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Public consultations on municipal zoning changes often don’t look much like the public, particularly in big, diverse cities. They tend to skew older, whiter and wealthier. And they hear far more from homeowners than renters.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Younger people have jobs or family responsibilities that preclude them from participating. For others, language barriers get in the way. New Canadians may not realize these engagement options exist.

The opinions politicians are most likely to hear when weighing controversial building proposals are the organized ones. These are usually groups purporting to speak on behalf of a specific neighbourhood – though their actual membership is often quite small. Leaders of these ratepayers’ groups turn up reliably at city halls across the country to make the case for what should happen near their homes.

As a result of all these factors, and in an era when the need for more housing means neighbourhoods have to become more densely populated, a minority of people have an outsized say over how cities develop.

This is not to say they shouldn’t be heard. They have every right to voice their concerns about the neighbourhood in which they live. Property is the most expensive thing most people will ever buy, and the financial security of a home is crucial for many as they enter retirement. While nobody should buy a home assuming their neighbourhood will never change, property values are a legitimate concern.

But defensible self-interest is still self-interest. And it can morph into outright selfishness.

When a group representing the owners of multimillion-dollar homes in a Toronto neighbourhood suggests that even small apartment buildings might best be built next to highways, they are proposing renters be exposed to noise and pollution in order to prevent changes in more residential areas, near the properties of the group’s members.

Similarly, a development plan approved in 2005 for several pricey neighbourhoods in Vancouver portrayed larger buildings on arterial roads as barriers protecting nearby single-family homes from traffic noise. This argument turned up again two years ago as a selling point for a proposed four-storey rental building in one of these neighbourhoods.

Renters confined to highways, serving as noise barriers for homeowners? Why are such views accepted?

Because homeowners vote and are well organized, and because politicians have traditionally prioritized their wishes. This shows a lack of leadership in three ways.

First, making current residents the gatekeepers creates a bias against change at a time when Canada’s big cities are facing serious housing shortages.

Second, property ownership should not confer a veto on what happens down the block.

And finally, policy changes have to be weighed for their effect not just on current residents, but also for how they could benefit people searching for a place to live.

In 2019, Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said this was a priority. He told The Globe and Mail he would rewrite part of Toronto’s development plan to allow for taller buildings in some areas, arguing he was “looking out for those people who don’t live in those neighbourhoods right now, who don’t have that voice.”

That’s a laudable planning goal. Future residents typically can’t be consulted. They may live elsewhere in Canada, or in another country. They may not even have been born. But their interests are as valid and important as those of current residents when building a city for the next 100 years – even if they don’t vote.

Sadly, even politicians who claim to get this will backslide when faced with the prospect of angry homeowners. Mr. Clark’s government chose this year to ignore their expert panel’s recommendation to allow modestly increased density in neighbourhoods across the province, for fear of pushback in advance of last month’s provincial election.

Public consultation on housing, as currently done in Canadian cities, isn’t working as it should. Too many voices are going unheard.

Courage is what’s needed. Politicians must hear from and take into account all interests – owners, renters and would-be residents – if leadership is to be about anything more than entrenching a status quo that is pricing too many people out of urban and suburban neighbourhoods.

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