Ten years ago, most citizens didn’t know the word “zoning.” The phrase “land-use planning” could put people to sleep. But 2022, the housing crisis is on everyone’s mind. People know it matters how and where we build.
Now that issue is turning Toronto politics upside down. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has introduced minority rule to the city council. And Mayor John Tory is doing big, bold things.
Or at least he promises to. On Wednesday, Mr. Tory will bring his 2023 Housing Action Plan to city council. His message to politicians and staff: Toronto should actually make an effort to get housing built. The city must “meet or exceed” an ambitious goal of building 285,000 homes over 10 years. That’s about a 60 per cent increase over the past decade.
“We must move quickly to change city policies and advance new programs that will create new housing,” Mr. Tory said at a media conference at City Hall Friday.
Specifically, he called for changing zoning – the specific regulations for what can be built – to allow buildings of six to ten storeys along major roads and in broader areas of the city, and also to allow small apartments within house neighbourhoods. His plan also suggests more housing in larger areas such as the port lands, where planners have chosen small buildings for arbitrary reasons.
Mr. Tory correctly noted that housing is a “spectrum,” in which a shortage of homes has a ripple effect across the market. He also noted the importance of continuing to build high-rises. Three-unit buildings won’t be enough to deliver huge volumes of housing.
The details will get technical, and Mr. Tory understands that it’ll be necessary to get into the weeds: he specifically asked city planning staff to take a new lens to all their policy-making.
Mr. Tory is working with councillor Brad Bradford, a former Toronto municipal planner, to shape his approach. “This is a pro-housing agenda,” Mr. Bradford told reporters. “It’s clear that the status quo is not working. We need to depart from convention.”
This forceful tone is significant and positive. Mr. Bradford is sending a message to the city’s cautious chief planner, Gregg Lintern, who not long ago was Mr. Bradford’s boss. Good for him. Until now, no one on city council has been willing to admit that Toronto planning is broken.
But it is. The status quo is a bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine. Toronto isn’t building nearly enough housing to accommodate those who want to live here. And all new housing is crammed into less than 10 per cent of the city. Existing apartment buildings are demolished to build bigger ones – too bad for the tenants. New towers crowd together on post-industrial brownfields.
Meanwhile, half of Toronto is a sea of low-density houses. And for demographic reasons, many of these low-rise neighbourhoods are actually losing population. Mr. Tory, to his credit, acknowledged this.
He also pointed out that large areas along the Bloor-Danforth subway are massively underbuilt. Much of Danforth Avenue “is nothing but two-storey buildings,” he said, “and that is a scandal.”
It’s remarkable that the mayor has said this out loud. For the next logical step is to build big in Riverdale, mixing towers with houses. That would mean overruling a brand-new plan by his own planning department, and also provoking a backlash. For half a century, Toronto’s house neighbourhoods have been untouchable. Now they’re filled with wealthy homeowners who think they’re entitled to subway access and also bucolic suburban atmosphere.
Is Mr. Tory prepared to disturb the peace?
He certainly has the instrument. Last week the Ford government at Queen’s Park passed “strong mayor” legislation that gives Mr. Tory, at his request, the ability to pass a motion with only one-third of council. This power is restricted by regulations, and the province promises it will apply only to building more housing. But, combined with a previous bill, it gives Mr. Tory remarkable power.
This rule of one-third is ridiculous on its face. The Ford government and Mr. Tory have conspired to make housing reform seem as malodorous and illegitimate as possible.
But there is a need for reform. Queen’s Park and Mr. Tory claim their goal is overcoming the forces of NIMBY – “not in my backyard” – that rule local politics. This is indeed a huge concern, and governments find other ways to address it. In California, the state requires municipalities to plan enough housing to accommodate population growth; if they fail, they give up some control to builders.
Mr. Ford and Mr. Tory haven’t been nearly so dexterous. However, the mayor appears to want to use his powers to open the gates of the city. “If you want to live in Toronto, we want you to live here,” his ally Mr. Bradford told reporters. If Toronto councillors share that view, the strong-mayor mess will be an ugly digression in a story about change badly needed and long overdue.