Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Affordable housing scheme is cynical

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BRANDON -- The Manitoba legislature adjourned for its Christmas break last week, but that won't prevent Manitoba politicians from arguing the merits of provincial government legislation.

On Monday, Brandon city council will debate a motion calling on the Selinger government to withdraw Bill 7, which would amend the Planning Act and the City of Winnipeg Charter.

According to a Selinger government news release, the proposed amendments would "give municipalities the authority to encourage or require new residential developments to include homes that are affordable to low-and moderate-income households."

The amendments would include "specific zoning bylaw provisions that would allow municipalities to either take a mandatory or incentive-based approach to requiring affordable housing... and provisions on development agreements between the municipality and the developer that would intend on protecting the ongoing affordability of the housing units."

In plain language, the new law would give local governments the power to control the cost of housing, and to force developers to set aside a portion of residential housing developments for affordable housing, at their cost.

Those are powers Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst would like to have. She is quoted in the release as saying, "We are looking forward to taking advantage of this opportunity and strongly encourage other municipalities dealing with affordable housing challenges to do the same."

That sentence has drawn the ire of city councillor Jim McCrae. In a letter to the Brandon Sun, he wrote: "I take public issue with Mayor Decter Hirst's participation in the preparation of a provincial government press release and, more importantly, her clear statement of our city's support for a specific set of policies which have not been formally raised, debated or decided upon at city council."

He added that "a significant number of councillors -- myself included -- would not support forcing developers to build low-income properties or to hold rents at artificially low levels at their own expense... All councillors want more 'affordable housing' in Brandon, but such housing should be the result of co-operative, multi-party approaches rather than top-down city council demands with no promise of public money attached... Anti-business edicts will not work; worse, they will drive business away from our community and other communities across Manitoba."

McCrae is correct to be concerned about this legislation, for several reasons.

It is a fundamental legal principle, dating back to the Magna Carta, that no government may take the property of a citizen without paying fair compensation.

Bill 7 would empower a local government to force a developer to accept a reduced return from a residential housing development -- a de facto expropriation of a portion of the commercial value of the property -- without any corresponding obligation on the municipality to compensate the developer.

Of even greater concern is the fact it is virtually unprecedented for any level of government to require private citizens to implement a social policy objective at their expense. The new law would force developers to either swallow the cost of providing affordable housing in the development, or pass it onto the purchasers of the remaining properties in the development through higher prices.

Under either scenario, private citizens would be bearing the cost of providing government-mandated, privately subsidized housing. That's not fair.

Finally, the fact that each municipality would be given the discretion to require mandatory affordable housing allocations creates the likelihood of a patchwork quilt of varying obligations throughout the province. Developers might abandon municipalities that require allocations, potentially worsening the shortage of affordable housing in those municipalities and impairing the growth of their residential tax bases.

Lack of affordable housing is a serious and growing problem throughout Manitoba, exacerbated by a weak provincial economy, low median incomes and our NDP government's 13-year failure to provide adequate housing allowances to those living on social assistance.

Rather than grapple with those root causes in a decisive manner, they have devised a cynical, ideological scheme that would force developers to do the heavy lifting.

It's a flawed, "all stick, no carrot" approach that won't work. The Selinger government should not be surprised if that is the message delivered by Brandon's city council next week.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2012 A16

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