Ontario’s PC government says it will ease the housing crunch with a sweeping package of measures aimed at getting more houses built more quickly, but critics say the plan’s move to increase the powers of the province’s land-use tribunal unfairly favours large developers.
Once known as the Ontario Municipal Board, the body was reined in and renamed the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal by the previous Liberal government in 2017, in changes meant to give local councils more weight in disputes over, for example, how many extra storeys developers could stack on top of a condominium tower. The industry countered at the time that the changes would only empower local NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) councillors to block much-needed denser development.
In proposed legislation announced on Thursday, Steve Clark, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said the new tribunal would regain its power to make final decisions based on its own determination of the best planning outcome – a power the old OMB’s critics say allowed it to unfairly impose developer-friendly rulings on municipalities. Mr. Clark also pledged to clear the tribunal’s current backlog, where a potential 100,000 unapproved housing units sit in limbo in Toronto alone.
Representatives from the building industry, on hand as Mr. Clark announced his plan at an affordable housing development in Scarborough, welcomed the proposals and said they would help them build more homes to meet pent-up and rising demand for places to live.
“By speeding up the approvals ... that’s going to bring the homes to the area for the growth that we are experiencing," said Dave Wilkes, president and CEO of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), which represents Greater Toronto Area developers.
Mr. Clark said his changes would reduce bureaucracy and spur the construction of new homes of all kinds, including rental apartments: "For too long, government has stood in the way of increasing housing supply in this province, and hard-working families are paying the price.”
But environmentalists and some municipal politicians charged that the plan shows the government of Premier Doug Ford is too friendly with the building industry, which saw large players support his party’s cause last year.
“This is in answer to development industry lobbyists,” said Toronto city councillor Josh Matlow, who had long railed against the former OMB. “These are the people [Doug Ford] is answering to.”
The minister said that while his government’s critics feared it would do away with what are known as development charges – large fees developers pay to cover the costs of the water and sewer pipes and other infrastructure needed before they can build homes – it is instead keeping them in place, but making some changes.
To encourage new homes to be built with secondary units, such as basement apartments, those units would no longer be subject to development charges. Planning Act changes would also make approvals for these units in existing homes easier. And to stimulate the much-needed construction of rental housing, developers could put off paying development charges for rental or non-profit housing for five years.
Other payments developers must make – to pay for community centres or other amenities – usually come after a haggling process with local councillors and planners outlined in Section 37 of the Planning Act. Under Thursday’s changes, they would be combined with payments for the costs of parks – standardized, capped and collected under a new process. Mr. Clark said the change was the end of “let’s make a deal” planning.
The government also says it is finalizing the changes it floated earlier this year that will see the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe loosened to require less density in new suburban housing developments. While the changes came after municipalities and developers demanded more flexibility in those density targets, Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said the changes will “enable sprawl.” Mr. Gray also singled out a proposed amendment to the Ontario Building Code to remove the new requirement that new houses include electric-vehicle charging outlets as an “ideological” move.
Asked about sprawl, Mr. Clark pointed to provisions that will allow the government to impose greater density around public-transit stations. And he made a point of repeating assurances that his government would not touch the protected greenbelt that surrounds the Greater Toronto Area, something on which Mr. Ford has flip-flopped in the past.
The proposed legislation also includes previously announced rewrites of environmental rules, including the Endangered Species Act that would allow developers facing delays seeking necessary permits the option of paying a fee instead of performing mitigation measures to help a species at risk. The government says the money would fund larger-scale programs for endangered species, but environmentalists have decried the plan as a “pay-to-kill” program and a gutting of the legislation.