in funding, but councillors voted against changes to city zoning rules

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OTTAWA – The Liberal housing plan got its first rejection last month, when the city of Windsor turned down tens of millions of dollars because it refused to change zoning rules to get the cash.

Windsor applied for $70 million in funding from the government’s housing accelerator fund, but city councillors voted against proposed changes to zoning rules. Housing Minister Sean Fraser has pushed all cities who wanted money from the fund to allow four storeys and four units on any residential unit on an “as of right” basis, meaning they wouldn’t have to apply or go through public hearings.

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Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said ultimately both he and the majority of his council decided they didn’t want to bring in such a significant change.

“It’s a wholesale change to the way the system is set up today in terms of having public consultation and having some sort of process where you can look at things,” he said.

Windsor’s proposal would have allowed four units and four storeys in any new development and along transit routes in many areas, but stopped short of the federal government’s demand to allow four units on any residential lot across the city.

Dilkens said allowing four units without any public consultation, without the ability to deal with issues that crop up like parking concerns or stormwater drainage would be a concern for many residents.

“I think a lot of people want the certainty; to know when they’re buying a home or building a home in an area. What’s possible, what could happen, what (does) the neighbourhood look like,” he said.

Windsor already allows three units as of right on residential properties, a change the provincial government imposed on all municipalities. Dilkens said he worried that if Windsor went to four and the city’s suburbs didn’t it would encourage sprawl outside the city’s borders.

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The city council vote rejecting the changes and the money that would have come with it passed 8-3. Coun. Fabio Costante was in the minority and said he doesn’t believe moving from three units to four was worth sacrificing so much new funding.

“We didn’t have any reliable evidence whatsoever to form a conclusion that rezoning in this fashion would have materially deteriorated neighbourhoods, or depreciated property values or affected quality of life for residents,” he said.

Cities can use the housing accelerator funds to build housing, but also to improve planning and zoning offices to speed permits. They can also build infrastructure with the money as long as it makes for more housing in the community.

Costante said with 8,700 people on Windsor’s wait-list for housing the city is going to have to consider doing things differently.

“The way we build our city moving forward has to be different than the way we did it in the past, in light of population growth that we’ve never seen before, in light of barriers to housing and homelessness at rates we’ve never seen before,” said Costante.

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According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, the average price in Windsor-Essex has more than doubled since 2015. While there has been a slight decline in prices in the last year, the average home is still selling for more than $500,000.

The average two-bedroom apartment was renting for $1,246 last October and, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation data, it was renting for $868 a month in 2017.

These price increases all happened before two major economic development projects, the Gordie Howe International Bridge and the NextStar battery plant, are set to come on line, bringing more people to the city.

Fraser said Windsor’s reluctance to meet the requirements of the program is unfortunate, but the money will not go unused.

“We feel confident that there’s no shortage of other cities that are willing to make those kinds of changes to add to the housing supply,” he said.

Fraser said the program has nearly exhausted its initial $4 billion with 36 cities that have been announced and more being finalized. The government also announced this week that it was finalizing deals with 60 small and rural communities. He said the four unit rule isn’t arbitrary, but something they believe to be essential.

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“It’s because the economics of three unit buildings don’t work out as often as four unit buildings.”

Fraser said with four units as of right, the federal government will be able to include four unit buildings in their coming catalogue of home designs and manufactured homebuilders will be able to know they can build fourplex units that can be put in place in Canada’s major cities.

He said they were looking for a high bar and Windsor’s application didn’t clear it.

“We sought to identify in every region of the country the most ambitious applications that would provide the greatest return on investment in the number of homes per dollar spent,” he said. “The most ambitious cities who implement all of the reforms that we are seeking to have put in place right across the country are the most likely to receive funding.”

Unlike the Liberals’ housing accelerator fund, the Conservatives’ housing proposal doesn’t require cities to implement specific zoning changes, but it has an aggressive target requiring cities to build 15 per cent more housing units every year or lose federal grants.

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Dilkens said that proposal would let cities make their own decisions.

“Give us the flexibility to meet that number. Don’t tell us that the whole program fails because we don’t want fourplexes in every neighbourhood,” he said.

He said there is a big flaw with the Conservatives proposal however, because it penalizes municipalities for things outside of their control, by making the funding dependent on having the houses actually built not just approved. He said he can control his city’s planning department, but he can’t control the market more broadly to get houses built.

“I can’t make a project economical, I can’t make a credit union or a bank accept a pro forma on a development project.”

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