As Hamilton councillors heaped praise on their planning staff for their hard work, they simultaneously rejected their advice on urban boundary expansion by a 13-3 margin. Staff had developed what they called an “ambitious density” scenario that would have seen the city gradually expanding over the next 30 years into roughly 3,000 acres of land that staff admitted was largely prime agricultural land to accommodate what is estimated to be more than 200,000 new residents by 2051. The plan would have seen only a quarter of the new housing units as single-family homes and the remainder, apartments, towns and stacked townhouses. With council’s decision—new development will now be confined to the existing city boundary, although council did vote to look at the issue on an annual basis going forward to see how the no-growth scenario is working out.
Provincial housing policy
Council’s decision on this contentious issue was made somewhat easier in late September when officials of the ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing sent a letter to Hamilton warning that the no-growth scenario would run counter to provincial growth policy.
The letter made the point that urban growth plans have to take into account what it terms “market demand”—in other words what consumers actually want in terms of type of housing as opposed to what anti-sprawl groups think they should want—namely high-rise apartments. “The LNA Methodology requires municipalities to ensure that sufficient land is available to accommodate market demand for ALL housing types (our emphasis) including ground-related housing (single/semi-detached houses), row houses, and apartments.”
The letter continued, “Ministry staff further acknowledge that the City’s residential intensification analysis…has found that the City is unlikely to achieve the necessary level of apartment unit construction from a market demand perspective. As such, the No Urban Boundary Expansion scenario appears to conflict with the objective of the LNA methodology to “provide sufficient land to accommodate all market segments so as to avoid shortages.”
Several councillors alluded to the possibility of the province imposing boundary expansion in the debate Friday, so the prospect was clearly on some of their minds. If the province does intervene, urban boundary expansion will join the list of other major issues where senior governments had to make the decision for a dithering council—LRT and ward boundary redistribution being two recent examples.
Affordability still the main issue
There was enough disinformation to go around on both sides of the issue. As the Spectator pointed out this week and we observed earlier this month, most of the prime farm land that the urbanist opponents fretted about in their newly-found affinity with the agricultural community, is already in the hands of developers and has been for years. On the other hand, while the law of supply and demand makes sense on paper, nobody seriously thinks that expanding the urban boundary is going to do anything to make housing more affordable—at best it might slow the rate of inflation. The no-growth scenario, coupled with the LRT will see more high-rises and taller high-rises springing up in Hamilton than anyone can currently envision. And who knows—these housing units may get taken up; not because the next generation believes in living out their lives in apartments any more than their parents and most of council do—but because they won’t be able to afford anything else. Where affordable housing and social housing fit into this scenario is anybody’s guess.