It seemed like a simple enough proposition. The city owns the First-Place affordable housing project at the corner of King and Wellington Streets. Under the Federal Rapid Housing Initiative the city has an opportunity to get some funding to add additional affordable housing spaces, but the catch is, the units must be built in the next 12 months. In fact, the funding for this very project was announced Tuesday in a virtual video session involving local Minister Philomena Tassi, MP Bob Bratina and Mayor Eisenberger along with MP Adam Vaughan who is the parliamentary secretary responsible for rolling out the program.
When First Place was first built, the entire first floor was devoted to commercial space, but aside from some stores facing King Street, nobody has been able to make a go of operating in that space and they have sat vacant for years. City Housing, Hamilton’s public housing authority saw an opportunity to convert that unused space to 15-despertaely needed senior residences.
But even when the city is changing the use of property it owns, there is still a zoning process that must be followed, and that process, including public consultation, can take months depending on whether the change in use is deemed a major or minor zoning variation; and whether or not somebody chooses to launch an objection. Councillor Chad Collins, who is also the president of City Housing Hamilton, recommended that in order to ensure that the units could be completed in twelve months, that the city apply for a Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) which supersedes the zoning process and allows a project to go forward immediately.
Ultimately the motion passed, but it triggered about an hour of discussion of the optics of a city asking for an MZO , since many believe they are seen as a developer-friendly measure that will allow large projects to go ahead over the objections of the local council.
Not surprisingly the MZO’s are viewed differently depending on the point of view of individuals involved. Dave Wilks, Pretendent of BILD Ontario, representing developers, wrote recently in the Toronto Star that the MZO’s have become necessary because some municipalities are chronically delaying the processing of development proposals even though there are prescribed time limits for approvals: Unfortunately, municipalities frequently fail to meet these legislated timeframes. A recent municipal benchmarking report compiled for BILD by Altus Group found that of the 18 GTA municipalities examined, not one met the legislated timeframes. In the most egregious case, a municipality took, on average (not for a single case), 29 times longer than the maximum legislated timeframe.
Remember that municipalities are empowered to charge a fee for these services, which means they can hire more staff if they need to and cover the cost through fees. Nor are these delays without implications for new home buyers: slow municipal approvals add between $58,000 and $87,000 to the cost of a typical 2,000-sq.-ft., single-family home in the GTA and between $44,000 and $66,000 to the cost of a highrise apartment.
On the flip side is Tim Gray of Environmental Defence:
These approvals are now diving deep into areas of decision making that formerly were the responsibility of municipalities. They include individual development proposals that may or may not have any support from local governments or the public.
For example, the Minster issued four orders in one day in April and then another seven in August. The April orders included approval of the destruction of three small protected wetlands to make way for a large warehouse and distribution centre in Vaughan and another to allow a retirement community to be built on farmland in Markham and Whitchurch-Stouffville. One of the MZOs issued in August in the Caledon area approves a major new development that is strongly opposed by the Peel Regional government.