Infill Housing Myths & Realities

March 2019

There continues to be a great deal of debate at City Hall and in the media about infill housing. It is worth commenting on the accuracy of some of these claims.  Firstly, I wish to commend Mayor Bowman for his consistent and balanced approach on increasing the size of the City - that is, we need both infill and greenfield development. We need to offer choice.  We need to have the view of "one big city" rather than "inner city vs. suburbs". 

 

1.   COSTS “There are no costs to the City from infill housing”.  This is simply not accurate. There can be heavy costs in terms of replacing old pipes.  More generally, many city expenses ( eg expanding the north end sewage treatment plant) increase whether new development takes place at the edge of the city or as infill. The CBC claims in a true whopper that infill housing saves the City the cost of building new suburban schools - when in fact it’s the province which builds new schools (although the City has put money into upgrading both old and new schools) . The Free Press claims that adding more infill housing won’t increase costs of garbage and recycling - when in fact the collection companies charge more for each additional door they service.

 

There appears to be a belief among some that the City budget is overwhelmingly devoted to building new suburban facilities and servicing them. In fact the City budget is heavily weighted to updating and maintaining older facilities (eg $1.3 billion due over next 27 years for combined sewer separation; $20 million plus each year for each of water main and sewer main renewal; $80 to $120 million annually to repair old roads).  There are also many City costs that do not depend on location of population (eg 311 services, 911, Assiniboine Park, debt servicing). 

 

2. REVENUES Residents of infill will just use existing services, and all of the new property tax revenue can be used for new community centres or tax cuts.  

 

In fact, we ALL pay for the existing services and the costs keep going up. The City projects a $92 M budget shortfall next year, so we do not have enough revenue to pay for existing services. The other problem here is that existing services are already under strain. The infill mantra is “we can double the population on Vivian and no one will need a car/ the roads won’t get worn down and they can all just take existing buses downtown!”.  In fact, I get furious emails from residents about being passed-by due to full buses - suggesting there will be costs to upgrade existing services.

 

How much revenue would infill actually add? If we assume 5,000 new infill units per year ( enough to house the entire annual population growth in Winnipeg) giving the $2,000 per unit (more then the average home value), it gains the city $10 million IF we pretend the city was getting no revenue from the same land prior to infill (might be true of golf courses).  We will get $10 million (though lose out revenues from suburban growth ) versus a projected budget shortfall of $92 million.

 

3. “Young people all want to live in infill".

 We are told that thousands of young people are moving to other cities because there are not enough downtown lofts and infill housing. There is no actual proof of this “causation” provided. As a friend said “when I worked for the Selinger government people claimed that young people were leaving because of high NDP taxes".  The truth is that young people want a choice as to where they live. There is a large amount of data (see for example CMHC surveys in recent Globe and Mail article "Millennials don't just want condos Mr. Morneau") suggesting millennials are interested in owning a home, with a yard, and with a dog, much like earlier generations. The school at Sage Creek is full because lots of millennials choose to live there.  To argue that ALL of these buyers actually want to live downtown, or that they would all choose to live downtown if there were no suburban development, is simply counter factual. In fact if the City does not offer an option in the suburbs there is good evidence that young people will choose to live in West St Paul or Niverville and then commute in using city roads, rather than living in infill.

 

4. Edmonton

We hear two things at City Hall “everybody loves the tall, skinny infill houses in Edmonton”., and “Winnipeg’s idea to copy Edmonton’s 45% lot coverage limit will destroy infill in Winnipeg”.  There appears to be some confusion. I am trying to get clarity on the Edmonton lot sizes (kudos to realtor Jon Blumberg for working with me on this).  The bigger Edmonton lot size does allow for bigger houses using a 45% limit ,BUT also leaves more green space.  AND if the lots are wider as suggested then there are only 3 infill houses in a 100 foot frontage in Edmonton, while there would 4 houses on 25 foot wide lots here.   Clearly there needs to be some work done, and those telling us to just follow Edmonton should realize bigger lot sizes do make a difference.

 

In conclusion, I am not saying is all bad. I also not saying infill is all good. There are costs and there are benefits. We need a good discussion of the numbers, and a better understanding of the City budget. In particular people who tell me “we paid for the suburbs” need to understand how debt financing spreads costs over 40 years, so that new residents also pay for the new infrastructure, over time.