GUEST COLUMNIST - November 26, 2023 - As a former member of the City Council, I am profoundly troubled by the recent decision made by the Winnipeg City Council. The passage of controversial amendments that sideline public consultation regarding infill housing marks a dire shift in the city's approach to development and democracy and ignores the glaring need to overhaul the broken permitting process in the city.
Under these changes, developers gain unchecked power to erect up to four housing units on residential lots city-wide without any avenue for affected residents to voice concerns. This move fundamentally undermines the public's right to participate in shaping their neighbourhoods.
Only three councillors, Brian Mayes, John Orlikow, and Shawn Dobson, were opposed to the controversial changes. All others supported the move.
The alterations in policy are sweeping. They legalize the construction of multiple housing units, up to four units on a single lot throughout all neighbourhoods in the city, enable four-story buildings within 800 meters of transit corridors, and allow mid-rise housing in commercial areas without the need for prior zoning or variance approval. This "as-of-right" approval process bypasses essential public hearings and committee assessments.
The rationale cited for these changes revolves around the urgent need for more affordable housing. However, the definition of "affordable" remains glaringly ambiguous. Genuine affordable housing, in my experience, should be far more substantial than the meagre 10 to 20% below market rates that are considered at the city council. It must aim for housing costs that do not exceed 30 to 35% of a household's income to truly alleviate the housing crisis. But, this was not included in the sweeping changes.
It concerns me that while the city optimistically eyes the potential federal funding and pledges to add 5,277 housing units by fall 2026, it continues to put up roadblocks, stalling approximately 6,000 residential infill units ready to go today. Projects like Parker Lands and the re-development of Polo Park have been hindered by bureaucratic hurdles and political motions, exacerbating the housing shortage instead of remedying it.
What's most disheartening is the lack of comprehensive deliberation before implementing these changes. No consideration was given to the uncertain nature of the promised $192 million in funding. The funding is not guaranteed. Why was that not considered?
The council's failure to consider negotiation alternatives is indicative of a lack of leadership and business acumen among our elected officials. Instead of blindly following federal mandates, we could have negotiated a unique agreement tailored to our city's needs. Negotiation fosters communication and ensures decisions are in alignment with the community's requirements. A clause ensuring no changes until the approval of the entire $192 million should have been a basic negotiation tactic, yet it was disregarded.
The decision made by an overwhelming majority of the council reeks of reactionary politics, hastily implemented without due consideration for the citizens it impacts. Democracy demands discussion and inclusion, especially when contemplating the elimination of public input in critical decisions. The alarming swiftness with which these changes were pushed through, led by the Mayor and supporting council members, is deeply concerning.
The rushed nature of these amendments exemplifies a disconcerting trend of disregarding public input in critical decisions. When the elimination of democratic processes becomes the norm, it is imperative that we, as engaged citizens, demand more extensive discussions and transparent decision-making.
I’m the first to say we need a complete overhaul of the permitting system in Winnipeg. There are too many steps in the process for builders, too many departments for applicants to speak to, information that is not provided to developers until the final stages, and more. Resident consultation is just one of those many steps. So, let’s be honest and address the real problems that will expedite development in our city, not just sell out to the Trudeau government.
City Council's unilateral push to silence public voices in matters that directly impact our neighbourhoods cannot go unchallenged. It's imperative that we hold our representatives accountable for their decisions and demand a return to a more inclusive, consultative approach to shaping the future of our city.
— Kevin Klein is a former Conservative cabinet minister, a former city councillor and the former Chair of the Winnipeg Police Board.