Fast Facts: Make new development fund affordable housing

December 10, 2014

City council will vote on a plan for a new suburb on the northwest edge of Winnipeg on December 10. As it stands, the proposed “Precinct E” will deepen the city’s infrastructure deficit and expand the city’s ecological footprint. Moreover, if developers have their way, few options will be created for the low and middle income households who are most in need of housing. Only if Winnipeg makes use of its new zoning powers granted last year to tie new development to the creation of affordable housing will the proposed suburb offer a net benefit, not just for developers, but for the city as a whole.

Faced with a choice between increasing density of existing neighbourhoods and clearing new land on the city’s edge, the preference of developers is generally to build new. The economies of mass production and large-scale marketing offered by new developments are attractive to investors and a calculable risk for the financial institutions that fund them.
There are easy profits to be made, but there are also costs. Winnipeg staggers under the burden of a multi-billion dollar infrastructure deficit. New suburbs create the need for new roads, sewers, parks, and schools to be built and maintained, while stress is added to existing infrastructure. There are also environmental costs as single vehicle commutes are extended and the limited base of farmland is eroded.

Meanwhile, homes in single family developments cost upwards of $400,000. They do not meet the needs of the tens of thousands of Winnipeg households who cannot afford existing housing. The most recent CMHC data found more than 10 percent of Winnipeg households in core housing need living in accommodations that are either unaffordable, in poor condition or unsuitable for their family size. The private sector needs to do its share to alleviate this need.

If we take the plan for Precinct E at face value, it does at least acknowledge some of the defects of the traditional suburban development model. Landmark, the firm behind the plan, has promised lakes and walking trails in a complete community that includes a mixture of single family homes, multifamily townhouses, and high density apartments.
If it were to reach a population of 5400 as envisioned in the administrative report, it would achieve a population density three times the level of neighbouring areas in northwest Winnipeg. However, there are reasons to doubt the more ecological elements of the plan would ever be implemented.

Disconcertingly, it has been reported that the developer, Genstar, plans to start by building single-family lots on the farmland on the north side of the precinct. Worse yet, this land is not even attached to existing roads and infrastructure, making a mockery of phrasing in the administrative report that this is “an opportunity to complete the contiguous development pattern” in the area. Without a mandate to build affordable, multifamily housing, the high density promised by developers amounts to music of the future played to distract from criticism that Precinct E will be yet more ticky-tac sprawl across the prairie. The proposed density is not based on present day market realities.

Approval of the plan as it stands is akin to offering developers their dessert before the main course. Without a mechanism to either ensure that affordable density is an integral part of the plan or that developers pay their share of the full cost of the increased stress they will place on infrastructure, Winnipeggers cannot afford more new neighbourhoods along the city’s outer edge. The city’s own long term plan, OurWinnipeg, states that all new communities should include a mix of affordability, size and tenure. Winnipeggers could well be paying for infrastructure that leap frogs over undeveloped land for decades.

Last year, the City of Winnipeg made a bid to the Province to request the ability to increase development fees to pay for infrastructure. The Province turned down the request, leaving some councillors to claim their hands are tied – they must approve development as it comes with no strings attached.

This position ignores new powers Province gave the City of Winnipeg last year in an amendment to city’s charter. The new legislation authorizes what is called inclusionary zoning. This would allow Winnipeg to require that new development be contingent on either setting aside some of the land for affordable housing, or as an alternative, putting money aside in lieu towards funding the development of affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

The City should make use of these new powers, and require that any new development in Precinct E include 10 percent social and 10 percent affordable housing, or put aside funds in lieu to provide for the development of social and affordable housing elsewhere in the city. In this way, Precinct E could go at least a part of the way towards funding the commitment Mayor Brian Bowman made in the last election to create at least 350 units of social housing over the next three years.

Inclusionary zoning by itself will not solve Winnipeg’s housing problems nor eliminate our infrastructure deficit. However, given the limits of city resources and the depth of the need for affordable housing, the city should not forsake any tools at its disposal. If implementing inclusionary zoning slows suburban sprawl, then at the least it will allow the city to catch up on its infrastructure deficit before taking on an expanded landbase.