Doug Ford is doing something about the housing crisis, and it seems it’s not all bad.
I don’t relish writing these words, but they seem to be true. Ontario’s Housing Supply Action Plan, announced Thursday, could modestly help address the housing crisis in the Toronto region by making it easier to build things.
The full text of the bill still hadn’t been posted at the time of this writing, and much remains unclear. But the government articulated the theme in red-meat conservative language: It will “cut red tape and reduce regulation, so it is easier to build homes – including different kinds of homes.”
Why is that so controversial? Why aren’t we doing more of it?
The devil will be in the details, and the plan basically ignores the critical importance of social housing, but it seems the Tories – who have been reckless on the biggest policy files – are being uncharacteristically careful. One promised change would alter the timing of development charges, a wonky move that makes rental housing more economical. This is likely to transform some condo projects into badly needed rental buildings. Good news. So, is the proposal to defer development charges on secondary units: Adding basement apartments would become cheaper.
The plan’s biggest move, apparently, is to bring back the rules of the old Ontario Municipal Board, allowing developers and others to appeal municipal decisions and question whether they constitute “good planning.” This takes power away from local politicians and planners – power that is sometimes abused.
This legislation has received a predictable response from some anti-development politicians in Toronto. City Councillor Josh Matlow immediately called it a “giveaway to the development industry.”
But there’s a good case to be made that more and quicker housing development is a public good.
The fact is that Toronto is in a crisis. The region – not just the city of Toronto – has seen the cost of housing, including rentals, skyrocket over the past 20 years. And that will only get worse with population growth. The Greater Golden Horseshoe region is now home to 9.2 million people, and the province expects that number to increase more than 40 per cent in the next two decades.
Clearly that is going to mean building a lot of new housing. And much of that housing should go into existing neighbourhoods, not into greenfield subdivisions.
That work quickly gets complicated. In Toronto, 200 square kilometres – a third of the entire city – has been zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes, the so-called “Yellowbelt.” In effect, all new development of condos and apartments is being squeezed into a tiny swath of the city, about 5 per cent, where land is both expensive and full of stuff. This is not a free market – not anywhere close. You could argue that existing homeowners, in Toronto and in many of the surrounding 905 municipalities, have much more power than developers do.
Unfortunately, Big Homeowners don’t attract the same hatred as Big Developers. (At least not yet – check this sometime with the twentysomethings in your life.)
The return of the OMB will do something to counter the power of NIMBYism, which is a strong and destructive current in our cities and towns. It’s unclear whether this provincial plan will do anything else to open up existing neighbourhoods, though their messaging pays lip service to the idea. If it happens, it’s worth embracing.
In a forthcoming book that I co-edited, House Divided, a number of planners, architects and designers suggest ways to change Toronto’s planning policy and make it more inclusive. Not all of us agree on the value of more housing supply, but we do agree that zoning shouldn’t prevent people from finding different ways of living at different price points. Right now, zoning is a real obstacle. Call it red tape if you want.
In the United States, the politics of this issue are sometimes reversed. In California, a Democratic state legislator named Scott Wiener has brought forward legislation that would force cities and towns to allow more housing in more places, particularly near transit. Why? To address the state’s housing crisis, cut down on commutes and open expensive areas to new residents.
Is that a right-wing argument or a left-wing one? However you see it, it’s an argument we need to hear. Wherever it’s coming from.