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EDITORIAL: Feds housing fund forcing municipalities to evolve urban planning methods

EDITORIAL: As several hundred municipalities compete to get a slice of the federal government’s $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund pie, it’s anything but a handout.
Cartoon by Patrick LaMontagne/

As several hundred municipalities compete to get a slice of the federal government’s $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund pie, it’s anything but a handout.

The federal government is using a carrot-and-stick approach in dragging municipalities to more inclusionary zoning, establishing greater density and prioritizing the need for better development application timelines.

At a Monday (Feb. 19) Banff announcement – which saw the mountain community get $4.66 million – the minister of housing, infrastructure and communities Sean Fraser left no gray area in expectations.

The message from the federal government is clear. They want housing, they want it as fast as possible, there will be no more exclusionary zoning and they want municipalities to understand density is the way of the future.

The day of the single-family home dominating residential suburbia is over.

Fraser said when the fund was established, it was anticipated to create more than 100,000 new housing units. But with municipalities willing to jump through hoops and do nearly anything to not only get housing built – but also demolish walls and doors in the way – he expected closer to 600,000 in the next 10 years.

The money, however, is quickly evaporating and being grabbed by all municipalities willing to meet the federal government’s request or eliminate measures that may restrict housing growth.

Since the first successful application was awarded to the City of London, roughly 30 municipalities have had their coffers padded. Though big cities were first, the Banff announcement was the official launch of the small city and town aspect of the fund.

With more than $1 billion already dedicated to communities, the sink of federal dollars is slowly being drained.

For municipalities not wanting to play ball, Ottawa has shown they will simply move on to the next of the 540 applications it received.

In Calgary, the municipality dawdled and delayed changes to zoning and improving permitting timelines. It led to a delay in receiving money and when they committed to change, the federal ministry gave 25 per cent upfront. The remaining 75 per cent will be released annually for the next three years, as long as Calgary hits milestones the federal government is happy with.

The municipality will eventually get $228 million, but not without having to dance for it first.

The City of Windsor in southwestern Ontario was denied twice due to repeatedly refusing zoning changes, specifically allowing a minimum of four units on any residential property as-of-right. Its refusal led to as much as $70 million not going to the community. It’s tough to put a price on a person’s – or in this case, a council’s – pride, but Windsor did.

In Surrey and Burnaby, British Columbia, both communities had their funding postponed by about three months due to Metro Vancouver’s decision to significantly increase development charges on future infrastructure costs.

Though preferring to use the carrot, the federal ministry has no hesitation when it comes to swapping it out with a stick.

But rather than get tied down with the day-to-day minutiae of a municipality’s operations, they created the high level rules and expectations in a push to have municipal leaders show vision and ambition.

For those not showing it, they’ll simply move down the list to those who are.

As Fraser said in Banff, the money “is only for the most ambitious communities in Canada.”

It’s ultimately up to the rest of the municipalities waiting to hear if they’ve been selected or not and if they’re willing to meet those terms.

The federal government wants a different mindset when it comes to urban planning. It’s bringing the urban sprawl to a grinding halt and it’s forcing municipalities to rethink the way they look at development.

Whether municipal governments follow along – and are rewarded with funding – is up to them.

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