Could Huntsville affordable housing initiative be headed for failure?

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There was confusion and apprehension around the table at Huntsville’s Planning Committee on Tuesday.

At its November 20 meeting, committee was being asked to approve the severance of eight townhouse lots from lands off Sabrina Park Drive. The lands were donated by the municipality to Craig Developments Inc. as part of a highly lauded, public-private housing partnership. It was envisioned as a high-density neighbourhood, one which would add a significant mix of at-market and much-needed affordable rental housing to the local market.

Manager of Planning Services, Kirstin Maxwell, told committee that each of the eight lots would have a minimum area of 164 square metres and six metres of frontage on Sabrina Park Drive. The remainder of the lands would comprise an area of 2.3 hectares and have 440 metres of road frontage.

But the request did not sit well with committee members. Many seemed uneasy about approving the severance and questioned what protections were in place to safeguard the municipality’s investment if the project fails. Others wondered whether any of the townhouses would be considered affordable, whether public consultations would follow, or whether the eight lots were simply the initial requirement of the developer in order to leverage more development.

Conspicuously absent from the meeting was the developer as committee and staff struggled to find answers.

Town of Huntsville CAO Denise Corry pulled up the agreement on her laptop and read some of its contents. “Bottom line is the agreement currently states Phase One will be 70 units and 40 per cent minimum of those units will be affordable. So I believe the application before committee is for eight townhouses, so if that’s considered Phase One, then it hasn’t met the provisions of the original agreement.”

Corry also said that if there are changes to the development, those changes would have to be communicated by the developer to staff who would then need to take the revised plan back to council for approval.

While committee heard that there were provisions in the agreement stating that the lands would be transferred back to the municipality if the developer did not comply with the project, it was not clear what recourse the Town would have if part of the lands were already developed.

Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano also expressed concern with severing the best part of the property. “They’re doing the first eight units on the already existing street, with probably already existing services, and then if they walk away I know we’re not totally landlocked but now… the next developer has to put in all the roads and servicing systems,” she said of the backlands.

“I don’t think Phase One can just consist of eight townhouse units,” added Councillor Nancy Alcock, who said the intent of the project was not to approach it in a piecemeal way. She also said that a lot of pressure had been placed on the developer and discussions should take place to try and move the project forward.

“There wasn’t exactly an avalanche of developers eager to build affordable housing for us as a community. It’s an issue all across the country, and so we’re working with these folks and the realities of trying to finance a project like this has sunk in I think for them,” said Mayor Scott Aitchison.

He added that the road alone would be costly. “It would cost them a million dollars to build that road, so you know, where is that money coming from? And so you finance a million dollars to build a road before you’ve done anything to come close to maybe renting a unit out at an affordable rate, that’s just an awful lot of money to carry and so this is one of the reasons why we’re doing this,” he said of providing the land and other municipal incentives to spur more affordable housing.

Aitchison also noted that if the proposal before committee does not meet that agreement on title, then it should not have been brought before committee in the first place.

“I think maybe staff need to go back and take a look at what’s in the agreement, what’s been put before us. Does it meet the agreement? If it doesn’t, then it shouldn’t be here,” he said, adding that the applicant should also have been present.

Councillor Jonathan Wiebe said the committee’s decision should be based on whether the municipality would be compensated if the lands are severed and the intent of the project falters.

If we were to be compensated then the worst thing that’s happened is that we sold property at market value to someone who built some townhouses, which isn’t the end of the world, but without that we’re giving away taxpayer money. Councillor Jonathan Wiebe

Aitchison, who seemed to be growing increasingly frustrated with the discussion, said it is not up to committee to figure out a new deal. “I think part of the problem is we don’t know what the deal is now. Is she (applicant) scrambling to get these started before the snow flies? I don’t know. Where is she?”

Corry apologized to committee for the application before them. “I would like to take ownership of this and say I apologize to committee that this application did come forward. The Mayor is correct, if it didn’t meet the provisions of the agreement we should’ve had those discussions… I do take responsibility, it should not have come, it does not meet the provisions of the agreement and staff will take it back and we will report back to committee next cycle.”

Committee deferred the severance application. The last time the project representative, Teresa Oliver, went before council was in August at their General Committee meeting. You can find the information she delivered about the project here (PDF). Doppler has asked for a copy of the agreement.

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4 Comments

  1. Years from now The future leaders of Huntsville will regret approving low income housing due to the many costs associated with keeping the place up to a minimal living standard. Just look at the many issues involved in any low income development in the GTA. If people were allowed to purchase these units at a reasonable cost, based upon income, then ownership normally provides dignity and care for the property.

  2. There are a multiplicity of definitions for “affordable housing”. Which one was used in this agreement? Also, it is clearly obvious that: a) the developer wishes to glean monies from the 8 townhouse sales to proceed with the affordable housing, or b) she is going to sell the townhouses and cut bait and run. I hope for the latter.

  3. After looking at the PDF, it seems to me that the overall plan shouldn’t have been approved with phase 1 only consisting of 8 townhouses. Phase 1 should’ve included the roadway and services being in place before the townhouses. Then the town would have some guarantee of further development. Craig Developements Inc. should have enough credit to go forward with this proposal. If they don’t, then beware.

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