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The Ontario government is considering a range of new policies to address the runaway cost of housing before the June election, including calls to eliminate current zoning rules that largely ban the building of anything other than single-family homes in large swaths of the province’s cities.

Speaking on Wednesday after a virtual housing summit with municipal leaders, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark said zoning changes would be among the concepts under consideration by a task force on the housing crisis he appointed in December – though he stopped short of endorsing the idea.

Zoning changes are supported by a wide range of groups that includes environmental and housing activists, the Ontario Real Estate Association and the Toronto Region Board of Trade. In general, the idea is to allow duplexes, triplexes or small apartment buildings – which planners call “gentle density” – in areas where they are currently banned. Some observers, however, warn it will face resistance from residents associations in affected neighbourhoods.

The idea has precedent: New Zealand recently announced plans to do away with single-family-only zoning in its largest communities as a way to get more housing built and bring down real estate prices. Edmonton also made a similar move in 2019, and Toronto’s planning department has proposed a similar policy change.

Housing prices are an acute issue across much of Ontario, with some polls suggesting the affordability crisis could be a key issue in the provincial vote this year. According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, housing prices for Ontario were up 30 per cent in December, 2021, over the same month the previous year, with price growth in the Greater Toronto Area leading again after falling behind other areas in the pandemic.

Whatever new policies are decided upon, Mr. Clark said he could not guarantee that he would come up with new housing legislation before the June vote, noting that he faced a “finite window of legislative time.”

In opening remarks before the summit on Wednesday, both Mr. Clark and Premier Doug Ford pointed to the housing policies the Progressive Conservatives have brought in so far, taking credit for recent strong growth in the numbers of groundbreakings both for new housing units and new purpose-built rentals.

But they acknowledged that more needs to be done, announcing a $45-million fund to encourage cities to find ways to cut red tape and speed up development approvals, such as by putting applications online. They also said they had made an agreement with municipalities to establish “data standards” to track progress on the housing file.

Critics say the government’s sweeping changes to housing policies since it was elected in 2018 have made it easier for developers to pave farmland for environmentally damaging suburban sprawl.

The government has reduced the population density targets for municipalities and called for the designation of what critics say is more greenfield land for future development than necessary. And it has made frequent use of once-rare “ministerial zoning orders” to fast-track projects for developers. But it has also mandated more density near transit stations, while vowing to maintain and expand the protected Greenbelt.

Craig Ruttan, housing policy director for the Toronto Region Board of Trade, said the idea of zoning reform appeared to be gaining momentum in Ontario, with a handful of municipalities and a wide range of groups now looking at the concept.

“This is a pretty handy arrow in the quiver that the province has the ability to use,” Mr. Ruttan said.

Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager for Environmental Defence, said single-family zoning reform could increase density within built-up areas while lessening the demand for new sprawl on farmland in the outer suburbs.

Opposition NDP housing critic Jessica Bell said the summit produced “no clear concrete measures” and that Mr. Ford’s scrapping of rent control on new buildings has left some tenants facing 30-per-cent rent hikes. Her party, along with the Green Party, have already produced housing platforms that call for reforms to single-family zoning.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who said his own party’s policies on housing would be finalized in the coming months, issued a statement calling Mr. Ford’s rent-control reversal “disastrous.”

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