Ottawa Subsidizes Suburban Sprawl

Suburban Sprawl

The city of Ottawa needs to stop subsidizing suburban home ownership at the expense of more environmentally sound urban living.  That’s right; our municipal government’s taxation, investments and housing policies heavily favour suburban sprawl and penalize those wishing to live a more eco friendly lifestyle!

This is 2016 and we have long since determined that if we wish to successfully combat climate change and related ecological disasters we need to align government actions with that goal.  Tax incentives for big oil are being rolled back and governments are actively promoting low carbon energy sources.  So, why is our municipal government still encouraging suburban sprawl?!   The evidence has been in for some time that urban living is much more sustainable.  Yet, Ottawa continues to invest in promoting suburban sprawl at the expense of more sustainable urban development.

Taxation

There once was a time when Ottawa charged a rather modest 3% on the construction of a new home.  That seems so long ago.   Today, the city adds about 25% to the cost of a new home and that fee continues to grow.  City government is now a significant contributor to the affordability crisis which city councillors claim concern over.   What makes matters worse for anyone contemplating a new urban home, is the unfair burden of taxes that they must bear.   Urban home owners are already paying proportionately higher home prices and property taxes, given the higher value urban land.   In addition, the city hits them with a double whammy by including development fees that really shouldn’t apply within an urban context.

City officials might be quick to point out that suburban development fees are higher than those on Urban infill homes.  While that is true, the difference is less than 50%.    Yet, a recent Australian study found that the cost of providing infrastructure to new suburban homes was over $150k per home, when compared to $55k for an urban infill property. This suggests a difference of over 300% rather than the 50% that we see today.

When you look at the components of the development fee, it is clear that Urban infill developments are being unfairly charged.   For example; the largest component of the charges deals with roads and related services.   In both urban and suburban cases these charges represent 35% of the overall fee.    This despite the fact that suburban developments can involve many kilometers of road work, and infill development requires virtually none!  Parks and recreation facilities fees represent another unfair charge to urban development – unless something changes.   When was the last time you saw a new park or recreational facility built within the urban core?

Housing policy

Despite a stated goal of intensification,  the regulations and restrictions applied to urban infill housing projects strongly discourage development.   And should development still proceed, these restrictions result in added costs to the project that ultimately are borne by the homeowner.

We agree with the goal of maintaining the character of mature urban communities.  Every new development needs to add to the community without taking away from it.   At the same, it is essential that regulations be streamlined and policies established to encourage smart intensification.

Service Delivery

An increasing number of young families considering the purchase of an urban home for all it has to offer.   Yet, our city doesn’t seem to recognize this trend, or is incapable of dealing with it.   As the expectation for municipal facilities has grown, nothing has been done to provide these in the more challenging and established urban environment.   As a result, virtually all fully featured recreation facilities are exclusively offered in the suburbs.    There is very limited access to skating, indoor gymnasiums and other family friendly facilities within the urban core.  There are still large tracts of municipal lands and parks that could accommodate modern facilities of this type.   It would, however, involve additional hurdles requiring a level of political determination that appears to be lacking.

The lack of these services is all the more unfair, given the disproportionate property taxes paid by families choosing to live in the urban core.

Conclusion

As society battles the causes and effects of climate change, municipalities need to do their part to implement policies that encourage more sustainable behaviour.  Encouraging smart urban intensification and reducing suburban sprawl is a step in the right direction.  Ottawa has not done enough in this regard.  In fact, the current tax and development fee regime actually favours suburban sprawl, through indirect, yet real subsidies.   Suburban development is not paying its fair share of new services, and council needs to remove obstacles to constructing full featured recreation facilities within the urban core.   Thanks to the NCC, we may see a rather rich version of such a facility built as part of the Lebreton flats project in the next several years, but more is needed.

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