In a funding deal that will see almost 700 new housing units built over the next three years, the federal government announced St. Catharines will receive $25.7 million to help eliminate housing barriers and spur the construction of more than 12,000 homes over the next decade.
At a press conference Wednesday in St. Catharines, MP Chris Bittle, on behalf of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Sean Fraser, said the grant will fast track the building of homes at affordable prices.
The funding comes from the Housing Accelerator Fund, a $4-billion program aimed at incentivizing Canadian cities to build higher-density housing, with a target of 100,000 new middle-class homes by 2024-25.
For St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe, it was a “transformational announcement.”
“This will rank as one of the best days, if not the best day so far, in my time as the mayor. Just knowing that we are moving the process forward and we’re getting the resources we need to fix some of the issues that we have when it comes to housing,” he said in an interview.
“This money can make (housing and planning issues) easier to work with and easier to work on and allow more houses to get built in the short, medium and long term. It’s just a very good feeling.”
In putting together an application for funding, Siscoe said city hall staff had numerous conversations with Ottawa, the ministry and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC), understanding what the government was comfortable funding and what types of programs worked well in other places.
Part of the funding will go towards the creation of a municipal development corporation to handle city real estate and find ways to maximize underused city-owned land. Siscoe said council hesitated at the price tag, but the government “stepping in with these dollars makes it a reality.”
The money will support the city’s infrastructure to increase the number of residential builds and modernize zoning bylaws by digitizing and facilitating faster developments and permit approvals. And, most importantly, making sure affordable housing is getting built by identifying locations “where maybe more is possible.”
“There’s a lot of pieces. This was a very comprehensive application that was put forward,” said Siscoe.
Additionally, the federal government said the funding will permit four units as-of-right to encourage the creation of additional housing units on existing residential lots — develop four units on one piece of land — and support incentive programs promoting multi-family homes downtown and in transit corridors.
In an interview following the announcement, Bittle said the federal fund is helping municipalities across the country cut out roadblocks in the system, such as removing parking requirements for affordable housing. Millions of dollars having already been granted, including nearly a half-billion dollars in Toronto, $21.4 million to Guelph and $21 million to Burlington.
Bittle said when Siscoe was had just become elected mayor, they met for a two-hour discussion with housing at the forefront, and when the fund launched, St. Catharines’ application was “strong.”
“It is good to see both mayor and city council engaging in bold action, that they understand there is a housing crisis and need (to) address it,” he said, particularly a city like St. Catharines, which does not have limitless building lots, sitting on the edge of the urban boundary.
“Even if we’re able to streamline applications by weeks or months, that’s getting housing built faster … it is an exciting thing and, hopefully, transformative for housing in St. Catharines.”
For Siscoe, the announcement was the “culmination of a lot of work” and said it is “comforting” to know those early conversations turned into positive benefits for the community.
As to what the residents can expect, Siscoe said developments move very slowly for a long time — and then “all at once.” Residents will eventually start to see more cranes in the sky and activity on vacant parcels of land, adding the federal funding can “serve as a bit of a nudge to set some of the projects up and going.”
“This money allows us to do that work more targeted and in advance of the housing applications, hopefully, so there is no holding provisions that slows down the process,” said Siscoe, citing wastewater capacity issues in Merritton that need to be dealt with before developments can be approved.
Siscoe said he has had discussions with other big city mayors, with each having identified the federal fund as a way to move the needle on housing. In St. Catharines’ case, having upper levels of government step up ensures the housing struggles will not be placed “on the backs of property taxpayers.”
“I am overjoyed and I can’t express how proud I am of our staff at city hall for the work they put in on this application,” he said. “Our staff really went above and beyond to identify areas where the city could make a meaningful difference but where federal help was necessary to make that happen.”