Interior Design students learned a hard political lesson thanks to a guest speaker on February 5: there are no interiors to design unless exteriors are constructed first.
As part of their curriculum this year, the students have been considering the challenges associated with urban development, especially in the form of affordable housing.
On the 5th, they heard from one of Windsor’s chief advocates for such development, city Councillor Rino Bortolin.
He prefaced his remarks by noting that it was fitting that he was speaking at the college because its (and the university’s) influx of enrolment – especially in the form of international students – is one of the factors that is putting pressure on the city’s availability of affordable rental housing.
But the lion’s share of “blame” for the local housing crunch, he emphasized, is the fact that many of the municipality’s residential development bylaws and policies are antiquated, onerous and not particularly imaginative – governing not just rental and affordable housing, but all categories of residential construction.
“Politicians and policies usually don’t react until there is a crisis,” he noted. “The city has not been pro-active about adapting its housing regulations, and now we’re scrambling.”
The considerations that go into a housing development, small- or large-scale, are numerous – all of them laden with bureaucratic regulations, time constraints and expenses for proponents: zoning, services, planning, on-site parking requirements, aesthetics.
“And on too many occasions, it is our own (municipal government-dictated) regulations that are killing proposed projects,” Bortolin said. “Tiny little issues are throwing off what are really valuable and desirable proposals.”
He has been at the forefront of calling for greater flexibility in local housing regulations, for both single-site and multi-home developments.
That liberalization of the development process is under review by the municipal government, but “the wheels of change turn slowly”, he noted.
Among the sort of imaginative alternatives he has been proposing to spur certain forms of multiple-density development is the reduction of the “minimum parking space” requirement, whereby even a small-scale apartment project must provide a significant number of parking spaces.
Especially in the downtown area, he said, such requirements are unnecessary, due to the substantial number of existing parking lots in the city’s core – and the fact that many prospective residents of its neighbourhoods don’t even own cars.
One of his proposals is to reduce the parking space requirement and, instead, have developers pay a per unit fee that is earmarked for transfer from the Building Department to Transit Windsor so that it can enhance bus services.
“Windsor’s long-standing ‘car (ownership) culture’ is now being balanced by downtown renters – especially students – who don’t drive,” Bortolin observed. “They are much more mass-transit-friendly. It’s a cultural and generational shift, that should be recognized as part of our housing policies.”
The other major topic being debated during the municipality’s review of its policies is whether the city government itself should be either funding the development of residential housing (especially geared-to-income and affordable) itself; or fostering private sector development with tax-reductions, other incentives, and/or the subsidization of business losses.
“We probably have to do something of that nature. If a developer has a choice between a tower of $500,000 condos versus more affordable rental units, he’s usually going to go with the guaranteed money of the condos unless he has some incentive to do otherwise.”
The Interior Design students indicated that they’d be following city council’s review of its housing policies with great interest over the coming months.