County working group to review housing strategy recommendations

GUELPH – A working group including economic development staff, planning staff and representatives of member municipalities will be created to review and prioritize recommendations from a new Wellington County Housing Strategy report.

Peter Weston of Weston Consulting presented highlights of the nearly 800-page report at the Nov. 28 Wellington County council meeting.

“The need for the report stems from the issue of staff recruitment and staff retention at key business sectors due to the shortage of attainable housing in Wellington County,” said Weston.

“It is apparent this attainable housing shortage diminishes the ability of the County of Wellington to retain and attract key businesses that will support growth and economic development.”

Weston explained the impact of the affordable housing shortage varies across the county.

“The cost of existing housing stock remains affordable for incomes below the median in the north of the county, but supply is the issue,” he noted. “And it has reached  a point where new housing is required to meet the needs of manufacturers and other employers.”

Meanwhile, said Weston, the southern and easterly portions of the county are “directly in the path of growth,” flowing out from major urban centres.

“The City of Guelph is experiencing the second highest increase in residential values in Canada,” said Weston. “The situation is exacerbated by a number of provincial initiatives which diminish land reserves for residential growth and these include the Greenbelt, Niagara Escarpment lands, Oak Ridges Moraine reserves and now the designation of Provincially Significant Employment Zones.”

While pointing out that “generally speaking these issues do no remove land in Wellington County from being available,” Weston said the initiatives “have the effect of stimulating the demand for residential growth in Wellington County.”

In addition, “aggressive immigration policies” at the federal level and “aggressive expansion of transportation infrastructure” at the provincial level have “the effect of imposing on Wellington this accelerated demand for residential growth,” Weston asserted.

While the report states there is no single recommendation that will remedy the county’s attainable housing shortage, “A comprehensive approach incorporating different types of strategies is needed.”

The report provides three types of recommendations: policy-based, financial incentives and county action-oriented initiatives.

Policy based recommendations include:

– establishing an attainable housing growth target;

– density bonusing (enable a developer to build beyond prevailing land controls in exchange for community benefits);

– streamlining the planning approvals process;

– strengthening and updating Official Plan policies regarding second units;

– amending the Official Plan’s existing community improvement planning policies;

– amending policies in the Official Plan to support a greater diversity of building types and construction methods;

– review local zoning bylaws to reduce regulatory barriers such as minimum lot size, setback and parking requirements;

– reduction in the amount of land required for construction; and

– use secondary planning to address local issues.

Financial incentives in the report include:

– development charge reductions or exemptions;

– reduction in parkland dedication requirements; and

– planning application and building permit fee reductions/exemptions.

Examples of county-oriented action initiatives in the report include:

– encouraging creation of a Community Land Trust;

– discussions on attainable housing development in consultation meetings with builders/developers;

– passing demolition control bylaws to assist in preservation of rental units;

– locating existing publicly-held sites such as school sites or underutilized hotels/motel sites which would be appropriate to convert for rental units;

– developing a public-private partnerships task force and obtain CMHC funding for research on innovative building forms and construction methods and potential locations;

– establishing “communal workforce housing” as a short-term strategy; and

– analysis of servicing availability in the county, both existing and future capacity, and developing a database.

Weston said the Community Land Trust concept, providing rental land on which housing is built, thus removing the land acquisition cost from the home purchasing equation, is potentially “a potent and unique solution to address the attainable housing issue in Wellington County.”

The consultant saw less potential in diversification of housing stock, noting “housing typology was something of a disappointment.

“We thought that a part of the solution was the kind of housing that was supplied in Wellington County,” he said. “In fact, we found that it did not have a significant impact on the cost and I think that’s because the cost of the bricks and motor is quite stable for Wellington County. At core is really the cost of serviceable land.”

Weston added, “Start investing more aggressively in providing services for residential development. That’s key to breaking the back of this issue, the supply of serviced residential land.”

Councillor Jeff Duncan noted provision of municipal services such as water and sewers have traditionally been “strictly local municipal responsibility.

“Will this (strategy) be looking at ways the county can … assist in providing the  local municipalities’ ability to get to the point where they can have serviced land?” Duncan asked.

“That is a tricky question,” replied Weston. “Obviously I cannot recommend that you start stepping on the municipalities’ toes here. Your job is your job and their job is their job. But I think the issue of leadership and assistance does fall in the county’s hands.”

He suggested “getting a solid information base” is a role the county could play.

“I can’t advise you to start taking over and interfering in what the municipalities are doing, but I don’t want to kid you either and suggest there’s a solution to increasing the supply of serviced land by doing nothing. You’ve got to engage.”

Warden Kelly Linton said, “That has to be one of the discussion points … between the county and members municipalities and that should be part of the scope of these working group discussions.”

Council accepted the report as information. Later, council accepted an economic development committee recommendation to form a working group to review the strategy.