PEI

Why finding an apartment in Charlottetown won't get easier

Investment in new housing on P.E.I. is up more than 50 per cent, but despite record low vacancy rates investment in apartments is actually down.

Developers willing to build, but 'land is sparse,' says city councillor

This apartment building on Richmond Street was approved after a process that lasted more than a year. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Investment in new housing on P.E.I. is up more than 50 per cent, but despite record low vacancy rates investment in apartments is actually down.

Statistics Canada released housing investment figures for November on Monday. They showed a 57 per cent increase in new housing investment for the year to date as compared to 2016, but investment in apartments was down nine per cent.

The apartment shortage is particularly acute in Charlottetown, where Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports a vacancy rate of just 0.9 per cent, with only about 100 apartments added to the market last year.

Developer Duncan Shaw said the issue is not that developers don't want to build apartments.

Charlottetown's official plan needs to be updated, says developer Duncan Shaw.

"I think the real issue is lack of land zoned properly for that type of housing. Everyone in the development community is very clear on the demand," Shaw said.

"There's a real shortage of land zoned properly for that and it really restricts the ability to develop that type of housing."

Shaw said it has been too long since the city's official plan has been updated. The main body of it was written in 1999, with a recent update covering the neighbourhood of East Royalty. Since that time, demand has risen with more baby boomers downsizing and more young people delaying the purchase of their first house, and opting for an apartment instead.

A difficult process

Without proper zoning, developers are left with the option of going through a rezoning process that can be difficult for everyone involved.

"It's frustrating," Shaw said. "A large part of the decision is based on emotion and not the substance of the proposal."

Shaw said the process starts at the city planning board, where there is a lot of expertise, but then moves into a public forum where a lot of that expert opinion can get lost.

"It's more governed by emotion than logic both for and against, because certainly as you move a project ahead frustration comes into play," he said.

"It's a very difficult process and it doesn't always lead to the best decision, whether it's for or against."

Tim Banks says he is running into road blocks at city hall in his efforts to build apartments in Charlottetown. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Developer Tim Banks agrees that the process is difficult.

"We've been trying to do a couple of hundred in this market and we tend to run into roadblocks," he said.

"In our Charlottetown market it's pretty tough to find a site and go through the regime, red tape, at city hall in order to get a permit to build apartments.

'I don't know if there's a right answer'

Coun. Greg Rivard, chair of heritage and planning committee, said the city recognizes that the low vacancy rate is a problem, but said there is no easy way to solve it.

"Land is sparse, either inside or outside the downtown area," Rivard said.

"We're trying to balance the fact that there is sparse land but yet a need. I don't know if there's a right answer."

Greg Rivard, chair of Charlottetown's planning and heritage committee, says apartment development is a balancing act. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

Moving apartments into an established neighbourhood is problematic, Rivard said. Sometimes it is clear that a larger building just won't fit in the neighbourhood, and sometimes it's just not wanted.

"If you're building one of these structures in an established neighbourhood, it's not always popular," he said.

"It becomes even more complicated because of the heritage resources that we do have downtown. You'd have to tear down some of these heritage homes in order to construct some of these large scale apartments."

Rivard said high density housing also puts the city in a situation where it needs to provide park spaces for those apartment dwellers.

But increasingly people want to live in the city, and more often close to commercial services, Banks said.

"It's the urban centres where we're growing and there's no apartments being built there," he said.

And that combination suggests low vacancy rates will not likely go away any time soon.

About the Author

Kevin Yarr is the early morning web journalist at CBC P.E.I. You can reach him at kevin.yarr@cbc.ca.