With $27.5M from Ottawa, St. Catharines looks to fund housing initiatives & form a Municipal Development Corporation that polarized council
Niagara Democracy Watch is The Pointer’s weekly feature aimed at increasing the public’s awareness and political involvement in the Niagara Region by highlighting key agenda items, motions and decisions.
Date: February 12 - 6:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
St. Catharines Council to consider arm’s-length Municipal Development Corporation to deal with development of public property and fee waivers for affordable housing projects
With the need for housing a prominent issue for all three levels of government, it should come as no surprise that Monday’s St. Catharines City Council agenda includes a number of items through the housing lens, most notably a report on the implementation of a Municipal Development Corporation (MDC), which has polarized Council.
The proposed MDC was described in the City’s email newsletter, the Garden City Current, as a “a separate body distinct from staff and an arm’s length body of council that focuses on aspects of development of public property within a city, including obtaining and disposing of land and facilitating partnerships.”
At their May 29, 2023 meeting, St. Catharines Council received a feasibility study from consultant, urbanMetrics inc., and a related staff report on the possibility of a Real Estate and Land Development Corporation “to unlock the strategic value of the City’s real estate assets towards greater economic, social, environmental, and community benefits.”
Like many municipalities, St. Catharines has a single staff person that deals with real estate related matters, along with their other duties. To better deal with the municipality’s real estate needs, the May 2023 report, recommended a team with expertise in “complex real estate solutions and negotiating outcomes beneficial to the City.”
The report indicated that there were three potential models the City could employ to deal with its real estate needs: setting up an internal staff department, forming a municipal service board, which would answer directly to Council, or enacting an MDC with an arm’s-length board “comprised of council representatives, senior staff, and industry leaders, with an executive management team and staff possessing specialized skill sets.”
The consultant’s study looked at municipal real estate corporations in Toronto, Oakville, Burlington, Midland, Calgary, and Edmonton, estimating the start-up costs at between $400,000 and $900,000 per year in the first four to six years of operation.
Despite the higher anticipated start-up costs, staff's recommendation was the arm’s length corporation. During the urbanMetric’s consultation process, it was noted that the private sector was “less interested in dealing with the municipality directly.”
Five councillors ultimately voted against the motion to approve “in principle” the creation of a municipal development corporation. The motion also indicated that staff would report back with an implementation strategy by the end of Q3.
It was anticipated that staff would bring the implementation strategy for the MDC to the Budget Standing Committee before going to council, however, the third quarter came and went without the report. At a meeting last month, Chief Administrative Officer David Oakes indicated that the promised “second report” had not materialized because of the “financial issues” surrounding the MDC.
The calculations, however, changed with the Federal Government’s January 23 announcement that the City of St. Catharines had secured $25.7 million in funding under the Housing Accelerator Fund (HAF) administered through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).
The goal of the HAF is to remove systematic barriers to the housing supply. The Federal funding is premised on St. Catharines approving 2,615 housing units within three years. The City’s successful application included seven initiatives, with the MDC being funded “100 percent” through the HAF.
Despite the Feds footing the bill for the MDC, some councillors, at the January 29 Council meeting, were taken aback that a project approved only “in principle” has become the centrepiece of the funding.
Ward 2, St. Andrew's Councillor Joe Kushner indicated that he “took exception” with the MDC due to its price tag and the bureaucracy it would create. Mayor Siscoe responded that “it did pass” and claimed that the setting up of a development corporation for municipal real estate matters is seen as a “best practice” by the Federal government.
Ward 6, Port Dalhousie Councillor Bruce Williamson indicated that putting forward the MDC as if it was approved was also problematic for him. It was explained that while staff had the delegated authority to make funding applications without seeking Council’s approval, a memo from the CAO in August had been provided to Council indicating that the MDC was part of the HAF application and had been approved by Council.
Williamson’s fellow Ward 6 Councillor, Carols Garcia echoed the comments expressed by indicating that he felt that it would be more economical to hire an additional staff person, especially since the consultant had only identified about a dozen properties within the City’s holdings with potential for redevelopment. Garcia also indicated concern that the decision making authority related to the City’s land holdings would be taken away from Council.
Monday’s staff report outlines the next steps: urbanMetrics will prepare a business case in support of the MDC, a public consultation strategy will be implemented, though the report notes more than 50 consultations that took place in preparation for the consultant’s 2023 report, and an asset transfer policy will be prepared to “establish the framework for the transfer of assets from the City to the MDC”. The latter two steps are required, as per Regulation 599/06 of the Municipal Act.
The report further attempts to justify the need for the MDC:
“[T]he MDC would act as the lead developer and marketer for municipally owned real estate assets through negotiating with the private sector outside of the political system. This ability increases the pace of discussions, which aligns with normal business dealings the private sector undertakes and enhances the marketability and demand for City of St. Catharines lands… The MDC, and staff under this corporation, would have the ability to negotiate a wider variety of commercial relationships with developers, builders, and other agencies in the form of partnerships, joint ventures and equity opportunities. Through these interactions, the MDC will be able to maximize the value of the City’s landholdings which will generate a long-term sustainable revenue flow to the City.”
After the public consultation process, a report will come to Council to approve the Business Case Study, the Asset Transfer Policy and the creation of the MDC. Once approved, organization documents will be executed by the City and the preliminary board members, with the MDC incorporated under the Business Corporations Act.
Although five of Council’s thirteen members opposed the MDC, Councillor Williamson intimated at the January 29 meeting that he would vote in favour, in light of the full federal funding.
How the MDC will impact affordable housing is unclear. The 2023 consultant’s report identified the MDC taking a “lead” role but suggested that the consultation feedback varied. The report indicated a belief that the municipality should “not be explicitly providing social housing, as this is the Region’s responsibility but should instead focus any efforts on the middle of the affordability spectrum.”
A second report on Monday’s agenda more specifically deals with the issue by recommending the implementation of an Affordable Housing Fee Reimbursement Policy, with $50,000 to be allocated from the HAF funding for 2024.
The report notes that the City receives “sporadic” requests to reimburse, reduce, or waive Planning and Building Department fees, which have been decided on a case by case basis. Seven reimbursements or fee waivers have occurred since 2018 totaling $189,000. The only project strictly related to affordable housing was the YWCA Niagara Region Affordable Housing in 2019, in which $40,000 in related fees were not collected with Council’s approval.
The staff report notes that the definition of “affordable” is not always consistent. The proposed policy is defining it as non-ownership housing which is the least expensive of either “housing for which the housing cost does not exceed 30 percent of gross annual household income for low and moderate income households (household incomes in the lowest 60 percent of the income distribution for renter households in the Niagara Region) or
housing for which the housing cost is at or below the average market rent of a unit in the Niagara Region.”
Other criteria in the proposed policy include the applicant must be a not-for-profit eligible housing provider, registered charity whose primary objective is to provide housing or Niagara Regional Housing. The related project must provide a minimum of 11 new dwelling units and at least 30 percent of the units, if a mixed development, have to meet the definition of affordable non-ownership housing.
Finally, Ward 4, St. Patrick's Councillor Caleb Ratlzaff is formally requesting that staff prepare a report on the implications of implementing a by-law similar to Hamilton's recent by-law titled "Addressing Renovictions, Tenant Displacement, and Property Standards in Apartment Buildings". Generally speaking, the Hamilton By-law is attempting to deal with the scenario where tenants are often found homeless not understanding their rights during “renoviction” scenarios.
Landlords, who have filed an N-13 notice under the Residential Tenancies Act, will also have to apply for a renovation licence from the City. The tenant will be informed of their legal right of first refusal under the Act, which requires the landlord to provide either a temporary alternative accommodation or compensation to the tenant for the duration of the renovation process.
The Municipal Development Corporation report can be read here.
The Affordable Housing Fee Reimbursement Policy can be read here.
Date: Monday, February 12 - 6:00 p.m. | Delegate | Full agenda | Watch live
New private Tree By-law with stronger enforcement provisions proposed in Fort Erie.
On Monday, Fort Erie Council, at their Council-in-Committee meeting, will consider a new “private tree by-law”. The existing by-law regulating the destruction, injury and harvesting of Trees in the Town of Fort Erie has been on the books for 20 years, without amendment, but “several on-going issues related to (tree) removal…have triggered the need for a review and update to the existing by-law.”
In May 2023, Mayor Wayne Redekop brought forward a resolution asking that staff come back with comments on By-law 60-04, the current private tree by-law. The discussion at the time made reference to an incident of “egregious clear cutting by a developer” and issues of jurisdiction between the Town and the Region of Niagara.
On the latter, the current Town By-law deals with trees covering an area between 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) and 1 hectare (2.47 acres). The Niagara Region Woodland Conservation By-law 2020-79 governs the cutting of trees in woodlands greater than 1.0 hectare. Both jurisdictions have been thwarted in the reduction in woodland density caused by the Emerald Ash Borer and invasive species, meaning that areas have no longer met the density definitions of the respective by-laws due to the mass die-off of trees.
Neither by-law deals with the removal of large individual trees within the urban boundary, which are often valued for their aesthetic quality and the shade they provide, or trees identified under the Ontario Heritage Act.
On the issue of clear cutting by developers, the related report notes that “Planning staff have frequently observed the clearing of woodlands in advance of Planning Act applications in an attempt to avoid development constraints and the needs for an Environmental Impact Study.”
The proposed By-law will generally prohibit the removal of trees without a permit for a property engaged in any Planning application process. Heritage trees, trees equal to or greater than 30cm Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) within the Urban Boundary and trees on public property will also be subject to the permitting process under the amendment By-law.
Permits will not automatically be granted. Staff can refuse a permit on various stipulated grounds or require supporting documentation such as an Arborist Report, site plan, landscape or replanting plans, depending on the extent of the tree removal. In addition, Fort Erie will add “tree compensation” provisions as a condition of permit approval. Such provisions could include planting of replacement trees for every tree that is removed, often at greater than 1 to 1 ratio or cash-in-lieu, where if replantings are not possible, the Town would receive $500 per tree that would be allocated to natural feature enhancement within the municipality.
In preparation of the amendments to the By-law, the Town held a Public Open House in September and a Public Meeting occurred at a Council meeting in November. Input was sought from the Town’s Environmental Advisory Committee. Two dozen comments were received at the Open House or through emails to Town staff.
Most public comments were in favour of a strengthened by-law, with the need for greater enforcement and the Town tracking its’ canopy coverage. There were some concerns, however, expressed over the regulation of individual trees on private property with a “desire for residents to be able to manage or harvest trees in a sustainable way without needing a permit.”
A new tree by-law “with greater tree protections and technical specifications” will come at a cost. Staff indicate that the by-law would necessitate the need for, at the outset, one additional staff person with a background in arboriculture or forestry.
The staff report can be read here.
Email: [email protected]
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