In search of housing solutions, panel puts Halifax development process under the microscope

The panel appointed by the province is assessing development applications before HRM to look for ways to speed up approval and construction. (Anjuli Patil/CBC - image credit)
The panel appointed by the province is assessing development applications before HRM to look for ways to speed up approval and construction. (Anjuli Patil/CBC - image credit)

The chair of a housing panel struck by the provincial government last year says members are working urgently to "dissect" the development process in Halifax, and find ways to speed up the construction of new places for people to live.

"All the task force members understand the magnitude of what we're doing and we can't get this wrong," said Geoff MacLellan.

A shortage of housing has been brewing in Halifax Regional Municipality for years. One estimate of the size of the shortage is between 20,000 and 25,000 units.

The supply-demand imbalance has kept vacancy rates hovering close to zero for the past few years, as rents and home prices have risen.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

The housing crunch is being felt most acutely by those with the lowest incomes, some of whom have been squeezed out of the market and into homelessness. The latest estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city is 472.

MacLellan, a former Liberal cabinet minister, was appointed to chair the housing panel in November.

Other members include senior provincial bureaucrats Paul LaFleche and Stephen MacIsaac, as well as Peter Duncan and Kelly Denty, senior planning department staffers at the Halifax Regional Municipality.

MacLellan said the group has met three times and will continue to meet weekly as it reviews development applications that have been submitted to HRM.

Steve Lawrence/CBC
Steve Lawrence/CBC

"We take projects that are in the system, the regulatory pipeline … identify ones that aren't moving, and really dissect the problems and the opportunities."

MacLellan said it was too early to provide the number of projects that will be reviewed. The priority, he said, is to look at large-scale housing projects that are stalled, identify the reason, and then recommend ways the province or municipality could move things along.

He said recommendations could include spending money in particular areas or making regulatory or legislative changes.

The panel is expected to continue its work for two years. MacLellan said it won't take that long to submit recommendations, although he wouldn't put a timeline on when the panel would file its first report.

"As soon as we have a significant amount of information … we're getting it to Minister [John] Lohr and Premier [Tim] Houston, and they'll act from there."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Lohr, the housing minister, said he expects recommendations from the panel soon and is ready to make any needed changes. He said he wants to shave years off the time required to get new housing projects built.

"Anecdotally, we've heard that sometimes large scale projects take four, five, six, seven, eight years to go through. That's just too much time."

Meanwhile, Lohr said work is ongoing to spend the $35 million committed last fall to address the province's housing crisis.

That money was promised as part of a wide-ranging housing strategy that includes maintaining a two per cent cap on rents for the next two years while promoting and spending on new construction.

CBC
CBC

So far, three housing developers have signed agreements with the province to receive subsidies ranging from $1.9 million to $2.5 million to cut down rents for tenants.

The province has also been looking through its inventory of land for parcels that could be used for housing developments. One plot in Dartmouth has already been dedicated to a new housing development, and Lohr said more than 30 additional parcels have been picked and are awaiting cabinet approval.

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