In our most recent Committee of the Whole meeting, Council was tasked with evaluating a revised suite of development programs (ie. financial incentives) available to developers and property owners to encourage strategic investments. 

Nearly 20 years old, our current suite took a “shot gun” approach across Niagara, was misaligned with Council priorities, did not adequately collect data for reporting on or measuring results, and at times was short funded. Importantly, this meant that over time these funds, often in the millions of dollars, would to be added to the tax levy to recuperate our financial commitments. 

Currently regional incentives are the largest discretionary item in the budget amounting to $14 million dollars (or 3.5% of the tax levy) in 2021. Next year that amount is expected to increase to $17 million. It was dated, untargeted and expensive for tax payers, hence a review was long overdue and a responsible next step in ensuring taxpayer accountability. 

With Council direction, staff developed a new suite aligning programs with four core priorities that focused exclusively on Affordable Housing, Employment, Brownfield Remediation, and Public Realm investment. It further aimed to address not only our current needs, but future needs as well (ie. growth pressures), provide meaningful and measurable results, but also improve our overall process with a sustainable and clear policy that provided greater accountability for use of tax dollars. 

To simplify, the proposed policy offered not only improvements to how we do business across Niagara (more efficient business processes) but ensured development programs align with strategic priorities and objectives (more effective use of tax dollars on the things that are most important). 

For businesses who previously benefitted from this programming, programming was designed to ensure projects would still qualify as long as projects aligned with a prioritized pillar. As an example, an abandoned building could qualify for funding if it was being renovated or repurposed to include an aspect of affordable housing. 

The affordable housing component is particularly important component. Niagara will need an addition 67,000 housing units to house a population of 610,000 people by 2041. Rental prices have increased upward of 15% in just over the last year and housing prices have skyrocketed. Core housing need, or the number of households spending 30% or more of their before-tax income, has been increasing over the last decade and if you’re on the Niagara Regional Housing wait list, you can expect to wait up to 18 years! Additionally, the lack of affordable housing perpetuates societal inequalities because it disproportionately impacts Indigenous people, visible minorities, newcomers, youth, women, sole support parents, people living independently and people with a disability. It’s unsustainable and the policy changes couldn’t change fast enough because we need immediate results. 

Unfortunately, what should have been a slam dunk was amended by the Mayor of Niagara Falls who, in addition to the revised suite of programs, wanted to keep the old suite of incentives (namely the SNIP program). As noted by another Mayor, this program is partially being used for façade improvements but “the majority of the SNIP money in our CIP areas goes into improving derelict buildings, dangerous buildings, buildings that are useless, that can’t be used and turned into a productive building, particularly in the downtown area. Those moneys are used to make these functional buildings…”. The amendment passed.

I have to ask; whose responsibility is it to maintain a privately-owned commercial building or keep it in safe condition? Apparently, it’s yours ~ not the owner of the building! And the argument in favour of this was we aren’t doing enough to support small business if we don’t throw tax money at these projects. 

The reality is that the new programming was built to accommodate these properties as long as long as their ask incorporates one of the pillars. This amendment eliminated the potential savings to taxpayers, but also meant we were watering down a key policy that could significantly make headway on addressing an affordable housing crisis. I couldn’t think of a better way to help support our local businesses, than to make significant progress in addressing our housing supply needs, which will also increase the capacity for discretionary income by making housing more affordable. In this way, more of our residents will have the capacity to shop local, eat at a local restaurant, make retail or other purchases. It’s good for business and its good for residents. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that “The test of our progress, is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” The policy will come up for final approval at our next Council meeting. I’m hopeful the majority will come around to see the great opportunity before them, but with parochialism rearing its head once more on an important issue, I am skeptical. 

Further suggested reading:

Niagara Region Council of the Whole meeting – Incentive Review Documents PDS 31-2021

St. Catharines Standard Coverage – Development incentive review roils regional council