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Trust betrayed 

The best way to build affordable housing is for inflexible city bureaucrats to stop frustrating the Nova Scotia Housing Trust.

"Businesses aren't going to locate downtown until their employees can afford to live on the peninsula," Ross Cantwell tells me.

Cantwell is a real estate consultant who works for some of the biggest property owners in Halifax, and specializes in the economics of development. He knows the local market as well as anyone, and matches that knowledge with a genuine concern for the working poor.

The people at the bottom of the wage scale---those working in Timmy's and restaurants, as secretaries and warehouse workers, as the entry-level clerks and so forth---are nearly priced out of living on the peninsula, explains Cantwell, because rent is just too high unless they're willing to live eight to an apartment or in very substandard housing. Therefore many move out to Clayton Park or Dartmouth, where there's better housing at less cost.

The result is that businesses wanting to locate downtown are finding that in addition to their other costs, they have to pay a wage premium, to make up for the lost time and costs of commuting. Employees, for their part, want to work close to their homes, which increasingly means in the business parks of Burnside and Bayers Lake. All of this works to slow the development potential of downtown, and impacts the taxpayer considerably, as the city has to subsidize transit, build and maintain wider roads and extend services to the suburbs.

In 2004, Cantwell and Ray Tomalty, a consultant and academic working in Montreal, were hired by the city to produce a housing affordability study, which made a series of detailed proposals for how to address the high cost of housing. Those measures included giving density bonuses to developers who include affordable housing in their projects, giving financial help to groups providing affordable housing, mandating that a portion of all new development be affordable, among others.

None of those affordable housing recommendations, however, were included in the city's 2006 regional plan, an issue that miffs Cantwell. City officials think that affordable housing is a provincial concern, and want nothing to do with it, says Cantwell, even though housing affordability is directly tied into development patterns.

To Cantwell's great credit, earlier this year he convinced the heavy hitters in Halifax's development industry---financiers, builders, architects and engineers---to form the Nova Scotia Housing Trust, which promptly used their abilities to first leverage federal and provincial housing funds, then buy two properties on Gottingen Street---the former Derby and MET buildings.

The Housing Trust has designed a mixed apartment complex for the Derby site---60 affordable units together with 60 market-priced units in a building stretching from Gottingen to Maitland streets. The plan is to get that built and running, then move to the MET site. With those projects under its belt, Cantwell says the organization can hire full-time staff to get still more housing into the future.

Problem is, Cantwell is facing an uphill battle with an indifferent city bureaucracy, partly related to the proposed height of the Derby project---10 storeys in a zone that's limited to five storeys on Gottingen and four on Maitland.

I'm sensitive to height issues---they are a valid neighbourhood concern for a lot of places---but for this site, sticking to inflexible height limits is ridiculous. No one lives near the site, and all the businesses in the area very much want the project, as it'll bring them new customers. Moreover, the additional height brings an identifiable, needed public good, and isn't overwhelming in any event.

Then there's a problem with building permits---because it's a not-for-profit, Housing Trust wants some assistance with the half-million dollars in building permit fees--- after being rejected for a break on the fees, the Trust asked if, instead of paying the fees upfront, it could pay at final inspection, right before the occupancy permit is granted. Staff rejected that proposal as well.

In the end, fewer than 50 affordable housing units have been built in Halifax over the past decade. And here's an organization that is energized and has the expertise to start down the path of providing us more, but due to bureaucratic indifference and, really, hostility, it is being frustrated.

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