New city housing regulations won't address the housing shortage, says advocate

David Brake stands at a busy Metrobus transit hub in St. John's. Brake is the head of the Essential Transit Association.
Happy City St. John's vice-chair David Brake says at least one in five households in St. John's are paying more than 30 per cent of their pre-tax income on housing. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

A non-profit organization that encourages public dialogue on civic issues says St. John's city council rushed recent amendments to its housing development regulations — and they won't help make more affordable housing.

Happy City St. John's vice-chair David Brake says the city should've engaged in more public debate before making the policy changes and should explain how they will address the affordable housing shortage.

There "should be a long conversation and an honest one between the public and the council" about what needs to be done to address the housing shortage, he told CBC News this week, "so that we can get the ball rolling in a serious way."

The revised housing regulations, announced Tuesday, include the allowance of backyard suites and the allowance of two subsidiary units in single-detached dwellings and one subsidiary dwelling in a semi-detached dwelling or townhouse.

Brake says housing is getting less affordable and the city's proposal will not narrow the gap.

According to the city's 2023 housing needs assessment, 9,695 households, or 20 per cent of households in the city, are living in unaffordable conditions, defined as costing more than 30 per cent of a household's pre-tax income.

However, Brake said, those numbers are from 2021 and the situation is now likely much worse due to housing price increases in recent years.

'Open for business'

Coun. Ron Ellsworth says the changes will encourage the construction of more housing.

"It signals to the community at large we are open for business."

Ellsworth says the goal of the changes is to make the construction and development process easier and to make it easier to identify what is and isn't allowed in neighbourhoods.

The changes come after the announcement of $10.4 million in federal funding to support the construction of 280 housing units over three years.

Brake said the money won't be used directly to build units but to encourage private developers to build more housing, so there's no guarantee all of these units will be affordable.

"What the city is proposing, at least in this aspect, doesn't even narrow the gap, and the gap will continue to widen," he said.

Lack of consultation

Brake says he's unclear on how the city decided on the changes.

"They didn't do a wide consultation with developers," said Brake.

St. John's Coun. Ron Ellsworth disagreed with comments made by former Newfoundland Growlers owner Dean MacDonald on Thursday, who placed much of the blame for the team leaving St. John's on the city.
St. John's Coun. Ron Ellsworth says it's important for the city to strike a balance between lobby groups and the community when making housing decisions. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Ellsworth says the city has met with community partners to discuss the 10-year affordable housing master plan it approved in 2018, including three rounds of consultations held last year.

"The information that came back from the consultation process is part of the document that we accepted yesterday and will continue to be a part of this document as a work in progress."

Ellsworth says the city is trying to strike a balance between lobby groups and the community.

"Ambition is one thing, being realistic is another," he said.

Only a starting point

Brake encourages members of the community to speak to their councillors about policy changes.

"This should only be the start of a conversation. There should be a long conversation and an honest one between the public and the council about how serious are we about this and what are we prepared to do to fix this problem."

Ellsworth said Tuesday's housing regulation amendments are only the start of the process.

"We're not at the end of the process. We're just starting this process, and we'll continue to fine-tune and then look for opportunities to improve the process as we're moving forward."

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