This Week at Council: Campus Redux, Elliott Expansion, and The Pledge!

It was a very busy agenda to end February at city council. Along with the potential construction of the operations campus, the likely construction of new space at the Elliott, and the annual (albeit thin) report from the Integrity Commissioner, the big item of the night was The Pledge. Council had to endorse the Government of Ontario’s goal of building 18,000 homes by the year 2031, but they had some serious caveats. Here’s the recap…

Regular Meeting of City Council – February 28

It was one of those 11 o’clock nights at Guelph City Council as horseshoe went hard on the proposed pledge to the Government of Ontario to build 18,000 homes in Guelph by 2031, our share of the 1.5 million total goal for the province.

After quickly affirming their vote to support the new organics processing contract with the Region of Waterloo and the Guelph Greener Homes program, and following a presentation regarding the City of Guelph’s status as one of the Waterloo area’s best employers, council revisited the operations campus matter. There was no new information for council, but there was a delegate in the form of John Fisher, who is president of Guelph Hiking Trail Club. He wanted to encourage council and staff to make trail connectivity a part of the site planning process.

There were some questions about trails from council, but the recommendation was passed without adjustment from the one approved at Committee of the Whole. Councillor Dominique O’Rourke though had an additional motion, a request for an information report later this year before the multi-year budget process about updated costs and timelines. O’Rourke said that she wanted to have a well-informed debate before enshrining the project in the capital forecast.

Councillor Cathy Downer had some doubts because an information report doesn’t have a recommendation, and council doesn’t typically have a debate without a recommendation. DCAO Jayne Holmes said that staff is looking to organize a workshop on capital planning and spending for September, which made Mayor Cam Guthrie asked O’Rourke if that was satisfactory to meet her concerns. O’Rourke replied that the motion is about keeping this project, its size, its cost, and the all the various unknowns front of mind as they begin the budget process.

Eventually, O’Rourke’s motion was passed unanimously.

That brought council to… The Pledge. As part of Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, Guelph City Council had to pledge to put in place strategies and actions that will encourage the development of about 2,000 units per year for the next eight years, as well as monitor and track progress.

Staff carefully laid out how this was easier said than done. According to the last Official Plan amendment passed just last year, the City was going to aim for 1,205 new units per year, and the most productive year for new housing in Guelph in the last 20 years was 2004 when just less than 1,500 were built. On average for the last two decades, Guelph has built a little over 1,000 units per year.

But in the interest of being good sports, and because there’s really genuinely a housing crisis, City staff crafted a pledge that will see Guelph commit to the 18,000 goal by reviewing the capital forecast and master plans, reviewing options to accelerate infrastructure, creating a process to front-end agreements with developers and update the City’s debt forecast.

Having said that, there’s some stuff that staff wants the Ontario government to pledge to do, things like new long-term municipal funding, options to address parkland shortages, that the minister be exempt from appealing secondary plans and zoning bylaws, the return of bonusing, clearing the EA backlog, and a commitment to building more institutions like hospitals, schools, and long-term care homes. (Read the full pledge here.)

Why issue demands to the Government of Ontario that they probably won’t respond to? CAO Scott Stewart noted that this was a pledge that demanded a lot of the City when there are a lot of factors around housing that are outside the City’s ability to control. To back him up, Stewart called upon special guest, Mike Moffat who is the senior director of policy and innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute.

Moffat outlined some of those things outside the City’s control like labour shortages in skilled trades, no guidelines for directing the types of units needed, market conditions, the need to create more post-secondary residences, and the need for all levels of government to get involved with creating more social, support, and geared-to-income housing. He cited a lack of co-ordination between governments, developers and community partners as another barrier, and he also noted the scary historical fact that it’s been 50 years since Ontario built more than 750,000 houses in a 10-year period.

Under questioning by council, Moffat explained that Ontario municipalities are being asked to pledge to achieve something that they don’t really control, because while cities can make quick decisions on zoning, land use and boundaries, if interest rates go up to 10 per cent, no one will be building anything.

There were three delegates who spoke to the pledge, two of them were community members who didn’t want council to sign the pledge, and the third was Josh Kaufman, VP of Guelph and District Home Builders Association. Kaufman liked much of what was in the pledge, but didn’t like the caveat about holding all stakeholders, including developers, equally accountable if Guelph fails to get to 18,000 units by the end of 2031.

That might have been because of a confession that Kaufman made while under council questioning.

Councillor Leanne Caron asked Kaufman if he believed that Guelph could build 18,000 units in the next eight years, and he said that he thinks we can make a “significant dent” in the target even if we don’t get to the finish line. Council also asked Kaufman about the current backlog of approved units waiting for construction, and he said that timing was a factor because if developers can get quick approval, then they can start building just as quickly.

But the questioning was not always so cordial. O’Rourke seemed to stymie Kaufman when she asked if the Home Builders Association would pledge not to build on wetlands. Kaufman said that question was “hard to address” in the moment, but then added that the HBA does support protecting the environment. Kaufman also said that he’s a proponent of “growth paying for growth”, but only if it’s “reasonable.”

In terms of council’s commentary, several amendments were offered to the original two-part recommendation. Councillor Rodrigo Goller initially suggested deferring the final vote since the deadline to approve the pledge had been pushed back to March 22, and it was already 10 pm. Guthrie said that council was “rounding third” and wanted to finish the matter. No one proposed a motion to defer.

The first amendment added wording that said that council recognizes that meeting the goals of the pledge is dependent on provincial action, and the second included a request that the Province make it a priority to invest in brownfield remediation since that would open up a lot of available land.

The next amendment asked the Province to donate surplus land for co-op, subsidized and non-profit housing, while another requested the Province to prioritize affordable and accessible supportive housing projects. There was also a motion to prioritize asking the Federal government for more housing money.

The most controversial amendment was a request that the Government of Ontario freeze changes in population targets for the next five years so that municipalities can catch up with all the recent changes. Guthrie enthusiastically endorsed the motion, but Councillor Dan Gibson said that he didn’t like the idea of telling people they can’t move here. Guthrie rebuked that ultimately the water capacity of the area is telling us how many people can move here and the amendment was approved 12-1 with Gibson dissenting.

The final motion was again calling on the Province, this time to fund a third-party audit as soon as possible so that the Ontario government can start the process of “making municipalities whole” with new funding. That one passed unanimously.

The last item concerned the expansion of the Elliott Community by 29 new long-term care beds. Council approved the five-part recommendation approving the complex plan for funding the expansion through various arrangements and agreements. There were two additional motions from closed session, one that made approval of the expansion contingent on the hiring of a certified Project Management Professional, and that a monthly report come to the Committee of Management of the Elliott through the length of the project.

All recommendations were passed unanimously, and the meeting wrapped up just before 11 pm almost hardly needing council’s motion to continue past that point.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

The next meeting of city council is the Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday March 7 at the earlier time of 1 pm. You can see the agenda on the City’s website here.

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