The Ontario government had a chance to do something meaningful about the housing crisis. And they blinked.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark announced Wednesday a modest set of changes to the province’s housing policy, aiming to alter planning regulations, taxation and the building code. While largely positive, these moves are not the dramatic change that’s needed.
It could have gone differently. Last month, the province’s housing affordability task force made a bold set of recommendations, including doubling the rate of housing construction and making small apartment buildings legal everywhere. The task force understood the heart of the problem. Ontario has been underbuilding housing for many years and municipalities are largely responsible for this shortcoming.
Politicians don’t like that story. Neither do the planners who report to them. They pushed back, in a response from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and in public comments from Mississauga and Toronto’s chief planners. The short version of their comments: Don’t blame us.
But the task force was right, and the cities are largely wrong. Housing policy is complex, but a few facts are clear: Low vacancies contribute to higher prices and rents. The current scarcity of housing has encouraged speculation: Investors bet on scarcity, and they’re frank about it. Apartment buildings are largely illegal, so development land and units are in short supply.
Will added supply solve our current crises of affordability and homelessness? Absolutely not. But it will help, allowing more people to find the kinds of housing they need, and freeing up their old homes for others. There’s considerable economic evidence that building keeps prices down. It’s better than the alternative.
That’s why progressive governments are increasingly taking aim at “exclusionary zoning,” the rules that mandate single-family houses. The national government of New Zealand has eliminated such rules in its five largest cities. In the past year, California has passed two new bills in the same direction.
Ontario could have done the same. But the government apparently doesn’t have the stomach for that. Taking away power from local governments – in an election year – is asking for a fight.
In some ways, the government’s bill is laudable. It tightens up planning processes, which in Ontario are byzantine. The government wants to legalize mass timber buildings up to 12 storeys, a big step for that technology. And it will study changing the building code to allow single-staircase apartment buildings – which sounds boring, but would open up enormous possibilities for small and midsized buildings in our cities. Small infill is a crucial part of providing more housing, and more diverse cities.
But bigger steps are needed. Ontario’s regime of planning is environmentally and economically unstainable. A more equitable province will require major changes to the way our cities look and feel. That will not happen, ever, as long as local officials hold the strings. Angry neighbours will always hold the balance of power.
It seems that Doug Ford, a Premier who has shown open contempt for Ontario’s municipal governments in the past, isn’t up for that fight. In this year’s election, the young and the unpropertied will be looking for a leader who is. Good luck with that.
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