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New homes are built in a housing construction development in the west-end of Ottawa on May 6, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Back in the mid-1990s, the population of the Greater Toronto Area was about 4.5 million. It has since eclipsed seven million and is expected to reach 10 million by the mid-2040s. The GTA, already home to as many people as six Saskatchewans, will soon have the population of Alberta and British Columbia, combined.

And in and around Toronto, housing supply has not kept up with population growth. It’s true across Canada; it’s especially true in the GTA. The problem has been mounting for more than a decade. And over the past two pandemic years, Toronto’s long-burning housing wildfire has spread to the whole country.

What to do? Canada can draw inspiration from other jurisdictions, such as California and New Zealand, which are also facing housing crises – and which are tackling them by forcing changes to zoning rules, to allow more housing to be built. They’ve dictated increased density in cities where most land was, as in Canadian cities and suburbs, reserved for detached houses. The goal is to allow cities to build up more, and sprawl out less. It’s also a recognition that housing policy is economic policy.

On Tuesday, the province of Ontario unveiled a bold new housing blueprint. Just two months ago – with a provincial election this spring, and housing a top issue – the Doug Ford government rushed together an expert panel on housing affordability. The main goal was to increase supply. The report’s relatively compact 33 pages contain sweeping prescriptions for a complete overhaul of housing rules.

“The way housing is approved and built was designed for a different era,” the report begins. “We are in a housing crisis and that demands immediate and sweeping reforms.”

The report calls for more density – for property owners to be allowed to build, “as of right,” up to four units of housing, of up to four storeys, on lots currently zoned for only one home. Today, 70 per cent of land in Toronto zoned for housing is restricted to detached or semi-detached homes. The population density of the City of Toronto, the densest part of the GTA, is about one-third that of New York.

There are also proposals to allow building – again “as of right” – up to 11 storeys, and an end to rules requiring parking, on streets with public transit. There are ideas to scrap arcane regulations and reduce long regulatory delays; the OECD reports, among 35 member countries, Canada is second-to-last in time needed to get a building project approved.

The report also calls for tax changes to get more rentals built and for more public money to go to affordable housing – including some of the $5-billion in land-transfer tax Ontario expects to collect this fiscal year.

While the report is big and radical, its proposals do not come out of nowhere. The ingredients in this blueprint have been publicly debated in earnest for years, backed by a range of voices, from advocacy groups such as More Neighbours to the Toronto Region Board of Trade. This page has also long argued for some of these policies. The scaffolding of change has finally reached the fore of politics in Canada’s largest province.

Two big question marks remain: physical logistics, and local politics.

On logistics, the report’s headline proposal is the building of 1.5 million new homes in Ontario over the next decade. Sounds great. Such a flood of supply should ease price manias and dampen speculation, which feeds on scarcity. Ontario saw 81,000 housing completions last year. That was a building boom, yet it’s barely half the task force’s goal of 150,000 annual completions. To suddenly double construction, and maintain that pace, will be challenging.

Then there’s politics. It is one thing to draw up an audacious blueprint. It is another thing to turn it into reality. Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives will be under pressure to stick with the status quo: Keep sprawling out rather than growing up.

In city and suburb alike, opponents will be legion. Most homeowners in established neighbourhoods want nothing in their neighbourhood to change, which is why the impulse in housing policy – look at city councils in Toronto and Vancouver – is always to bury zoning reform in years of ponderous study. Both cities have long chewed over the ideas in Ontario’s report, but their actions have been few. Meanwhile, housing prices keep surging. All of which underscores the report’s simple conclusion: “The need to act now.”

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