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Canada Ford government’s housing bill facing growing resistance

A growing chorus of municipal politicians and environmentalists want the Ontario government to delay or scrap its housing action plan, saying the legislation, which could pass as early as next week, hands too much power to the development industry and will speed the conversion of farmland into sprawl.

Toronto city councillor Josh Matlow says a co-ordinated campaign against the housing legislation is increasing in the wake of Premier Doug Ford’s decision to withdraw retroactive cuts to this year’s funding for public health, childcare and paramedics – a retreat that came after opposition from the mayors of the province’s largest cities.

“What this government has demonstrated is that when there is enough of an outcry by the people of Ontario, they recognize that,” Mr. Matlow told a news conference on Friday at Queen’s Park, flanked by other Toronto councillors and environmentalists.

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The Progressive Conservative government’s Bill 108 would rewrite more than a dozen pieces of legislation in order to increase the supply of new housing. It was welcomed by developers, who have long complained that growth rules, the need for myriad approvals and objections from so-called NIMBY (not in my backyard) local councils meant they could not produce enough homes to meet escalating demand.

The bill would restore sweeping powers to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, formerly known as the Ontario Municipal Board, something critics warn would see it too often override local municipalities. The proposed legislation would also weaken endangered species rules, heritage protections and conservation authorities. Looser density targets and Planning Act changes would make it easier to build suburban housing on certain greenfield sites. The bill would also install a new regime to govern the charges home builders must pay to fund new infrastructure and parks – something critics warn could leave municipalities with less cash.

In an open letter released on Friday, six Toronto-area mayors and more than 40 municipal councillors urge the PC government to pause the legislation, which was unveiled only on May 2 but could be passed as early as next week. They want consultations on the complex bill extended to Sept. 1. Committee hearings on the bill were held on Friday.

The Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario, which successfully urged Mr. Ford to change his mind on the cuts to municipal budgets this week, has also come out against key portions of Bill 108 and is also demanding more time for consultations.

But there was no indication at Queen’s Park that the PC government was having any second thoughts.

“We needed to move forward because we are in a housing crisis,” said PC MPP Christine Hogarth, parliamentary assistant to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark. She argued that consultations held in the winter, before the bill was drafted, were sufficient.

In a detailed analysis provided to The Globe and Mail, activist group Environmental Defence says the Ontario government’s recent housing action plan fulfills 20 of 28 demands on a wish list submitted by the Ontario Home Builders’ Association (OHBA) that the environmental group says will make it easier to convert farmland into suburban sprawl.

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Joe Vaccaro, chief executive officer of the OHBA, denied the changes would result in unbridled sprawl. He acknowledged they would result in faster approvals for more greenfield housing, but said the changes are needed to build enough new homes of all types to keep up with Ontario’s rapid population growth.

“From an industry perspective, these are things that have to change to get more supply to the marketplace,” Mr. Vaccaro said.

The return of power to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal will allow it to override “NIMBY councils," he argued, and get more units approved. And he defended changes to the Endangered Species Act, which will allow developers to pay a fee instead of taking action to preserve habitat – a provision decried by environmentalists as “pay to slay.” Mr. Vaccaro said the new system will provide certainty for developers who would otherwise face lengthy delays for their permits, while providing funds for other actions to protect species at risk.

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