Releasing the creativity of Ottawa’s homebuilding industry
Ottawa has a proud tradition of innovation in homebuilding as demonstrated at the recent GOHBA Design Awards Gala. Historically, Tartan Homes, Tamarack Homes, and Urbandale Homes were the earliest adopters of Energy Star which became the mainstream building standard. The Kanata Lakes project was the first development project to adopt large-scale storm water management ponds. Minto’s Arcadia community is pioneering urban city design and lifestyle in our suburbs.
The City of Ottawa plays a central role in shaping the dynamism of our homebuilding industry. As a city, we need to work together to develop policies and programs that will drive innovation in Ottawa’s home building industry, not hamper it. Here are three things that our city can do to help unleash the vitality of Ottawa’s home building industry:
1. Adopt a flexible approach to design
In 2003, the City of Ottawa adopted its intensification policy, driving growth inside, instead of outside, the Greenbelt. Ottawa’s homebuilding industry adapted to this policy by focussing on high-rise condos and infill development projects.
Unfortunately, intensification was not accompanied by a comprehensive zoning by-law that supported the shift to high-rise building and infill development. The practical result was homebuilders operating under a set of rules ill-suited to intensification. This led to a rapid increase in demands for zoning variances from homebuilders responding to the push for intensification.
At the same time, intensification was being challenged by community residents who were upset with the pace of change in their established neighbourhoods. As a consequence, re-zoning applications became a battleground over Ottawa’s intensification policy. “Stop over-development in our neighbourhood” signs started sprouting up all over the city.
The City of Ottawa revised its Official Plan in 2014 to include a rigid approach to rules governing building heights, design, and density. “The drive to certainty” was the catchphrase used by supporters of this approach, but as expected by industry, it has stifled innovation in homebuilding, infill design, and is now even being extended to Tall Buildings through a new regime of design guidelines being developed. Rigid rules means less choice and less innovation. Creativity needs flexibility, not rigidity.
2. Reduce red tape
In 2001, the municipalities of Ottawa-Carleton, including Ottawa, Cumberland, Osgoode, Rideau, Goulbourn, West-Carleton, Nepean, Kanata, Gloucester, Vanier, and Rockcliffe Park, were amalgamated to form the City of Ottawa.
Prior to 2001, it took two to three years for a homebuilder to receive all subdivision approvals necessary to divide a large parcel of land into smaller lots that can then be sold separately for new homes. Today, it takes five to seven years for these same subdivision approvals to be provided by the City of Ottawa. Practically speaking this means that people aren’t working and that the cost of building new homes increases as land sits idle.
Why is it taking so long to get a plan of subdivision approved in Ottawa? For starters, there is a lot more pro- vincial and municipal regulation today than there was 14 years ago. While these regulations are well intentioned and designed to protect the public interest, they are also having a negative impact on homebuyers in Ottawa.
Another reason for the delay lays in the elimination of competition. Prior to amalgamation, cities competed for homebuilding activity. They actively sought homebuilders and worked with them to create the conditions for innovation. With amalgamation, the newly-formed City of Ottawa became the only choice for homebuilders seeking to build in the National Capital Region.
While we are not calling for de-amalgamation, it’s helpful to understand the situation so that we can work together on a solution. The first step in this journey is a conversation between the City, our community associations, and Ottawa’s homebuilding industry about reducing red tape.
3. Increase the supply of land for homebuilding
The supply of land has a significant impact on housing in Ottawa. The shortage of land in the GTA has been the primary reason for skyrocketing housing prices there and will eventually hit Ottawa if nothing is done. Ottawa’s population is projected to grow by 7,600 to 9,000 people per year. Population growth increases the demand for housing. The City of Ottawa’s policy has been to limit the supply of land for new homebuilding outside the Greenbelt. When demand increases and supply does not, prices goes up. The cost of land has had a significant impact on the vitality of Ottawa’s homebuilding industry and the choices available to consumers. There are fewer and fewer small and medium-sized homebuilders working in Ottawa as a result of the land shortage. If we want more innovation and dynamism in homebuilding, we need to increase the supply of land available to small and medium-sized homebuilders. The City of Ottawa is currently launching a study called ‘Beyond 2036’ which is intended to prepare the ground for the next Official Plan Review. This is the process through which industry, residents, and elected officials can discuss bringing additional lands into the urban boundary to address the housing affordability and creativity challenges now being experienced.
How can you help?
Your city councillor is elected to bring your views to the decision-making table at City Hall. Next time you see her or him at an event or out on the street talk to them about the need to unleash the creative energy of Ottawa’s homebuilders.
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