Everyone in Ontario politics seems to agree: The province needs more housing. But does anyone know where – and how – to build it?
These questions jump out from the policy platforms of the four largest parties for this provincial election. The Greens, NDP and Liberals agree it’s important to build many new homes and meet high demand. The Progressive Conservatives talk often about housing supply, though they haven’t delivered on it during the past four years in power.
However, the three largest parties are fuzzy on where that housing will go and how it will get approved by municipalities. This isn’t a detail. It is the most politically difficult aspect of housing policy.
After all, new housing needs to be constructed in particular places. And there’s a consensus – reflected in the NDP, Liberal and Green platforms – that a lot of new housing must go into existing neighbourhoods.
Consider the NDP’s welcome promise to build 1.5 million units of new housing, in large part through the efforts of a new social-housing agency. This will take money – fine. But these “units” will be apartments – about 10,000 mid-sized buildings. The problem is that local planning regulations generally ban apartment buildings. This is true in Toronto, but also to some degree everywhere else, including Ottawa, Hamilton, Mississauga and Brampton.
The campaigns try to dodge this question by talking about the “missing middle”: small apartments and townhomes that are similar in size to single-family homes and can fit in on any street. This is an important idea. But it’s also deceiving. To build 1.5 million homes, you can’t rely on three-unit apartments. You need scale. Ontario needs to construct towers, just as it did in the 1960s.
That leads to one conclusion: to build huge amounts of new housing, the provincial government must step on toes. It needs to overrule municipal planning. The province must compel towns and cities to accept the new residents that they need but would prefer not to welcome.
The PCs know what needs to be done; they just don’t want to do it. Housing Minister Steve Clark speaks often about the need to build more “infill” housing. The government’s task force on housing supply specifically recommended ending “exclusionary zoning” and allowing small apartment buildings everywhere. But Mr. Ford punted.
Instead, the PCs are altering the current Growth Plan to lock in a larger proportion of growth into car-oriented suburbs. This is easier, because it doesn’t make any neighbours – voters – mad.
Will anyone else do better? The Green Party emphasize the need for accessible housing for people with disabilities, a critical and overlooked issue. They have smart policies to encourage the “missing middle.” But more importantly, they promise to change zoning and allow at least midrise buildings by right.
“High-rises are an important part of the housing mix in cities,” their platform says.
The Liberals and NDP commit to ending exclusionary zoning. But the devil will be in the many contentious details. Liberals pledge to “work with municipalities to ensure that all neighbourhoods allow for a mix of housing types and tenures.” The NDP make a similar pledge. Collaboration will fix it, surely.
Meanwhile in the real world, city councillors routinely vilify new housing and the development industry. In a recent public meeting, Toronto councillor Mike Colle – a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister – spoke of a “flood of development that is ruining [residents’] life” in prosperous North Toronto.
“Whether they’ll even see the sun again … is a question,” he added. “There’s no grass, there’s no air, there’s no sun left.”
This is preposterous, but people believe weird things when it comes to housing.
That’s probably why the Liberal governments of Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne enacted tough policy to fight sprawl in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area – but never followed through on policies to encourage housing in cities. Instead, they made the development industry go to the Ontario Municipal Board (and its successors), forcing urban intensification through litigation.
That’s been the story of this 20-year boom: cities have allowed more housing, but they’ve done so kicking and screaming. There’s never been a full political acknowledgment that our cities need a lot more density – and that density is greener, more efficient and allows for a better quality of life for all.
This election hasn’t gotten Ontario to that understanding. But the conversation is now in the right neighbourhood. Changing the neighbourhood is the next step.
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