City hall has effectively doubled down on a gambit to increase downtown Winnipeg's residential population, heaping a condo-buying incentive on top of a pre-existing program that offered incentives to condo and apartment developers.
Council voted 13-3 on Wednesday to approve a $7.8-million downtown-revitalization package dubbed the Exchange Waterfront Neighbourhood Development Program, which includes $2.3 million of subsidies for anyone who buys a new, unsold and unoccupied condo in the Exchange District, Chinatown, the Civic Centre neighbourhood and the western fringe of South Point Douglas.
Once bylaws are written and approved this fall, condo buyers in those areas will receive a $10,000 cheque they can apply to their down payment. They'll get to keep the money if they live in the unit themselves and remain there for five years.
'We want people to move downtown'
This subsidy comes on top of the Downtown Residential Grant Program, a three-year-old city-provincial construction-stimulus mechanism that offers as much as $40,000 per unit for developers of new downtown apartments or condominiums.
Downtown development agency CentreVenture has described the new condo-buying incentive as a means of taking up the existing supply of condos. Mayor Sam Katz, however, said he hopes the incentive will stimulate new development as well.
"I happen to believe this is very similar to the hundreds of other things we do to make sure taxpayers are making a choice: We want people to move downtown," Katz said following Wednesday's council meeting.
Very few developers received $40,000 per unit under the city-provincial development grant, said Katz, chafing at the suggestion the new incentive amounts to throwing money at a glut of condos created through a government subsidy.
The cash for the new incentive will be borrowed by the city and then recovered from new developments across downtown.
The city has yet to demonstrate the financial wisdom behind the move, let alone the need for the additional incentive, said River Heights-Fort Garry Coun. John Orlikow, one of the councillors who voted against the plan.
"If the market isn't there, then those developers should lower their prices. That's called the market," said Orlikow, who said the incentive appears to be a favour for the developers. "Now they don't have to lower their prices."
On Wednesday, Winnipeg consumers who've recently purchased Exchange District and Waterfront Drive condos were left wondering whether they would qualify for the new incentive -- and if not, whether they should purchase later in order to receive the $10,000 cheque.
"People will ask that question: 'Why buy a condo until this is in place?' " said Ryan Loiselle, who has placed a deposit on a Waterfront Drive condominium. "I should be eligible for that and so should the other families moving in to the other units."
The mayor did not see it that way. "As a consumer, you purchase something -- and a week, a day or a month (later) it's on sale," Katz said. "That happens every day of our lives."
But Orlikow said government should not be stepping in to distort the real estate market. He also questioned other aspects of the Exchange-Waterfront plan, including CentreVenture's role in designing streetscaping features that would normally be the responsibility of the Winnipeg Arts Council.
St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes and Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt also voted against the Exchange-Waterfront plan, which also calls for spending money on safety features, marketing, new patios and retail incentives, possibly to lure a major grocer to the Exchange.
Wyatt said the city's financial position is not strong enough to earmark future property-tax revenues for downtown neighbourhood development.