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A housing development next to the Fourteen Mile Creek Lands upstream from Brenda Morrison's home in Oakville, Ont., on May 2.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

For Rino Bortolin, suburban cul-de-sacs are really just long driveways because they’re roads that go nowhere except to a few homes, and the Windsor, Ont., councillor isn’t sure why the rest of his city should be made to fund them.

The question goes to the heart of municipal fairness – who pays for what – but is also central to the provincial election race. A gathering recognition among cities that sprawl is financially unsustainable is putting pressure on the parties to find new ways to manage development.

Millions more people are projected to call Southern Ontario home in the decades to come. Where and how they’ll live, and whether they’ll be able to afford to buy property, loom large over the current campaign.

The Greens have promised to minimize sprawl by stopping communities from expanding. The NDP has made a similar pledge but also promised to empower local decision-making, prompting concerns that municipal opposition will prevent denser growth.

Similarly, Ontario’s Liberals have promised to work with municipalities on zoning reform but stated also in their platform that, “Local communities know best when it comes to where and how to build more homes.”

The Progressive Conservatives have vowed to preserve the Greenbelt protected area while also promising new highways that would encourage longer commutes. And they raised eyebrows during their term by pushing cities to expand their boundaries, pitching this as a way to allow for more housing.

Critics counter that, by letting new residents offload costs on others, sprawl is a profoundly un-conservative approach.

“If you just look at the financials, it is a long-term disaster,” said John-Paul Danko, a councillor in Hamilton, a city that resisted provincial pressure to enlarge itself.

“We’re not even currently financing the level of repair and upgrades that we need to do with our current infrastructure, and then adding new infrastructure on top of that … you just kind of push the problem out to future generations.”

Ironically, an earlier Tory government recognized the fiscal millstone of sprawl and tried to rein it in. In the early 2000s, under then-premier Mike Harris, the party offered financial incentives to developers who built on abandoned city land. And they created “Smart Growth Panels” that would try to add residents in ways that minimized, among other things, the possibility of future tax hikes.

Sprawl carries an economic burden in several ways.

The province sets development levies, and cities can’t charge enough to fund the full price of infrastructure required by new housing. Instead, sprawl has typically been paid for through constant expansion: New development generates funds that help fill the budget shortfall created by previous rounds.

At the same time, houses on the periphery cost more to provide with city services and have a lower density of residents paying taxes, raising the per-capita tab. And when infrastructure in sprawl neighbourhoods comes up for repair or replacement, the costs are harder to justify in a thinly populated area.

As a result, sprawl typically involves both subsidies to its current residents – even though individual homeowners might feel they pay high taxes –and long-term liabilities for the city.

“Maybe the development charges in suburban neighbourhoods really need to be rethought to actually make them represent the true life-cycle cost,” said Toon Dreessen, president of Ottawa firm Architects DCA.

“Development charges outside the Greenbelt are currently slightly higher than they are inside, but I think there’s a case to be made to say that difference needs to become much larger.”

Proponents of sprawl argue that people want the homes. And for decades, buyers have indeed flocked to newly built subdivisions on the outskirts of cities. “Drive until you qualify” for a mortgage has for decades been advice for aspiring homeowners. Those commutes became longer but demand remained strong.

However, demand may have been buoyed because people living in these properties often haven’t been paying the full cost.

A consultant report in Ottawa found that the city spends $465 annually per person to service low-density homes on the periphery. Meanwhile, infill homes in the core contribute $606 more each year, per person, than they cost to service.

Municipal politicians in other cities say a similar disparity is likely widespread.

“Any time anything is subsidized, even indirectly subsidized, we have to ask whether those subsidies and supports are shaping the public preferences,” said Tom Urbaniak, professor of political science at Cape Breton University and author of Her Worship: Hazel McCallion and the Development of Mississauga.

In Windsor, Mr. Bortolin noted that his ward, which is lower income, has the highest tax base in the city by area.

“Those long cul-de-sacs with those fancy streetlights are subsidized by the people in the built-up area and the dense areas,” he said.

“I mean, I think it’s as anti-conservative as it gets … and it’s really doing all the things that you don’t like lefties to do, but you’re hiding it. You’re hiding it in your development patterns, in your infrastructure builds.”

At the same time, people who buy homes in the outskirts may not have other viable options. The alternatives are usually older neighbourhoods closer to city centres, where houses can be prohibitively expensive, or dense downtown developments that often have few large units suitable for growing families.

The third option – adding more homes to established neighbourhoods through infill housing – has a history of arousing fierce local opposition. The most eye-catching recommendation from a recent Conservative-appointed housing task force was to change zoning rules to allow up to four units on any residential lot in the province.

In the same vein, the Liberals say they would permit by default up to three units on any lot. The NDP promise to allow more low-scale development such as duplexes and triplexes. The Tories, bowing to municipal unhappiness, did not pursue their task force’s suggestion in a precampaign housing bill.

The Conservative campaign strategy suggests it sees its path to re-election is through suburban voters. The Tories are proposing to build two new highways, as well as expanding others, and regularly talk up home ownership.

With the party’s reluctance to take on municipalities that resist urban intensification, more homes likely means sprawl – no matter its inherent cost to other people.

“Development and community growth is such a political hot button that I think it starts to bend these preconceptions about where politicians lie on the ideological spectrum,” said University of Toronto professor of geography and planning Matti Siemiatycki.

“The way that conservativism or liberal ideologies play out, there’s not purity and each of them are trying to run the numbers and understand the calculus as they seek their electoral bases. And in this province, that suburban belt is where you get elected.”

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