Cities can hinder new housing. Ontario should not let them

Should new homes be located near major transit stops, such as subways and GO stations? In the Lord’s Year Two Thousand and Twenty – one, it seems like it should be a definite question, like gravity or germ theory: yes, we obviously need new housing that complements our investments in transit, and as much as possible. Except, ha-ha, it turns out it’s not that simple. That is never the case when we propose to house more people on land already occupied by Toronto farmers.

The latest chapter in this most exciting of all possible narratives – planning legislation, hot – involves the always blurred interface between provincial planning policy and municipal policy. The government began introducing a number of planning changes in 2019 with the adoption of the law on more housing, more choices and changes to the growth plan for the golden horseshoe. As a result, the municipalities in Ontario – but primarily Toronto, due to its size and transit grant – needed to plan more density around things like subway and GO stations. A similar language had existed in planning documents under the Liberals, but the rules for so-called major transit station areas (MTSAs) now had some real teeth, which the government hoped would force cities to plan a lot of new housing, which would ease the shortage in the province’s largest city. .

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You will never guess that it happened next time unless you have paid even minimal attention to municipal politics in Ontario or in almost any other affluent jurisdiction around the world: Toronto proposes to limit the number of new homes significantly around some of the designated MTSAs by using a… let’s call it expansive interpretation of some of the exceptions that provincial policy gives them. It’s not the end of the world – we’m talking about 11 out of 180 possible MTSAs in the city – but it’s shocking to read that rural neighborhoods with six-figure incomes are being preserved in amber, while the city’s planning policies are shoveling more and more homes into the sparse (and therefore expensive) downtown land that is left for remodeling. What is the point of building transit projects out in the city’s remote suburbs if these suburbs are not asked to help meet the need to build more housing?

It’s tempting to blame the planning staff, but we should not: Toronto planners are simply doing what Toronto’s elected officials have instructed them to do, either explicitly or implicitly. (Given the recent failure around apartment buildings, city planners have no incentive to be ambitious.) We can – and should – blame the elected representatives, but they simply respond to pressure from voters who enjoy the status quo and have never been convinced. of the need for change. Until YIMBYs (yes-in-my-backyard activists) are a more potent electoral force in local elections than NIMBYs, this will be the predictable outcome.

Ever since the Liberals introduced the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan – the two policies aimed at limiting proliferation and encouraging more compact development in the vast area around GTA – Queen’s Park has struggled to actually get its policies implemented at the municipal level. The division of labor between the province and the municipalities makes this inevitable: the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing sets broad planning goals, and they flow downhill to regional and lower municipalities, where they are transformed into planning decisions. And that’s where the problem lies: Municipalities have an almost infinite number of ways to thwart the province’s planning policies, if they want to. Toronto’s quarrels with MTSAs are an example, and they come after the city had already designated nearly 1,000 properties along the Danforth subway line as “heritage” – another way of trying to curb the production of urgently needed new homes.

All of this means that planning, as is actually practiced in Ontario, is less about achieving desirable results than it is about city councils ensuring that homes cannot be built on a large scale without catching new homes in a network of costly processes. designed to perhaps, eventually, bribe local homeowners to accept new neighbors. No one honestly believes that three-story townhouses are a real disaster for anyone living nearby, but they are illegal to build in many places because no city will miss the opportunity to push a new project for so much, as it can – even if it raises house prices.

The critical point, however, is that the municipal councils use only the powers the province has given them. If Toronto City Council succeeds in betting on the 11 MTSAs, it’s because the province has allowed it to do so. If the province does not want the municipalities to hinder the production of new housing, it can disse take away these powers. The housing plan, which the Greens presented earlier this year, is a start, but Dronningens Park should go even further. Experience from other jurisdictions suggests that the province will have to become what corresponds to the planner-by-standard for the largest cities. It would be necessary to override everything from height restrictions to parking minimums and everything in between, not because it is work that the province wants to perform, but because it is exactly the powers that cities use when laying out tripwires.

California is far ahead of Ontario on this file; last month signed the bill that allows homeowners to build as many as four new homes on land that is otherwise laid out for single-family homes, and dramatically lowers the regulatory barriers to building as many as 10 homes on a parcel near transit. New Zealand may go even further: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labor-led government are proposing a massive liberalization of planning rules.

In particular, the New Zealand example should be kept in mind: a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal suggests that it could effectively transfer $ 200 billion ($ 176 billion CAD) from existing landowners to tenants and new home buyers over the age of 20. There are three ontarians for each kiwi, so the number in Ontario would be even greater if we tried a similar experiment.

Common to California and New Zealand is that they treat a housing crisis like a real crisis – when you face one, you make big changes and do not mess around the edges of the status quo. Faced with municipal irreconcilability, local governments are overwhelming in the name of getting more people accommodated.

More than a decade into a housing shortage that started in Toronto but has now spread to all cities and major cities in the province, maybe someone in Queen’s Park should be willing to try something new. If they do not, decisions about how many people deserve housing will just be the decisions that survive the sausage mill of municipal politics. Somehow the election is up to the province.

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