Does Toronto need a strong mayor in order to build more housing?
This week’s surprise announcement that Doug Ford’s government would remake the rules for Toronto and Ottawa city halls came with that excuse. Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark talked about getting “shovels in the ground.” Perhaps the Ford government has hidden motives. Let’s assume for a moment, however, that they mean what they say: John Tory and a new Ottawa mayor can solve the housing crisis.
The problem is that, over the past eight years, Mr. Tory hasn’t used all of his existing powers to do that. Not even close.
Start with land-use planning. For two decades now, Ontario cities have been obligated to “intensify,” to add more people and jobs. And yet Toronto still makes apartment buildings illegal in most places. This is why every sizeable development requires a multiyear haggle. Private-sector lawyers and consultants are doing the work that the city leadership refuses to do. This is a dysfunctional situation that everyone takes for granted.
Mr. Tory could have changed this, at least a bit. He could have directed staff to rewrite city zoning – the specific regulations for each site – to allow apartment buildings to be built in a straightforward manner. This would have sped up the construction of market-rate and affordable housing alike.
Perhaps he doesn’t have the votes on council. But has he tried to make positive change?
If anything, it’s been the opposite. In 2020, Mr. Ford’s government introduced rules requiring density around transit stations and stops. As I wrote then, this provided the city with an opportunity to remake much of the landscape. Instead, the planning department chose to alter as little as possible. This week, city council quietly approved plans for 115 areas that are extremely timid.
Such decisions are technical, but they’re ultimately political. Toronto’s planning department clearly knows what council wants. It appears to be verboten for city planner Gregg Lintern – even when he and his staff want real change – to do anything controversial. This includes long-awaited reforms to neighbourhood policy, which have been delayed until after the fall election.
Mr. Tory could have moved the goalposts on these subjects with a single press conference. He has not. His rhetoric has been vague at best.
And if housing matters, then why are Stephen Holyday and Denzil Minnan-Wong still appointed deputy mayors? Those two councillors proudly advocate for keeping the city economically segregated. They defied Mr. Tory to keep rooming houses illegal in much of the city.
Maybe “strong mayor” powers, whatever they turn out to be, are a magical solution. But I am not convinced, for the other half of the housing-policy challenge is to provide homes at below-market rents, and this requires money. It’s hard to believe Mr. Tory is ready to raise taxes and build masses of social housing.
His main goal as mayor has been to keep a tight rein on property taxes, restricting spending on housing and social services. (The exception is development charges on new housing, which the city seemingly believes it can tax to infinity.)
The fault is not only with mayors. The provincial government could build social housing. Mr. Clark could also rewrite Ottawa’s planning regulations, and especially Toronto’s, to radically increase the density of those cities. He should do those things. But he hasn’t.
In 2022, it’s clear what a response to the housing crisis looks like. Prosperous cities, where many people want and need to live, must reform their planning to add many more people. And government must spend much more on housing its most vulnerable citizens.
It’s true that a powerful mayor could affect this kind of change. But is that what Mr. Tory, or Mr. Ford, want to see? There’s no reason to believe it.
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