Ontario’s Municipal Affairs Minister is introducing a series of proposed changes meant to speed up the municipal planning process to boost the province’s supply of housing, though they exclude most of the recommendations made earlier this year by a government-appointed task force.
One key housing affordability recommendation not included in the bill Steve Clark put before the legislature on Wednesday is a sweeping proposal to ban zoning rules, which currently exclude all but single-family homes in swaths of the province’s cities. That idea, while backed by many housing experts and the Toronto Region Board of Trade, was expected to induce opposition from some homeowners, with provincial and municipal elections looming.
Mr. Clark, who had promised a bold plan to address surging housing prices before the June election, told reporters that municipalities had pushed back against these zoning reforms, prompting the government to hold off. But he said he is launching new public consultations and a working group with municipalities on future measures, and that he remains committed to using the task force report as a “long-term roadmap” over the next four years.
“I couldn’t bust forward … when municipalities are so adamantly opposed,” he said, citing reluctance from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, as well as Toronto, which has nonetheless started its own study of similar zoning changes. “I have to get them onside. This is not going to work with just one level of government doing whatever they want.”
Provisions that are in the bill are aimed at what the development industry has long complained is a sluggish municipal approvals process that can take anywhere from nine months to two years before housing can be built. One change would ensure that municipal-planning staff, not elected councils, oversee the detailed “site plan control” process for development projects, which involves sorting out landscaping, walkways or parking. Municipalities will also be forced to refund developer fees if they miss deadlines for approvals. And new rules, yet to be drafted, would limit the authority of municipalities when approving plans of subdivision.
The bill also includes a new process for municipalities to request fast-track approval from the province for certain key projects, a move aimed at addressing criticism from the Auditor General and opposition politicians of the government’s frequent practice of issuing what are known as ministerial zoning orders (MZOs). The government says this new “Community Infrastructure and Housing Accelerator” could be used to speed up projects such as hospitals and community centres, “while increasing transparency and accountability.”
MZOs, critics have pointed out, insulate projects from appeals before the province’s land tribunal and have been used to skirt environmental rules. Many have been granted to large developers who are also large donors to the PC Party. Mr. Clark said the new process will require municipalities to consult the public on these projects, make the request and any resulting order public. The minister of municipal affairs and housing will also be able to impose conditions on the approvals.
The bill would also amend the province’s building code to allow for 12-storey wood-timber buildings, something proponents say is a more environmentally-friendly alternative to concrete and steel.
Richard Joy, executive director of the Urban Land Institute, said he was disappointed the government did not adopt the most attention-grabbing recommendation from the task force – to allow more density in neighbourhoods across the province – arguing that putting forward such legislation before the election could have helped the Tories pursue a mandate for the controversial move.
“I don’t doubt how difficult it would be to advance that idea politically, but it is essential nonetheless,” he said. “It is arguably one of the most important frontiers for the future.”
Ontario Real Estate Association head Tim Hudak, a former Progressive Conservative leader, said in a statement that the group would continue to push for an end to exclusionary zoning that allows only houses in many city neighbourhoods. But the group praised the government for its move to speed up bureaucracy related to development.
Toronto’s deputy mayor for housing, Ana Bailao, said that while it was positive to speed up the approvals process, there were other factors hindering housing construction, such as supply-chain issues and labour shortages.
“I think there’s more to it than just saying, ‘oh, municipalities are approving things too slowly,’” she said. “Could there be improvement? Absolutely, and I think we all acknowledge that.”
Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the plan doesn’t do enough to make housing more affordable or reduce rents. Ms. Horwath said the province should reintroduce rental controls and help prospective first-time home buyers enter the housing market.
“People need a roof over their head if they’re going to build a good life in this province and they need to be able to afford that roof,” Ms. Horwath told reporters. “This announcement today does nothing to solve that housing crisis.”
On Tuesday, Ontario announced another move aimed at cooling the red-hot housing market, saying it would extend a speculation tax in place for foreign property buyers to the entire province and raise it to 20 per cent from 15 per cent.
Since being elected in 2018, the government has made a series of major changes to the province’s planning regime with the aim of getting more housing built. Mr. Clark points to recent housing starts, the highest in decades, and increasing numbers of rental housing construction as proof his strategy is working.
But opposition critics and environmentalists have said that too many of the policy changes, which included loosening density requirements and making municipalities designate more farmland for development, have favoured companies looking to build low-density sprawl outside Toronto.
In February, the government’s housing affordability task force, chaired by Jake Lawrence, the Bank of Nova Scotia’s CEO and group head of global banking and markets, issued a set of sweeping recommendations for changes to the planning process and said the province needs to commit to building 1.5 million new homes over the next 10 years.
The report said the government should declare that up to four units, with up to four storeys, be allowed “as of right” – automatically without rezoning – doing away with local rules that now mandate just single-family homes. It also called for the legalization of rooming houses and the end of parking-spot requirements for developments in municipalities of 50,000 people or more.
With a report from Dustin Cook
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