Amherst mayor hopes incentives will boost development amid housing shortage

Amherst's town council has approved a new incentive for developers in the hopes of seeing more residential projects come to fruition.  (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Amherst's town council has approved a new incentive for developers in the hopes of seeing more residential projects come to fruition. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

The mayor of Amherst, N.S., like many of his colleagues around the province, is tired of hearing the same message from people hoping to move to his town.

"They're willing to take the job but they can't find a place to live," said Mayor David Kogon.

"We had doctors, we had nurses, other healthcare providers who wanted to come here and couldn't."

In recent months, Kogon said councillors decided to do what they could to help create various types of housing to address the shortage, and better help people dealing with homelessness.

One avenue is a new housing infrastructure investment policy, approved by council in late January.

Patrick Callaghan/CBC
Patrick Callaghan/CBC

It would see the town temporarily pay for new streets and underground infrastructure like sewer and water connections created through residential projects, on a case-by-case basis. The developer would then pay back the town's loan as the units sell, Kogon said.

"It may be the little push that some developers might need to say, 'OK, now maybe I can do a development that I have in mind,' whereas before they couldn't," Kogon said.

"The municipality doesn't have millions and millions and millions of dollars sitting around to actually pay for things, but fortunately … we're in a good financial position, we're very strong and we feel we can afford to up-front some money on a loan basis."

There's very little risk to the town with this strategy, Kogon said, because a contract would ensure Amherst would not be left on the hook for the loan if anything falls through.

Although Kogon said the policy hasn't been used yet, it's already drawn positive feedback and pushed ahead some proposed developments "that might not otherwise have moved along."

He added that all types of housing are badly needed, which is why council purchased a duplex on Prince Arthur Street in a tax sale last year with the intent of giving it to a non-profit for affordable housing.

That plan was finalized Feb.27 when councillors officially agreed to hand over the property to the Cumberland Homelessness and Housing Support Association.

Town of Amherst
Town of Amherst

The group plans to create five units of supportive and affordable housing at the site for a project called Cornerstone.

"You never really want to believe that something is going to happen until it's really happened, so we're very excited," said Alison Lair, chair of the Cornerstone board.

Community Housing Transformation Centre
Community Housing Transformation Centre

Lair said the units will be "deeply affordable" and ideally 30 per cent of a renter's income, but those details have not been finalized yet. Cornerstone is hoping to see rental supplements from the province attached to the units so they remain affordable for residents, and economically viable for the non-profit, Lair said.

Lair said they will work with local service providers to have housing support workers and other specialists staff the building 24/7. The ground floor would house a drop-in resource centre during the day, and at night offer emergency beds for people experiencing homelessness.

The issue became more visible than ever last year as people put up temporary shelters around town, Lair said, and the problem has gotten "so much worse." She said the latest count of people dealing with homelessness was in the high 30s.

"There just isn't the housing for people to transition onto," Lair said.

The Cornerstone team is now drawing up plans for the new space and working with a project manager to figure out costs. Lair said these will mostly be covered by federal funds but they will likely need help from the province and private donations as well.