When do the words bold and transformational not really mean bold and transformational?
Well, one ready example is Ontario’s new housing bill, an omnibus law that lands with a raft of changes and includes amendments to nine different provincial acts – planning, heritage and conservation among them. It’s called the “More Homes Built Faster Act”; tabled on Tuesday, Housing Minister Steve Clark called it “the boldest, most transformational changes made to date.”
Sounds great. Yet for all its proposals, it pulls up short on its central mission: to build a lot of housing. Yes, this may be bold compared to the status quo, but it’s not bold when measured against what’s necessary in a housing market where it’s extremely expensive to buy, difficult to rent, and where the scarcity of homes is holding back economic growth.
The new bill contains some interesting measures – such as cutting taxes and fees on affordable housing and addressing tax inequities on rental buildings – but in sum it is totally inadequate. Mr. Clark was unable to say how many homes the new measures are expected to generate. That’s a glaring problem.
In February, an expert panel convened by Premier Doug Ford delivered a landmark report that called for 1.5-million new homes in Ontario over the next decade, double the pace of recent building. The report provided a detailed blueprint. Mr. Ford adopted the headline number and seemed to shelve the rest. Tuesday, a day after municipal elections, was supposed to be the do-over, when real changes would land.
It was not the case. Instead, the Ford government kept waving its 1.5-million homes flag but didn’t lay down the mechanisms to make it happen.
It is well established that far too much land in cities, starting in Toronto, is reserved for the least amount of density possible, the detached house. Such land is ripe to be opened up to everything from fourplexes to small apartment buildings. This doesn’t mean the end of detached houses – it means the beginning of allowing, over years to come, a lot more and different housing to be built.
The Ford government’s first proposal is where the bill falls short. Detached houses, across Ontario, will “as of right” – without special approvals – be allowed to add a basement suite and a laneway home, or to be divided into three units. It’s a step forward, but it is inching, not leaping, ahead.
What Mr. Ford’s expert panel proposed was this: to allow, as of right, a building of up to four units and up to four storeys on every lot, provincewide. The panel also said that, on streets served by transit, cities should allow, as of right, buildings of up to 11 storeys, with no parking required.
This week’s bill doesn’t have much resemblance to the expert recommendations. And the government knows this. In a cabinet briefing document, obtained by The Globe and Mail and other media, the three-units proposal is predicted to produce just 50,000 new homes over a decade. It’s almost pointless to note that 50,000 is barely 3 per cent of 1.5-million.
The Ford government, in its own public explanation, brands its three-units plan as “gentle density” that will have a “minimal impact on existing neighbourhoods.”
Minimal impact is not bold or transformational. The Minimal Impact Housing Act doesn’t quite have the ring of change.
The new bill does include good ideas for more density around transit – which is an obvious move to make – but why is density always consigned to such places? Why can’t a small apartment building be beside a park, or a school? Why are new units in neighbourhoods only basements or small laneway homes?
One thing Mr. Ford likes is numbers – 1.5-million most of all. There will be a series of housing targets for cities to hit, such as 285,000 in Toronto and 181,000 in Ottawa – higher than those places had planned. But, surprise, there’s no enforcement mechanism.
Mr. Ford had the chance to make a real difference. Once again, his government chose to do less rather than more. Change again falls to the cities – and change is needed most in Toronto, where Mayor John Tory easily won re-election on Monday. He has promised more housing and more density. That should mean at least roomy fourplexes in older neighbourhoods, as the Ontario panel advocated.
Mr. Tory now also has “strong mayor” powers. He could deliver the change that Mr. Ford didn’t. Will he?