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Pilot proposed to streamline housing development process in Calgary

Seven Calgary city councillors have signed on to a notice of motion that would see a pilot program to streamline up-zoning applications.

Calgary city council has been grappling with an increasingly difficult housing market in the city, coupled with the contentious recommendations coming from the City of Calgary’s Housing and Affordability Task Force (HTAF) earlier this year.

The HTAF recommendations are set for further review at the Sept. 14 Community Development Committee meeting.

The Notice of Motion, spearheaded by Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp, will be first examined at Executive Committee on Sept. 6. It looks at expediting the process for housing land-use redesignations and development permits throughout the city, including for density increases in existing low-density districts.

Should the item be approved on merit at Executive Committee, Sharp is asking for the item to be debated at the Sept. 12 meeting of Calgary city council.

One of the items where Calgary city council is split is on the HTAF recommendation to have a citywide base up-zoning to Residential – Grade Oriented Infill (R-CG), which allows for dwellings like townhouses, rowhouses and other higher-density residences.

That, in itself, would streamline the process by eliminating the need for a land-use redesignation application. Only Sharp doesn’t want to cut out the citizen input.

“It’s actually really undemocratic to take them out of having a say on what’s going on in their community,” Sharp told LWC.

“This pilot program compels our City Administration to take a serious look at how we process land use and development applications, streamline them, and eliminate barriers to application by cutting some of that red tape. Time and cost of an application should not be a factor in getting more housing in our city.”

Her office compiled density applications and Sharp said it showed that 95 per cent of them are approved by Calgary city council.  When a development isn’t satisfactory, she said citizens should have the right to oppose it in a public hearing, in front of elected officials.

‘Band-Aid fix’: NoM should be part of HATF discussions, Mayor Gondek says

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the Notice of Motion is premature, and this should be part of the overall HATF discussion on Sept. 14.

“This is a Band-Aid fix when we are facing a housing crisis. This is not going to have the impact that’s needed,” the mayor told LWC.

Further, the mayor said this kind of streamlining should be a part of the overall housing conversation. Mayor Gondek said that there are steps in place in the HTAF recommendations to help reduce the bureaucratic burden for homebuilders.

“There is a proposal to streamline that land use and development permit process,” she said.

“So why wouldn’t we look to see which pieces of the task force’s recommendations have been included in the housing strategy and understand what’s in there before you start bringing things like this.”

The mayor also agreed that citizen input is important in community-building conversations.

“I think it’s incredibly important that citizens have a public hearing process within which to weigh in on anything that has to do with major changes to a bylaw, and they will absolutely have that opportunity if there are bylaw changes proposed,” Mayor Gondek said.

“Once again, we have not yet seen the housing strategy. This is something that’s coming blind to that strategy.”

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said that this is a very minor adjustment to a process that already exists. Penner said she’s been told by admin that using this approach doesn’t really help them, given the potential resources needed. Further, while timelines are an issue for developers, no one’s been advocating for this approach.

“It’s a bit of smoke and mirrors, this notice of motion,” Penner said.

“This is a group of councillors who are deeply uncomfortable making a bold decision to make a change across the city and trying to find ways to delay that potential conversation. It’s a conversation worth having with Calgarians and the longer we draw it out, the harder it’s actually going to become. Not easier.”

Penner said this wasn’t the time for pilot projects as the city grapples with a housing crisis.

Incentivizing more housing development: Sharp

Currently, applications must seek a land-use redesignation and a development permit. Each one has a process that applicants must go through. Applications can already be done concurrently – redesignation and permit at the same time – but many developers opt to secure the land use first, then apply for the development permit.

That process can take up to 10 months, Sharp said.

Sharp is hoping with a reduced timeline and a proposed fee freeze that it will incentivize builders. They only qualify for the pilot program if they apply for the land-use and development permit at the same time, however.

“The success measure here is how many houses and applications can you see in the next 18 months,” Sharp said.

While Sharp wants the motion heard prior to the Sept. 14 committee meeting where the HTAF recommendations are heard, she doesn’t think it’s circumventing that process.

“This is actually something the city should have already been doing regardless of what’s coming forward on the 14th,” she said.

“This is fundamentally a discussion around this pilot prior to the 14th.”

Sharp said the overarching goal is to remove barriers to building more homes – in whatever form. She said this is a step that allows citizens to get more comfortable with the process.

“That’s the goal, remove barriers to build more housing, and that starts with our own process,” Sharp said.