Town urged to legalize basement apartments to ease housing crunch

·5 min read

Province aims to create more, affordable long-term rentals

The idea of increased density and development is a contentious one in Niagara-on-the-Lake and new projects often can be met with significant backlash from residents who disagree with how a building may affect the character of a neighbourhood or the town at large.

But lifelong NOTLer Scott Robinson is looking to help the town increase its density and social diversity without changing its character through the introduction of secondary suites and accessory dwelling units, a move already mandated by the provincial government.

“It won't surprise you to learn that Niagara-on-the-Lake has the most expensive housing in the Niagara Region and it’s one of the most expensive towns in Ontario,” Robinson told town council on Monday.

The average home sale price in NOTL in the past three months has been more than $1.2 million, about three times the national average, he said.

“The housing market is excluding people unless they make three times more than the average. Think of what that does to your demographic diversity,” Robinson said.

Across Ontario, long-term rental units make up about 35 per cent of the average town’s housing market. In NOTL, that number is only 11 per cent, he said, and rental units here are much more expensive than in most other towns.

“Think about who that’s pricing out and excluding,” he said.

He drew on a recent economic report for the town which said that a majority of people who work in town do not live in NOTL.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Robinson, who is development co-ordinator with John Hawley’s Traditional Neighbourhood Developments Inc.

“I’ve known my whole life that most of the servers at the restaurants don’t live in town. The workers at the wineries and the people at Vintage Inns, they can’t live in town.”

Robinson said the key to expanding the socio-economic diversity of NOTL’s residents is by having “a diversity of housing,” which can be accomplished by incorporating secondary suites and accessory dwelling units into the town’s official plan.

A secondary suite is essentially a separate apartment within a home, complete with all the amenities needed for an individual to live independently.

An accessory dwelling unit could be a detached dwelling on a property, such as a backyard loft or a loft over a detached garage.

By utilizing the space on a property more efficiently the town can provide for more housing for a multitude of individuals in NOTL while still maintaining the character of its neighbourhoods.

“It’s an excellent compromise for those people who are anti-development and anti-change or who want to preserve the character of a neighbourhood. By building a secondary unit, you are using the existing structure.”

Robinson addressed concerns that allowing such units could pave the path for more short-term rentals to open, saying the town’s bylaw does not allow for them to operate in accessory dwelling structures or secondary suites.

Coun. Wendy Cheropita talked about recent interactions she has had with residents who have been pushed out of the community by short-term rental operations.

“It was a huge eyeopener for me and we spent hours together and each one of the residents had been bumped out of a minimum of four to six homes,” Cheropita said.

“And each one of them had the same sort of similar story, where the owners of the homes decided to ask the renters to leave so they could shift the properties into short-term rentals because they made so much more money.”

“I think this idea addresses a whole lot of stuff and also addresses a lot of residents' concerns where they don’t want streetscapes to be changing. They don’t want monster homes,” she said.

“We want to limit the number of short-term rentals and look for opportunities to encourage long-term rentals.”

Robinson wants the town to institute a change across the municipality to allow all residences to build and operate accessory dwelling units and secondary suites with no barriers – but council wasn’t ready to commit to such a change.

There are only a few areas in town where secondary suites or accessory dwellings are permitted and even then it can cost more than $8,000 to apply and that application can be denied, he said.

"That's a huge barrier."

Council unanimously voted to send Robinson’s recommendations to staff for review and for the ideas to be considered as the town reviews its zoning bylaw.

Coun. Sandra O’Connor expressed strong support for the change but stressed that accessory dwelling units cannot be permissible on all properties due to limitations in setbacks and lot sizes.

She asked chief administrator Marnie Cluckie how this change would affect intensification in NOTL and Cluckie said she would need some time to investigate that concern.

Coun. John Wiens pressed on the issue of short-term rentals, recommending staff include barriers to prevent homeowners from converting their secondary suites or accessory dwellings into short-term rentals after a few years of operating as a long-term.

“Maybe it should be a two- or five-year term that it has to remain as a secondary (dwelling),” Wiens suggested.

Robinson stressed that regardless of what bylaw changes come with this, it remains illegal for a short-term rental to operate in a secondary suite or accessory dwelling unit in NOTL.

He also reminded council that accessory dwelling units and secondary suites had been adopted by the Liberal party in 2015, the Progressive Conservatives in 2019 and are also included in the New Democratic Party’s current provincial election platform.

“When (all three parties agree), you know you’ve got to do something,” Robinson said.

The Region of Niagara also has a stipulation requiring all municipalities to allow the construction of such additional lodgings in its proposed official plan.

The plan says such units are intended to “support the development of affordable and attainable housing.”

“So, this is going to happen and it has to happen and we want it to happen. So, let’s make it happen,” Robinson said.

Such dwellings are one of the only ways the town can reverse course as it continues to become more “old, white and rich.”

Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report

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