Find­ing the city’s hid­den hous­ing

Fast-grow­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties like ours need to con­sider the “miss­ing mid­dle” of de­vel­op­ment—be­tween de­tached houses and apart­ment tow­ers—even though the neigh­bours might freak out.


It’s the first rule of city plan­ning: You don’t mess with peo­ple’s neigh­bour­hoods with­out a fight. Min­ne­ap­o­lis got a crash course in that re­al­ity last year when, in the face of rapid pop­u­la­tion growth, bal­loon­ing hous­ing costs and plum­met­ing va­cancy rates, its city coun­cil voted for a new plan­ning frame­work called “Min­ne­ap­o­lis 2040.” The new de­vel­op­ment bi­ble aims to elim­i­nate the sin­gle-fam­ily zon­ing that cov­ers much of the city, and open ev­ery­where to at least mod­est de­vel­op­ment— up to three dwelling units on even the most re­stric­tively zoned res­i­den­tial lots.

Opin­ions were di­vided, to say the least. Ac­tivist group Min­ne­ap­o­lis for Every­one passed out Don’t Bull­doze Our Neigh­bor­hoods lawn signs, and warned on their web­site that the plan will “ben­e­fit de­vel­op­ers at the ex­pense of...fam­i­lies, older peo­ple and the dis­abled.”

On the other side of things, Neigh­bors for More Neigh­bors, a pro-den­sity group, dis­trib­uted busi­ness cards read­ing “Uh oh! Your home­owner priv­i­lege is show­ing”—a ref­er­ence to older home­own­ers, pre­sum­ably com­fort­ably en­sconced in es­tab­lished neigh­bour­hoods and not too en­thu­si­as­tic about any change in that what­ever-you-want-it-to-mean chimera, “neigh­bour­hood char­ac­ter.”

Over­all, though, hous­ing ad­vo­cates and anti-poverty ad­vo­cates have cel­e­brated the idea of build­ing what plan­ners call the “miss­ing mid­dle”—du­plexes, triplexes, small apart­ment build­ings—on streets dom­i­nated for decades by de­tached homes. They hope it will re­duce in­equal­ity and lead to more hous­ing avail­abil­ity.

It wasn’t that long ago that pro­tect­ing neigh­bour­hood char­ac­ter from de­vel­op­ment was a pro­gres­sive bona fide. But the past few years have seen a shift from the con­ser­va­tion­ist old guard—the gen­er­a­tion that helped fight off in­ner-city free­ways and de­struc­tive ur­ban-re­newal schemes—to a more per­mis­sive group of mu­nic­i­pal ac­tivists. The so-called YIMBYs (for Yes in My Back­yard) have es­pe­cially gained trac­tion in ul­tra-ex­pen­sive ci­ties in des­per­ate need of both sub­si­dized hous­ing, and plain old mar­ket hous­ing ac­ces­si­ble to non-mil­lion­aires. So it’s not sur­pris­ing that loos­en­ing up re­stric­tive zon­ing that sti­fles new hous­ing is a key plank in these groups’ ac­tivism.

“Re­stric­tive zon­ing gen­er­ally has been long beaten into peo­ple’s heads as a de­sir­able thing,” says Neil Lovitt, a se­nior man­ager of plan­ning and eco­nomic in­tel­li­gence with real-es­tate con­sult­ing firm Turner Drake & Part­ners Ltd. “If you start in­tro­duc­ing du­plexes or apart­ments on your street, peo­ple be­lieve your in­vest­ment in your home will be re­duced, it’ll in­tro­duce crime. These things aren’t based on ob­served re­al­ity, but they’re so­cial norms.”

Those norms go pretty much un­ques­tioned in most Cana­dian ci­ties, in­clud­ing Hal­i­fax. Here, most res­i­den­tial streets lie within so­called es­tab­lished res­i­den­tial ar­eas, zoned R-1 or R-2—sin­gle-fam­ily or du­plex zones. It’s ba­si­cally il­le­gal to build any­thing in these ar­eas that doesn’t look and feel like what al­ready ex­ists. Neigh­bour­hood char­ac­ter is cast in stone. Neigh­bour­hood evo­lu­tion is ba­si­cally il­le­gal. These ar­eas cover the large ma­jor­ity of the city’s res­i­den­tial land­scape, and that means that only a frac­tion of the city is pulling its weight to ab­sorb the thou­sands of peo­ple mov­ing here ev­ery year. Most growth is pushed to brand-new sub­di­vi­sions, or to a hand­ful of cor­ri­dors and growth cen­tres re­built over and over, to ever-higher den­si­ties. The re­sult is a city both taller and sprawlier.

Mean­while, the fi­nite hous­ing sup­ply in es­tab­lished ar­eas be­comes more ex­clu­sive. As in­comes rise and house­hold sizes shrink, some gen­tri­fy­ing in­ner-city neigh­bour­hoods are ac­tu­ally de­clin­ing in pop­u­la­tion, even as new­com­ers crowd into larger apart­ment and condo build­ings a stone’s throw away (also of­ten op­posed by nearby res­i­dents).

Take the leafy lit­tle area bordered by Quin­pool, Ju­bilee, Ro­bie and Con­naught. Be­tween the last two fed­eral cen­suses, house­hold in­comes grew here by about 10 per­cent, while the pop­u­la­tion dropped by 6.3 per­cent, fall­ing from 1,100 house­holds to 1,020. Most of those lost house­holds con­tained renters. This is a clear-as-day sta­tis­ti­cal por­trait of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and the same trend is ev­i­dent in es­tab­lished neigh­bour­hoods from Cole Har­bour to Dart­mouth to Bed­ford.

For a long time, Hal­i­fax could (sort of) get away with this. Pop­u­la­tion growth was slow, and new hous­ing was in rel­a­tively low de­mand. But that’s changed. Both 2016 and 2017 were the city’s strong­est years for pop­u­la­tion growth in decades. And 2018 looks set to beat both—pos­si­bly more than 10,000 new res­i­dents, ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Canada es­ti­mates. Rel­a­tive to pop­u­la­tion, Hal­i­fax is now among Canada’s fastest-grow­ing ci­ties.

But hous­ing hasn’t kept up. In 2007, we saw about 3,500 new res­i­dents, and about 2,500 hous­ing starts. In 2017, we saw about 8,000 new res­i­dents—and about 2,700 hous­ing starts. (The il­lu­sion of a de­vel­op­ment boom is re­ally caused by a shift in where de­vel­op­ment is hap­pen­ing. For­merly out of sight at

the edge of town, a lot more is now hap­pen­ing down­town.) Rather than over­build­ing, we’re headed straight for a hous­ing crunch. The rental va­cancy rate is lower than at any time since the 1980s, and rapidly ris­ing rents may not be far be­hind.

We need more space to house peo­ple and we need it now. Leav­ing so much of a grow­ing city cov­ered in pro­tected en­claves is so­cially, eco­nom­i­cally, and eth­i­cally in­de­fen­si­ble.

For­tu­nately, we have lots of room. And some of it is prob­a­bly on your street.

Hal­i­fax isn’t the only city grap­pling with this. In 2016, Toronto plan­ner Gil Mes­lin even coined the term “yel­low­belt,” re­fer­ring to the colour that the city’s no-growth res­i­den­tial ar­eas—which oc­cupy 75 per­cent of the city— oc­cupy on zon­ing maps. Last March, Mes­lin told The Globe and

Mail that “The whole de­vel­op­ment sec­tor has ei­ther bi­fur­cated into peo­ple who ren­o­vate and flip homes or peo­ple who build huge, lotassem­bly con­do­minium de­vel­op­ments, build­ing 30- and 40-storey tow­ers and 500-unit build­ings. It doesn’t leave that kind of [mid­dle] grass­roots or smaller-scale de­vel­op­ers.”

Toronto is stuck with its yel­low­belt for now, but other ci­ties have been mak­ing strides in open­ing up sim­i­lar zones. Be­sides Min­ne­ap­o­lis, Van­cou­ver city coun­cil voted last Septem­ber to elim­i­nate sin­gle-fam­ily zon­ing in most of the city. The state of Ore­gon is look­ing at al­low­ing up to four dwelling units, at min­i­mum, on any lot in any city larger than 10,000 peo­ple. Even sprawl­ing Ed­mon­ton last year opened up more of the city rental con­ver­sions.

These changes in­vari­ably in­volve neigh­bour­hood turf wars. Min­ne­ap­o­lis’ vote oc­ca­sioned a clash be­tween op­pos­ing ac­tivist groups. And Van­cou­ver’s fairly mod­est pol­icy was al­most re­versed in De­cem­ber when chal­lenged by a cen­tre-right mu­nic­i­pal party. There’s ev­ery rea­son to ex­pect sim­i­lar re­sponse here—some of which has to do with of­ten-de­served cyn­i­cism about the de­vel­op­ment in­dus­try.

Larry Haiven is a Hal­i­fax com­mu­nity ac­tivist and chair of the Sch­midtville Stake­holder Steer­ing Com­mit­tee. He en­thu­si­as­ti­cally praises miss­ing-mid­dle ap­proaches to cre­ate more hous­ing, hold­ing up Sch­midtville—an es­pe­cially dense, five-block en­clave of Vic­to­rian row­houses in the south end—as an ex­em­plar. Part of what makes it so suc­cess­ful, Haiven be­lieves, is how it ac­com­mo­dates great den­sity and di­ver­sity in a low-rise area.

But when faced with the idea of loos­en­ing up zon­ing else­where to cre­ate more Sch­midtville-like in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion—build­ing ad­di­tions, car­riage houses, row­houses re­plac­ing sin­gle­fam­ily homes, or small apart­ment build­ings— his en­thu­si­asm wanes.

“The les­son that I take from Sch­midtville is that one of the best ways to achieve den­sity down­town is sim­ply through pre­serv­ing older neigh­bour­hoods...the minute you start to ease up or al­low any tear-downs, de­vel­op­ers will an­swer, ‘Well I’m sorry I can’t do this. I’ll go broke if I build three storeys, I need to go taller.’”

But Sch­midtville isn’t a typ­i­cal old neigh­bour­hood. It’s among the dens­est in Hal­i­fax, with its most pop­u­lated cen­sus tracts pack­ing in more than 10,000 peo­ple per square kilo­me­tre. (The gen­er­ous lots and sin­gle-fam­ily houses in the west end come in around 4,000 to 5,000 per square kilo­me­tre. Cut that in half again in sub­ur­ban ar­eas.)

And as of last year, Sch­midtville also had its very own neigh­bour­hood-spe­cific zon­ing, al­low­ing more in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion than R-1 or R-2 ar­eas. Sch­midtville isn’t an ex­am­ple of what hap­pens when we leave old neigh­bour­hoods alone. It shows what other old neigh­bour­hoods could be­come, if they’re al­lowed to.

Neil Lovitt cau­tions, how­ever, that more lib­eral zon­ing alone may not trans­form hous­ing ca­pac­ity overnight—R-2 zon­ing on the penin­sula al­ready al­lows up to four dwelling units per lot, and few of those lots are fully de­vel­oped. But that may have to do with other reg­u­la­tions the city could eas­ily loosen.

Kerry Lynch is a small-scale de­vel­oper who’s built sev­eral high-pro­file in­fill pro­jects in re­cent years. Last year he com­pleted the Stan­ley Street Homes in the north end, where eight houses, placed back-to-front, oc­cupy four lots. And in 2015, Lynch built three “mi­cro lofts” be­hind his house on Hunter Street, tak­ing ad­van­tage of a 150-foot-deep back­yard.

Lynch be­lieves there are hun­dreds of shovel-ready R-2 lots in the re­gional cen­tre, if reg­u­la­tions could be loos­ened just a bit. For ex­am­ple, even though penin­sula R-2 lots al­low four dwelling units, build­ings can’t ex­ceed 35 per­cent lot cov­er­age—an of­ten im­pos­si­bly low thresh­old. And then there are park­ing min­i­mums, street-frontage re­quire­ments, et cetera. All this ef­fec­tively closes the door on a lot of oth­er­wise promis­ing sites.

“It is so dif­fi­cult within ex­ist­ing rules to be creative,” he says. “If the city want to en­cour­age this kind of in­fill, there’s got to be a bet­ter process.”

Lovitt sug­gests that in a best-case sce­nario, this could open more op­por­tu­ni­ties for builders like Lynch.

“I won­der if we’d see a flour­ish­ing in a dif­fer­ent type of de­vel­op­ment busi­ness, where peo­ple get more trade-fo­cused, rather than the big­ger de­vel­op­ers whose mod­els are based on large build­ings,” he says. “I hes­i­tate to make any broad claims about what would

We need more space to house peo­ple and we need it now. Leav­ing so much of a grow­ing city cov­ered in pro­tected en­claves is so­cially, eco­nom­i­cally and eth­i­cally in­de­fen­si­ble.

hap­pen, but it al­most seems an eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment tool where you kind of open a new av­enue to make their own work by ex­pand­ing into the small-scale de­vel­op­ment game.”

Some of this is com­ing to the re­gional cen­tre with the Cen­tre Plan (when­ever that hap­pens). But the changes are likely to be very gen­tle, and won’t ex­tend be­yond the cir­cum­fer­en­tial high­way. In the sub­urbs, es­tab­lished ar­eas will re­main sacro­sanct—though in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion there may be even more im­por­tant.

“We need to al­low de­vel­op­ment in Spry­field and the core of Bed­ford and Clay­ton Park,” says Tris­tan Cleve­land, a Dal­housie plan­ning stu­dent and pro­ject lead at Van­cou­ver-based Happy City, an ur­ban­ism re­search and pol­icy hub. “If the only walk­a­ble places are the penin­sula and down­town Dart­mouth, we’ll push ex­ist­ing low-in­come res­i­dents out of those ar­eas, be­cause they’ll be com­pet­ing with high­in­come peo­ple who want to live in walk­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties.”

Jenny Lu­gar, un­til re­cently the sus­tain­able ci­ties co­or­di­na­tor at the Ecol­ogy Ac­tion Cen­tre, be­lieves lib­er­al­iz­ing zon­ing isn’t ap­pro­pri­ate ev­ery­where, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas. “But if lo­cated within 15 min­utes of main streets or on tran­sit,” she says, “that could be a gamechanger, and make main streets health­ier.”

OK, but what about her­itage? Few of us want to see the city’s his­toric res­i­den­tial ver­nac­u­lar ripped apart just to make way for mod­estly more den­sity.

“We can be very spe­cific in the mu­nic­i­pal plan­ning strat­egy about that,” says Lu­gar. “If there are things about build­ings’ char­ac­ter­is­tics that are his­toric or that we con­sider Hal­i­fax-y, it’s not un­heard of to be that spe­cific about pro­tect­ing them, while al­low­ing de­vel­op­ment around them.”

There could even be her­itage ben­e­fits. In­fill­ing es­tab­lished ar­eas isn’t an al­ter­na­tive to taller build­ings—it’s a com­ple­ment to them. But it could help to re­lieve some de­vel­op­ment pres­sure on her­itage-rich cor­ri­dors, from Agri­cola to Ro­bie to Got­tin­gen, that have lit­tle her­itage pro­tec­tion, but which are iden­ti­fied as de­vel­op­ment des­ti­na­tions un­der the Cen­tre Plan.

Fi­nally, more mar­ket-rate hous­ing won’t help our most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents. We need real af­ford­able-hous­ing pol­icy for that. But al­low­ing es­tab­lished neigh­bour­hoods to evolve along with a grow­ing city can only be good for av­er­age renters, or would-be home­own­ers, try­ing to break into oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble neigh­bour­hoods. It should be done in con­sul­ta­tion with res­i­dents—but it should hap­pen.

“Coun­cil has to be able to stand up to long­stand­ing res­i­dents of es­tab­lished neigh­bour­hoods and say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not the di­rec­tion we’re go­ing in,” says Lu­gar. “We want to be a more sus­tain­able city, now and for the next cen­tury.”


The pro­posed Stan­ley Street mi­cro com­mu­nity of eight homes on four ad­ja­cent lots in the Hy­dro­s­tone is part of what’s miss­ing in HRM’s hous­ing starts.

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