Suddenly, 1.5 million is the magic number to fix Ontario’s housing crisis. The problem is, in this spring’s election campaign, no major party seems to have the courage to make it happen.
Building 1.5 million new homes in the province over a decade was the centrepiece of a bold report commissioned by Premier Doug Ford. But the report, released in February, offered more than a number. It detailed the necessary changes to make it happen, led by an overhaul of rigid civic zoning rules. Those rules have led to today’s housing squeeze.
But Mr. Ford effectively shelved the report after hearing blowback from mayors, and fearing likewise from some voters on June 2 election day. His government instead passed a tepid housing bill, one that aims to speed up the development process but ducks the main issue – zoning reform. Mr. Ford’s budget (tabled but not passed) also promised to chip away at housing over the next four years.
The number 1.5 million, however, found renewed popularity with Mr. Ford’s opponents. The NDP put out a housing plan last year but, in early May, added some last-minute revisions, starting with a promise of 1.5 million new homes. The Liberals and Green Party also both include the number in their proposals.
The goal is bold. The question of how it could be accomplished, or even anything remotely close, is a big one.
Critics of the need for additional supply have called it fanciful and pointed to an already strained construction sector. Ontario saw 81,158 housing completions in 2021, up 20 per cent from the average of the previous five years. Building 1.5 million new homes in 10 years would mean almost doubling 2021′s pace of construction. It’s a stretch.
Still, looking to the past is instructive about what’s possible. Ontario built more homes than it did in 2021 twice in the early 2000s, and for four straight years in the late 1980s. That’s something – but now consider the 1970s. From 1972 through 1978, Ontario built at least 80,000 homes each year. The peak was 104,360 in 1974 and the average over those seven years was 88,910. Apartments and row houses accounted for more than half the total.
Given that the population was much smaller, the per-capita rate of construction in the mid-1970s was actually double that of 2021. Saying it can’t be done ignores the fact it has been done. Back then, of course, there was more land on which to build. These days, the obvious move is urban density. The majority of residential land in Toronto is dedicated to the near-zero density of the detached home. The February provincial housing report called for four units of housing where only one exists today “as of right,” meaning no special approval required. The report said the same for buildings of up to 11 storeys on streets with transit.
Some mayors were upset, feeling usurped. Mr. Ford backed down, not having the stomach for real change.
Does the NDP have it? Maybe. But even in their early May pivot, the promise is to “work with municipalities to reform land-use planning rules.” Newsflash: City councils are the main obstacles to change.
Do the Liberals have the stomach for change? Maybe. But they, too, will “work with municipalities to expand zoning options.” Sounds familiar.
All three major parties, hunting for votes, are effectively afraid of owners of detached homes, especially those in Toronto and throughout the suburbs.
The parties promise more housing but are standoffish about the actual mechanics of building it. And they are less ambitious than they could be. The Liberals, for example, propose provincewide “as of right” building of three units and two storeys on lots with one home. It’s less than the February report called for. And what happens, when working with cities, if the cities say no?
Constraints on housing affect many people’s lives, from impossible prices to high rents. Is a twentysomething doomed to be stuck with their parents? Or forced to have roommates? Scarcity in the Toronto region has squeezed household formation. A study published last week estimated Toronto could be short as many as 400,000 households – which if they existed would add 17 per cent to the current 2.4-million.
It’s easy to say 1.5 million new homes. You can say it 1.5 million times. But just saying it won’t upend deep-rooted, decades-old restrictive zoning. Real change in housing will take strong leadership.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.