by Brandon Mayer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
It is clear that issues of availability and affordability play a large part in the housing crisis currently plaguing much of Canada. Legal issues can also cause problems, particularly when it comes to housing availability.
Zoning refers to municipal by-laws that govern how land can be used and what types of buildings can be built in specific parts of a municipality. Zoning is necessary so that, for example, a person’s quiet suburban street doesn’t suddenly become a thoroughfare of busy traffic amidst a sea of noisy power tools when their neighbours decide to turn their home into an auto mechanic shop.
Land severances are something else entirely. A land severance refers to splitting one parcel of land into two or more smaller ones that can be owned individually. This is critical for housing, because developers who purchase large lots with the intention of developing them into many smaller lots must be able to do so before selling the individual homes and the property on which they sit. Land severance also becomes a key issue in cases where, for example, an owner of a large plot of land would like to sell only part of the land so that a new owner can build a home.
Given the critical role that zoning and land severance play in the development of new housing, it would seem logical that these legal issues would be relatively routine and simple to resolve, but this is most certainly not the case. In the case of North Grenville, the municipality’s wording regarding the land severance process is quite clear, reading in part on their website, “Please be advised that obtaining a severance is a relatively long and somewhat costly process.” Indeed, the severance form is eight pages long, and fees must be paid to the municipality, the health unit, and the relevant conservation authority upon applying for a land severance. These fees can total over $1,200 for a single request. North Grenville’s land severance and zoning requests are handled by The United Counties of Leeds and Grenville.
North Dundas has a similar process and similar fees to those of North Grenville when it comes to applying for land severances, which the Township of North Dundas calls “land divisions.” North Dundas is less upfront about the difficulty and cost of the process, and focuses more on plans for entire subdivisions, which are required when three or more lots are being created, at least two of which will be sold. North Dundas’ land divisions are handled by the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry.
A July, 2021, report published by the Financial Post suggests that areas with more complicated processes for securing zoning changes or land severances have higher land prices, and, as a result, more expensive housing. The report also points out that such places often have less housing overall, due to the difficulties for developers, which presumably creates cost inflation of the housing in such areas due to the simple relationship between availability and affordability.
In terms of affordable housing, an article published by Habitat for Humanity in November of 2018 lists several issues that lower the incentive to develop. The first is, unsurprisingly, “government obstacles”, including zoning and severance barriers. Other issues include tax barriers and financial risk for developers. For example, since subsidized housing is offered for lower than market value, the article argues that there is simply too much risk for most developers to be interested.
It is clear that the housing issue is far from simple, and is actually a tangled web of interrelated issues that may never be fully unraveled. To improve housing affordability, more housing availability is needed. To improve housing availability, zoning and severance laws must be simple and inexpensive to attract developers. Finally, to update zoning and severance laws, governments need to care about affordable housing as much as those who live without it.