Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Infill (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Where do I even start with these?

Dear Winnipeg,

I’m a sucker for an underdog.

Rudy. [He’s so little but he tries so big!]

Neville Longbottom. [Oh my god, I’ve killed Harry Potter!]

The Jamaican bobsled team. [Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time… Cool Runnings!]

Or the actual Underdog.

That’s why I don’t particularly enjoy picking on the Planning Department. Because last I checked, they didn’t exactly get much respect from Council…

But unfortunately, the reality is I’ve got more to say about the recent Draft Infill Guidelines, and it’s not any more supportive than the last time.

You see, much like the well-meaning superhero Underdog, who often caused loads of collateral damage whenever he tried to save the day, the Planning Department’s latest manifesto is set to do more harm than good.

You and I already discussed last time how, in trying to limit WHAT we can build in mature communities, they’ve inadvertently limited WHERE we can build. And that’s obviously not great, since entire neighbourhoods are going to be left out.

But what we also need to talk about is how they’re also limiting WHO can build.

If you haven’t read it (and to be honest, I don’t blame you), it’s an 88-page treatise detailing everything from building heights, to setbacks, to lot coverages, to architectural features (shutters count for half!), to the placement of windows, doors and garbage bins. There are also landscaping requirements down to the placement, quantity, size and species of trees.

Unfortunately, if I was to build on my 30-foot-wide lot, I’m not sure where I’d put one shrub, never mind the four that are required by the guidelines. But the Planners Who Say Ni demand a sacrifice! [You must bring us… another shrubbery!]

But there’s more. Separation distances, roof pitches, fa├žade materials, main floor heights, the requirements are seemingly endless.

If your head is spinning at all this, that’s entirely the point. These guidelines are so exacting, so detailed, so loooooonnng that they’ve all but guaranteed that only professional developers will be able to decipher them.

Apparently, building anything in an existing neighbourhood is not a task for mere mortals.

The elderly widow next door looking to remain in the neighbourhood she’s lived in all her life, while earning a little extra rental income in her retirement? Sorry Gladys, just reading the rules is enough to give you a health condition, so you may as well give up on that idea of a secondary suite.

Your nephew Tyler and his wife who are just starting out, and would love to renovate one of those large, old century-homes into a triplex so they can live affordably while starting to build some equity? Sorry Tyler, shoulda gotten that architecture degree so you could grasp the Infill Guidelines! Keep living in your mom’s basement.

The family down the street whose house burnt down and now they just want to replace it to the way it was? Sorry Joneses. That’s going to be… exceedingly difficult.

And, even if you do manage to read and master it all, odds are real good that you’ll need at least one variance or rezoning, especially if you live in one of the many neighbourhoods that doesn’t “fit” the guidelines, like Daniel McIntyre, or my very own Glenelm. That can easily cost you in the tens of thousands of dollars, with NO guarantee of actually being able to build anything.

I’m not sure about you, but I don’t know a lot of people who have tens of thousands of dollars they’re willing to gamble on a variance application that may or may not get approved. [If Kenny Rogers has taught us anything, it’s when to walk away…]

Simply put, the barrier to entry is too high for the average person.

But a professional developer, on the other hand, likely has a dozen or more of these on the go at any given time. If one or two variances don’t go through, they’re easily offset by the other ten that do. It’s simply worked into the cost of doing business.

So why does this matter?

Because of skin in the game.

Let me ask you this: who would you rather have building infill in your neighbourhood? Someone who is going to come in, collect a profit, and get out? Or someone who already lives there?

I think it goes without saying that someone with an already vested interest in a neighbourhood would be more likely to do their best not to upset the neighbours they will be living beside.

You want Quality-In-Your-Backyard? It’s pretty simple: let the widow next door, the family down the street or your nephew Tyler build it. They’ve got every incentive to do it well, and every reason not to “destroy the neighbourhood”.

And that’s how it was back in the day with small-scale residential buildings. Single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes weren’t built by “developers”, they were just built by regular people meeting their needs while contributing to their neighbourhoods. And we ended up with nice neighbourhoods.

But over the decades, we’ve created a system that favours complicated over simple. Big over small. Professional developers over our own neighbours.

We’ve priced out the little guy, the Tylers and the Gladyses, and handed over all the power to developers. Of course, a growing city will NEED ongoing development, but why hand the ability to do it to someone else, especially the stuff we can (and used to) do ourselves?

Because what that leads to, and what we have now, is a tendency for infrequent, risky, large-scale, neighbourhood-changing projects that can’t get off the ground but for a significant contribution of public funds. Think True North Square, 300Main, SkyCity, Portage Place.

It’s all or nothing. What Strong Towns calls the trickle or the fire hose.

There’s obviously a better way. One of continual, incremental development by people with skin in the game.

To be clear, I’ve got nothing against infill developers specifically. But like I said, I’m a sucker for the underdog, and any system that gives Tyler an even chance at participating is good by me. Plus, a little healthy competition tends to keep prices down and quality up.

Not to mention that a city built by many hands is more resilient to shocks. A neighbourhood filled with small-scale buildings doesn’t ever have to worry about a single owner moving away and leaving 650,000 sq ft of empty space in your community, the likes of which you can only hope will eventually be developed by some deep-pocketed investor, inevitably backed by millions in public subsidies, while it sits boarded up, blight, for the next few decades.

[Like sands through the hourglass, these are the Bay Days of our lives…]

But if we want your nephew to be able to do this, we need to remove the barriers. And one of the major ones is this new infill rulebook. So I went ahead and re-wrote it for you:

Even Tyler and Becky can handle these guidelines!

[You’re welcome.]

Now, average people may need a little more than that to get back into the habit of neighbourhood-building. After all, we’ve been training them not to for decades now. So I guess a little economic incentive might not hurt, at least at first.

Luckily, we’ve shown that we’re more than willing to throw $20 million at the first huckster that walks into town promising a monorail, er- I mean, a residential tower. So why not take that same amount, but split it up into many smaller chunks?

The upside for the City is obvious: a massive reduction in risk. Rather than betting the farm on a single massive pass/fail project, we’re making multiple small investments across the city, assuming some may fail, but overall we get a safe, conservative return. That’s a much more prudent way to use public funds, don’t you think?

What’s more, that suit from Toronto was just going to spend the entire $20 million on lawyers and accountants and architects and bankers in Toronto. And if it ever gets built, he’ll be sending all the profits there too.

Tyler, on the other hand, is going to use all local services with our public funds: local lawyer, local accountant, local architect, and is more likely to get his mortgage at the local credit union. Plus, he’ll be spending his profits at the local coffee shop, hairdresser and restaurant. [He can’t resist that avocado toast!]

With Tyler, our public funds stay in Winnipeg and get to contribute (again and again!) to the local economy. Not so with Slicky McTorontoFace.

The program could look something like this:

  1. Build something in your neighbourhood that increases density by at least one unit, and live in one of those units.
  2. Get 10% of your construction costs in the form of an interest-free forgivable loan from the City, up to $100,000!
  3. For every year you live in your house, 20% of your loan balance is forgiven. At the end of 5 years, you owe nothing. If you move out before then, the remaining balance must be repaid.

You’ll notice that dovetails nicely with CMHC requirements, which let you borrow up to 90% of an owner-occupied 4-plex. [90% + 10% = 100%? Yes, I know!]

There’s a reason for that: lowering the barriers to entry. Pair it with the MMF’s First Time Home Purchase Program, or the Chalmers Neighbourhood Home Buyer Assistance Program, and now you’re starting to get people involved that have traditionally been excluded from even owning a home. Providing quality housing for themselves, building equity, improving their neighbourhood, creating much-needed affordable housing for their neighbours, increasing the City’s tax base, all while growing the local economy… that sounds like a win, doesn’t it?

Plus, we don’t even need to come up with the money for it… that’s what impact fees should be for.

Anyways, I should get off the toilet.

Keep it sleazy beezy,

Elmwood Guy