Ontario needs more housing. It especially needs to build in the places where the most people want to live and work. This is clear: The province’s three largest political parties, the federal government and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. are all on board.
But Doug Ford’s government is taking advantage of that consensus to push forward sprawl policies that are environmentally, fiscally and socially destructive.
The Premier’s More Homes Built Faster Act sounds like good news. The omnibus planning legislation, which was introduced last week, loosens some rules and limits some charges on new development, particularly affordable housing. Who could argue with more homes, faster?
But the urban policies are lacking in detail. And down in the weeds of the bill, there are monsters.
The heart of the issue is one question: Where should new housing go? The correct answer is: in cities.
That means building apartments, which are less expensive than single-family houses. It means people living closer together, in neighbourhoods that are much cheaper to run. A study for the City of Ottawa found that suburban sprawl costs the city $465 a person each year, while high-density infill generates a surplus of $606 a person annually.
Infill development is also good climate policy, dramatically reducing emissions. And it provides the varied amenities and the walkability – in a phrase, the 15-minute city – that Canadians say they want.
The Ford government is largely paying lip service to that idea. While the bill includes some measures toward intensifying cities, these are modest. Planning in house neighbourhoods will see only minor change. At the same time, the bill allows the province to change Toronto’s “rental replacement” policy. Right now it protects tenants when their homes are torn down to create new buildings. Removing that protection would be deeply unjust.
Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager with the advocacy group Environmental Defence, says the bill is a tool to create sprawl. “The real focus, as always with this government, has been to push growth into peripheral municipalities where fast growth is already happening.”
That means the fringes of the suburbs around Ottawa, London and Toronto – in the latter case extending as far north as Simcoe. New development here tends to be heavily car-oriented, because public transit is weak. It also comes in conflict with natural systems, which are protected by the province’s conservation authorities. Last week’s bill “guts the function of conservation authorities to determine where sprawl can go,” Mr. Pothen says. Developers “will be allowed to destroy vast swaths of wetlands.”
This could have devastating consequences for ecosystems, and there is a danger that the role of waterways and wetlands to manage flooding will be overlooked.
These changes will serve the interests of some landowners. But they are unnecessary, even to hit the Ford government’s target of getting 1.5 million homes built over the next 10 years.
The province’s urban areas are not very dense. Ottawa, London, Windsor, Toronto – each of these places has huge areas of low-density house neighbourhoods within its bounds. In newer cities such as Mississauga, that’s even more true.
The clear solution is to intensify those cities by making apartment buildings and townhouses legal everywhere. For a generation now, since a provincial Liberal government introduced policies to limit sprawl, this has been the general idea. But the implementation has been incremental. Municipal governments, most importantly Toronto’s, have pushed back as hard as they can. Developers’ lawyers have had to haggle with government to get housing built.
The Ford government could fix this. Change zoning and focus growth in cities. That would be following the advice of their own housing task force. Instead they seem to be taking the easy way out, serving the worst instincts of the development industry and an obsolete idea that everybody should live in houses.
The future of the province is in cities. To pave over wetlands is to head in the wrong direction.