Hamilton, Ontario skyline during the day.
View of downtown Hamilton from atop the Niagara Escarpment. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a 13 to three decision, Hamilton city council voted to stop urban sprawl and to try to reign in its carbon footprint.

Friday night, councillors Nrinder Nann, Maureen Wilson, Ester Pauls, John-Paul Danko, Judi Partridge, Arlene VanderBeek, Brenda Johnson, Brad Clark, Sam Merulla, Tom Jackson, Jason Farr, Russ Powers and Mayor Fred Eisenberger voted to end to sprawl. Councillors Terry Whitehead, Maria Pearson and Lloyd Ferguson cast the dissenting votes.

With municipal elections set for October 24, 2022, Michelle Tom, member of Stop Sprawl HamOnt (SSHO) believes “the dissenting councillors are taking a risk with their vote. The public is engaged.”

Asked about the implications and impact of council’s overwhelming decision to maintain current city boundaries, Tom said:

“The cross-fertilization of folks with different skill sets brought creativity and energy to mobilize more than 16,000 people. Groups can form across southern Ontario. This land grab is impacting all municipalities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.”

Council also supported Eisenberger’s motion to review the no-expansion strategy every year using a variety of markers including development activity, pace of growth and housing mix.

Through a climate lens, ending sprawl was the only choice. Hamilton will be rejuvenated with walkable communities integrating a variety of housing options. New renters and homeowners will be able to walk or take the light rail transit (LRT) or GO trains to work, shop and access a variety of services.

Meanwhile, Hamilton and surrounding communities will be able to continue buying local produce from farms like Manorun Organic Farm, Plan B Organic Farms and Lindley’s Farm and Market. And, Hamilton’s overall carbon footprint will be kept in check.

The problem now becomes, how can council ensure a range of affordable prices for renters and buyers? The Ford government’s document, A Place to Grow: Growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, defines affordable housing, whether renting or buying, as achieved when  annual accommodation costs do not exceed 30 per cent of the gross annual household income for low and moderate households.

The median income for Hamilton households in 2015 was $75,000. That means budgeting no more than $22,500 per year or $1,875 per month on housing. That amount currently covers the cost of a modest one-bedroom apartment in Hamilton. With 10 per cent down and using a five per cent interest rate amortized over 25 years, a young family could be looking at monthly payments of $1,835 for a $340,000 home. A new-build townhome in Hamilton starts at $820,000 – well beyond the reach of most Hamiltonians especially first-time buyers.

These numbers are all based on a pre-COVID median income that will most likely need to be adjusted once the impact of the pandemic is factored in to the equation. In other words, the median income will probably be lower due to fewer hours worked, job losses, and increased interruptions and employment precarity during the pandemic.

Hamilton council should look to Toronto where earlier this month city council passed an inclusionary zoning policy for new residential developments. The policy ensures rental and ownership affordability that is maintained for 99 years. Toronto’s policy targets households with an annual income falling between $32,486 and $91,611.

This policy tool, the first of its kind in the province, was developed based on detailed financial impact analysis and input received from extensive public consultations conducted over the last two and a half years. The resulting framework will help Toronto achieve the HousingTO Action Plan target of approving 40,000 affordable rental homes and 4,000 new affordable ownership homes by 2030.

Hamilton’s councill should follow Toronto’s lead and focus its efforts on building affordable units across the city for underhoused residents as well as to accommodate the provincially mandated 236,000 people who must be housed by 2051.

Inner city lands, like the former high school at 130 York Boulevard, could be turned into amazing affordable housing. Within walking distance of Hess St. elementary school, Central Library, Hamilton Market, First Ontario Centre, Jackson Square mall, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and unique shopping and dining all along James Street, a developer could showcase their ingenuity at this gateway to the city.

Similar potential lies along Barton Street, within the waterfront redevelopment, and on the mountain. However, before any re-development takes place, particularly on land owned by the city or either school board, builders must meet affordability tests for their designs and developments. Adopting these forward-thinking policies will help Hamilton city council reach its aspiration to be “the best place to raise a child and age successfully.”