Additional units and tiny homes could be part of the solution to St. Catharines’ housing crisis

The urban landscape in St. Catharines is on the verge of change, at least on paper.

At a council meeting on March 18 council unanimously supported changes to zoning bylaws that increase the number of allowable auxiliary dwelling units (ADU’s) that can be built on residential lots. ADU’s are secondary housing that can be built on pre-existing building lots, such as tiny homes in the yard or basement/attic suites.

These additional residential units are widely accepted as an important part of the solution to address the ongoing housing crisis by creating alternative living spaces for those priced out of the rental and property markets. As self-contained households, ADUs have their own entrance, kitchen, bathroom, sleeping and living areas and do not rely on the main residence for any of these amenities.

Under the previous policy in St. Catharines residential lots were limited to one ADU per detached, semi-detached or townhouse dwelling. Recent changes to the Provincial Planning Act have established that cities may not prohibit up to two ADUs per site within the urban area, triggering a necessary change in the City’s bylaws.

ADUs have the added benefit of not only creating gentle density in communities, many of which have sprawled beyond a sustainable limit, but they can be built quickly, require no severances or land acquisition and do not require the municipality to upgrade or install new services. Their small size means they are relatively affordable.

While allowing this type of density will help steer St. Catharines toward more affordable housing options, the City is responsible for ensuring it is done safely. The expansion of these units will require some inspection and enforcement program to ensure homeowners looking to rent out units have constructed them properly, and they meet building and fire code requirements.

The City of Brampton has struggled for decades with an explosion in “secondary suites” across the municipality which has taxed existing infrastructure and overburdened bylaw enforcement officers. The City has been unable to keep up with the number of new permits for registered secondary suites and illegal units have continued to operate across much of Brampton. The unexpected labour problem can frustrate and limit uptake in programs designed to promote the development of ADUs and in a worst case scenario may incentivize people to build illegal units without permits. In 2021 Brampton received 5,732 applications for two-unit dwellings, St. Catharines staff report they receive between 60 and 120 per year.

According to Taya Devlin, a Senior Planner with the City of St. Catharines, “consideration for additional staff is beyond the scope of the (current bylaw), however the volume and complexity of applications is continuously monitored to determine the need for additional staff”.

The creation of permissive building policies is a first step, but it remains unclear to what level residential property owners in St. Catharines will buy-in to the program. While secondary units may be at the more affordable end of the housing spectrum, that does not mean they are cheap to build. Construction and material costs have increased dramatically in recent years, even more so than general inflation. According to Statistics Canada, year over year construction costs for residential buildings have gone up 6 percent, more than double the 2.9 percent for general inflation last year. This can limit people’s willingness to invest in an ADU, but St. Catharines offers assistance, in the form of a grant to those who are building an interior or exterior ADU. The grant is part of the Community Improvement Program (CIP) and under the terms, 70 percent of project costs, to a maximum of $20,000, can be awarded when the unit is completed.

Keith Gowans is the president of Aloft Housing in St. Catharines. The company works with homeowners to design and build tiny homes according to the needs and budget of the customer. According to Gowans “anything helps” in terms of providing incentives to those considering an investment in tiny homes. He points out that the grant being offered by the City is more than what is offered in many of the places he does business and that when coupled with other federal rebate programs it may have a substantial impact on reducing costs for the homeowner.

Gowans said most of his calls right now are for multi-generational housing options, and those looking for affordable ways to allow family members to age in place, or to give young family members a place of their own at affordable prices.

He says there is a mindset shift that is required if we are to succeed in addressing the housing crisis. The traditional, sprawling suburban lot has abundant space that can be utilized for the provision of homes if we so choose.

The Province has assigned the City of St. Catharines a housing target of 11,000 new homes by 2031 in order to do its part toward achieving the greater goal of 1.5 million new units province-wide. It’s a lofty number for a city constrained by Lake Ontario, the Greenbelt and municipal boundaries, but it remains on track. In March it was announced that the City will receive $2.3 million from the Building Faster Fund for reaching the targets set by Queen’s Park for new home construction. According to data published by the Province, St. Catharines has realized a total housing increase of 1,071 new units since 2022. The data does not identify what percentage of those housing units are ADUs.

“We monitor the number of building permits issued for construction of ADUs and will continue to do so”, as this will allow timely information to be relayed to Council and should facilitate policy and program changes that will allow the program to flourish, Devlin explained.

Email: ed.smith@thepointer.com

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Ed Smith, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer