Originally published ©️The Hill Times, Monday, October 23, 2023 Edition
Feds seriously up game on housing crisis, but smaller municipalities could be left behind
By Nancy Peckford, Mayor of North Grenville
Without a boost from the Accelerator Fund, small communities cannot do their part to fulfill the vision of affordable and attainable housing for all.
By Nancy Peckford
With Sean Fraser’s recent appointment as minister of housing, the federal government is seriously upping its game amid a growing housing crisis. The introduction of the Housing Accelerator Fund represents a seismic shift in how the federal government has opted to directly intervene in the housing landscape in profound ways across the country.
Recent public debates between Fraser and large urban centres—including Ottawa and Halifax—about zoning matters, including height, density, and parking provisions were unimaginable even a year ago. This is not an arena where the federal government has often dared to step. But given the enormity of the problem—in big cities and smaller communities—its clear bold action on everyone’s part is urgently required.
Up to now, it has been provinces that have generally established new planning rules for municipalities— for better or worse (as we have seen in Ontario). The federal government is endeavouring through the Accelerator Fund to go much further. Municipalities are having to quickly adapt to the feds’ newfound ambition to not just build housing, but fundamentally change local planning frameworks to ensure a maximum return on investment for federal dollars, and stimulate more building by the private sector. In a world where municipalities have had significant planning latitude for decades, this is both a tremendous opportunity and a challenge. While the Liberal government set out in 2015 to enable more housing, they have now pivoted quickly and dramatically to get the job done. And I understand why.
As the mayor of North Grenville, Ont., a very high-growth community south of Ottawa (Kemptville and several rural hamlets), I have spent the last six years tackling the housing issue. In 2018, I struck one of Ontario’s first affordable housing task forces to address the acute shortage of multi-residential units, starter homes, and suitable accommodations for seniors desperate to downsize, low-income families in need of a home, and young people forced to leave North Grenville. This led to the establishment of a regional housing task force through the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville—representing a population of over 100,000. Through both efforts, it became clear that a heavy reliance alone on private developers to build enough affordable and attainable housing was wholly unrealistic. Given this, the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus—representing more than 100 municipalities—are now pursuing a collective approach to overcome hurdles in their aim to build thousands of homes. But current federal housing initiatives may risk leaving highly motivated and well-equipped smaller municipalities in the cold. Common planning constraints including limitations on severing rural properties, a limited supply of readily serviced lands and a lack of transit—while challenges— should not discount us from being part of the solution.
Nor should it serve as a rationale for smaller and mid-sized communities within Canada to be sidelined from ambitious nation-building initiatives such as the Housing Accelerator. In North Grenville, we were ahead of many cities in modernizing our local planning framework early in the pandemic, surplussing municipal land for large scale, not-for-profit housing initiatives, including Habitat for Humanity, and have advanced plans to expand our 30-year-old waste water treatment plant (to the tune of over $70-million) so that we can grow well—and sustainably. The reality, however, is that without a boost from the Accelerator Fund, communities like ours cannot do our part—despite our best efforts—to fulfill the vision of affordable and attainable housing for all.
Minister Fraser is from rural Nova Scotia, something I personally take heart in, having grown up in small-town Newfoundland. I am extremely hopeful that beyond his vocal push for big cities to build quickly, he will see the merit in also investing in highly motivated communities such as mine. Nancy Peckford was elected as North Grenville’s mayor in 2018 and re-elected in 2022, and currently also serves as warden of the United Counites of Leeds and Grenville, Ont., commonly known as Leeds and Grenville.
Mayor of North Grenville