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Townhouses under construction at the corner of McRae and Sutherland Drives, in Toronto's Leaside neighbourhood, are photographed on Dec. 10 2018.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When housing developers and the Ontario government talk about “getting rid of red tape” in order to speed up delivering of new homes, it’s a bit like the old aphorism, “Everyone talks about the weather”: Everybody talks about it but nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

It’s also a matter of perspective: One developer’s red tape is a land-use planner’s vital public policy. There are some cases in which it takes almost 20 years to turn greenfield land into a new subdivision, and studies of Ontario’s building industry by groups such as the Fraser Institute have defined red tape as any process that adds time or uncertainty to getting such projects approved and built.

“People have been piling on to the notion that regulatory barriers – red tape – process, timelines, zoning restrictions, growth plan, greenbelt and so forth, the whole public-policy regime is entirely at fault for why we have affordability issues,” said Richard Joy, executive director of the non-profit Urban Land Institute. “No doubt that is partly true … but I think people say if you could deal with all those things and just jump the supply, we would fix affordability. I’m not entirely sure it’s as simple as that.”

He points out that a hot economy is at least as responsible for vanishing affordability as restrictive planning systems. Nevertheless, there is unquestionably a lot of law and policy around land use in Ontario.

The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) has published studies that suggest it can take a decade or more to transform land into new housing (sometimes it takes that long to do transformative infill in already developed land). Recently, the association compiled a list of 52 consultations, studies or requirements that might stand in the way of turning a chunk of land into new housing (although the actual number of required steps is often much shorter).

“There is a lot of red tape that can simply be addressed through a common sense look at the requirements. It’s just not doing the same thing twice,” BILD chief executive David Wilkes said. “There should be a comparison, a side-by-side analysis, if the questions have been answered through one study, that’s good enough.”

Mr. Wilkes calls the market “out of balance” with more than 9.7 million people slated to live in the GTA by 2041, and more than 100,000 people moving to the region every year. “We need approximately 50,000 units per year, and the industry is currently building 38,000. We have a generational challenge that, unless we fix it through streamlining approvals, we are not going to realize the potential of the GTA.”

So, if you accept that red tape is a problem, what can be done, and what is being done? Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Stephen Clark has made speeches about cutting red tape, but has been short on concrete proposals.

“We are currently developing our strategy, but we are taking a ‘stem to stern’ look at approvals related to housing development – from planning to construction. Whether a detached home, a duplex or apartments and condos, we want to ensure that we are making changes that will have a demonstrable impact on reducing approvals complexity and getting more housing built quickly,” Rachel Widakdo, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said in an e-mail.

In one recent announcement, the ministry said that it would sell 243 parcels of provincially owned land to developers, and as part of that process would exempt “realty transactions for disposition and severance from Environmental Assessment Act requirements, enabling efforts and resources to be focused on projects that have greater potential to impact the environment,” a move it said would remove about 150 days of process time. Future property applications would still need to pass environmental assessment, the ministry said.

Developers often say that water, the environment and even community relationships can cause big delays, and the process can get testy, too.

“To some people, I’m the devil incarnate. But all we’re trying to do is build houses.” said Mark Jepp, director of land development at Paradise Developments, who knows how long a process land development can be, evidenced by the company’s Mount Pleasant development in Brampton. “We bought land in 1999 … the first plan was registered in 2013. That process has taken plus or minus 15 years,” Mr. Jepp said.

The list of governments and agencies requiring sign-offs and studies was a long one: The Region of Peel, City of Brampton, Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, federal Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans – not to mention input and demands from NGOs such as rate payers' organizations and the Sierra Club.

“Water is front and centre – and it should be. It’s important to protect water. But do you need everybody involved in the process? Do I need the federal government reviewing fish in the northwest corner of Brampton? Do I need the [Ministry of Natural Resources] in that business? Or is the local conservation authority sufficient?” Mr. Jepp asked. “Red tape does exist. There are many small and medium solutions that would result in the trimming of red tape and thinning it out. … There are no one or two silver bullets.”

Ontario’s government recently tabled Bill 66, which, among many changes aimed at fostering business development, would allow municipalities to pass an “open for business” by-law – with no debate, and no appeals possible from the Local Planning Authority Tribunal – that would fundamentally suspend almost every other planning authority in the province. Everything from transit rules, clean-water rules, greenbelt limits and even the basic zoning authority used by municipalities as a course of business could be suspended if a project was going to create more than certain number of jobs.

Critics of the plan have called it everything from dangerous to simply politically impossible for a municipal government to contemplate using. But if that’s the kind of red-tape cutting the government contemplates for businesses – blowing up decades of overlapping planning rules – what might it contemplate to tackle affordability?

The Toronto Real Estate Board’s CEO John DiMichele joined a chorus of pro-development voices asking the province to consider something akin to Minneapolis’s recent decision to upzone the entire city to allow for multifamily residences in every neighbourhood. One of the policies TREB suggested was: “Encouraging creation of more ‘missing middle' housing by updating municipal zoning by-laws and resisting unjustified community opposition.”

There are cities in the United States, such as Houston, that have practically no restrictive zoning rules. But the Urban Land Institute’s Mr. Joy urges red-tape cutters to be careful what they wish for.

“Visit a number of U.S. cities, including Houston, which I have done recently, and you might look at red tape a little differently. We do have a strong planning culture, and strong public policy culture around the built form in this city … but we also have in many ways greatly benefited from it,” he said. “There is literally no faster growing real estate development market in the entire continent … measured in any number of ways; population growth, cranes in the air. We have an urban density equal to Copenhagen – there’s no other city other than New York in North America that competes with the level of density or transit oriented development or ridership or modal share – walking, biking, transit.

“We’ve built an incredibly functional city – I think a superior city – that sweated a lot of the details. For all our frustrations Toronto’s actually done an admirable job and we forget that story sometimes.”

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