THUNDER BAY — Municipal leaders are greeting a new housing target for the City of Thunder Bay announced on Monday by the provincial government with mixed reactions.
The province announced housing targets for 21 medium-sized municipalities, including Thunder Bay, tying access to new funding to their success in reaching those goals.
The province set a target of 2,200 new housing starts for Thunder Bay by 2031, a goal Mayor Ken Boshcoff called “achievable,” if ambitious.
“In talking to the builders, they will be severely taxed to do this,” he said. “But the goal is worthy, and it's better to have a loftier goal than a low goal.”
Among the factors working in the city’s favour, he cited a regional mining boom, available land, and a strong planning department.
“You can always do more, and the city will have to do more leadership in terms of providing the infrastructure,” he said. “There's no doubt that we've been a little slack in terms of that.”
The 2,200-unit target would require housing development in the city to pick up dramatically.
Thunder Bay has seen an average of 168 new housing starts per year over the past five years, according to numbers provided by the city.
Meeting the provincial target of 2,200 total housing starts by 2031 would require the city to realize around 275 new units per year, an increase of over 60 per cent from that pace.
Coun. Kristen Oliver believes the municipal government may be limited in what it can do to increase those numbers, citing structural factors like labour shortages and supply chain challenges.
“I was very surprised to see that number was 2,200,” she said. “I think it’s going to be difficult to get there. When we look at just our capacity to build the homes right now that we’re seeing on an annual basis in the city, we’re pretty tapped out.”
“Every trade union will tell you right now that they are in dire need of tradespeople … At this point, I’m incredibly concerned that 2,200 is going to be unachievable.”
Coun. Shelby Ch’ng called the target “ambitious,” agreeing the local building industry could be challenged in ramping up production so quickly.
“The first thing that came to mind, my first reaction was do we have the manpower to actually… do the work? I think that’s going to be a big issue.”
Coun. Andrew Foulds said he welcomed Tuesday’s announcement as a sign the province “recognizes housing as a significant issue,” but questioned how the provincial targets were developed, and whether they considered the “idiosyncrasies of the North” when it comes to housing development.
He added that meeting the province’s housing goals will require cooperation by groups well beyond municipal governments, including for-profit and non-profit developers.
“The City of Thunder Bay isn’t in the business of building houses — the city is in the business of creating the environment that facilitates development,” he said. “Those are ambitious targets. I have no problem with ambition — I’m pretty comfortable that the need is out there. But everybody has to be at the table rowing in the correct direction, and it’s not just the municipality.”
He also argued the city had already taken numerous steps to promote housing development.
“I guess what I would say is we have as a municipality done, I think, some incredible work around enabling legislation — around the official plan and the new zoning bylaw that makes it a lot more permissive for urban infill and development.”
Municipalities that achieve 80 per cent or more of yearly targets will be eligible for a cut of a new $1.2-billion “Building Faster Fund” over the next three years, also announced Monday.
Wes Case, president of the Thunder Bay Real Estate Board, called the announcement a good sign the province is prioritizing housing, but acknowledged the target is ambitious.
“Having the province step up and offer that kind of funding across the province, and specifically the target of 2,200 homes to the City of Thunder Bay, I think it’s a good step,” he said. “It’s still going to take a lot of collaboration and cooperation between the mayor, council, provincial government … builders, and all of the people in the housing industry to really reach those goals.”
“There’s definitely a need for new housing starts and new housing developments in the city. We’ve been feeling it in Thunder Bay, like much of the country, there’s a bit of a housing affordability problem. Adding more — whether it’s single-family detached residential units, semi-detached, town homes, multi-residential units like condos — all of that I think is going to be necessary to put people in homes and to make housing more affordable.”
Dollars from the Building Faster Fund can be put toward “housing-enabling infrastructure” like site servicing, roads, and public utilities.
Boshcoff said extending city services like sewer lines and roads to support construction of new subdivisions will be key to boosting housing supply.
“Really, the pressure is on us to make sure that servicing to the subdivisions [is in place],” he said. “We have enough plans of subdivision, but we’ve got to get the services and the roads out to them, so that people can actually build the homes.”
Others on council expressed reservations over that path, arguing it could endanger the city’s climate goals and create unsustainable servicing costs for outlying areas.
“I have some grave concerns about sprawl,” said Foulds. “I have some grave concerns of development on flood plains, environmental hazard zones. Increasing our geographic footprint is not an attractive idea for me. Urban infill and intensification certainly are very attractive to me.”
Foulds added any action on housing should honour the city’s commitments to move toward a low-emission future.
“I am committed to net zero,” he said. “This summer, you know, there are territories on fire; there are intense storms. So we also have to build housing that meets our climate challenges — not only in terms of net zero, producing less emissions, but withstanding… more intense weather events.”
“We shouldn’t be in a race for urban sprawl and cheap housing that doesn’t meet our citizens’ needs — that’s silly and a waste of money.”
Ch’ng called it key to focus on infill, rather than further development on the fringes of the city’s urban area.
“The thing I really would want council to drive home is to make sure that whatever is built is sustainable, and not going to be a drain on our tax base for the future,” she said. “We do not want to build subdivisions that are needing to be supported and propped up by the tax base from the more dense area of Thunder Bay.”
“We’re not building out further — my goal is to build up and in, multi-residential. Single dwelling units for single people are a big need in Thunder Bay. If you talk to the DSSAB, that’s their number one housing need, is space for single people — not big three-bedroom houses out in the suburbs.”
Coun. Rajni Agarwal, who is also a realtor, believes infill can play a substantial role in meeting the city’s housing needs.
"Infill is going to help us with the multi-residential, infill will help us with the smaller units," she said. "Revitalization of the downtown cores can be done with infill."
“If you look at a place like Simpson Street, where a lot of the houses and buildings have been falling down, that area can be huge infill… As a community, I think we can easily build 400 or 500 units in the downtown south core... That’s one quarter of our pledge, and it’s doable.”
However, Agarwal added there’s a clear demand for larger, semi-rural lots as well that should be accommodated.
“As long as we budget accordingly, we need all types of housing,” she said. “If they want to build it, let them build… We’re not going to get to 2,200 homes if we put roadblocks up. We’ve got to take those barriers down and put in a smooth pass.”
Ch’ng noted the city has already taken steps like allowing more additional units in a recent revamp of its zoning bylaw, something she said could be key to opening up smaller, affordable units.
Case, of the real estate board, said he is seeing increasing interest in that strategy that could be supported by those recent changes.
“I definitely see that people are looking at buying homes where they can potentially live in it and then have a family member or rent out a secondary suite or a granny suite,” he said. “I’ve seen that since I began in the business, but I think with the zoning changes, hopefully it makes it a little bit easier for people who are currently in a single-family home to add a secondary suite.”
As to how the province settled on the 2,200-home target, councillors were unsure. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs has not yet responded to a request for comment.
“It seems to me that it was formulaic, in terms of population [numbers],” said Boshcoff. “It probably would have been happier had there been perhaps a bit more in terms of [consultation].”