‘A housing initiative on steroids’: The eight key issues behind the backlash to Doug Ford’s housing bill
Nov. 18, 2022
One resident calls it “a housing initiative on steroids.”
The Ontario government’s More Homes Built Faster Act is aimed at building 1.5 million homes by 2031. A third of those are needed to address the existing housing shortfall. The rest would accommodate the province’s anticipated growth.
But the Smart Prosperity Institute, a think tank based at the University of Ottawa, recently noted that “a housing target is not a housing plan,” and a growing number of voices are sounding the alarm over the lack of plan contained in Bill 23.
The concerns are as broad as the changes that will be wrought under the proposed legislation -- from freezing and eliminating development funds paid to cities to capping inclusionary zoning, a program that requires developers to build a percentage of affordable units in new developments.
One hundred non-profit and housing group leaders wrote to Premier Doug Ford and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark this week pleading for an overhaul of the omnibus housing bill.
“In an effort to reduce the cost of building, the province wants to eliminate payments developers make to municipal programs, and the number of units they set aside for affordable housing, but those programs actually directly fund new affordable homes,” said Michelle Bilek of the Peel Alliance to End Homelessness, one of the signatories to the letter.
Without those development funds, “homes won’t get built, and the housing crisis will get worse, not better,” she said.
Here are the key concerns that have been raised since Ford’s Progressive Conservative government tabled the housing bill last month.
Disappearing development fees
Mayor John Tory has said that the aspect of the bill that eliminates or reduces development charges for new housing, including affordable housing, could take an estimated $200 million a year out of the city’s coffers.
There are fears that this shortfall could lead to local property tax hikes.
Former city councillor and housing advocate Ana Bailão said that the development charges are funding infrastructure like daycares, sewers, roads and recreation centres around new housing.
“At the end of the day governments need to understand that the things that development charges pay for, they still need to get built,” she said. “Who is going to pay for that?”
Christine Mercado of the Long Branch Neighbourhood Association has similar concerns. As a homeowner, she said, she would be willing to pay more property taxes if she felt she was getting more in return.
“The whole idea of development charges were supposed to be that growth supports growth,” she said.
But when developers apply to build along her neighbourhood’s avenues, typically they ask to build higher than the Official Plan prescribes. If the area is zoned for six storeys, invariably, the developer wants seven or more.
“So who should be paying for that extra bit that’s going on to that, that ends up requiring a better library or a community centre or better transit or all of those things? How is that going back on people like me? I’m paying already for my teeny tiny library and the community centres that I don’t have,” said Mercado.
Development charges also fund projects like Open Door, a city program that activates surplus public land, provides capital and property tax relief and, waives fees for affordable housing development.
“In terms of city financing it means that the funds that they might have received for affordable housing projects and those done by non-profits, they would not receive the fees for those,” added Heather Tremain, the CEO of non-profit real estate developer Options for Homes.
Bailão added that under the new legislation parkland dedication by developers will also be reduced.
The missing middle
Bill 23 would allow up to three housing units per residential lot with no special planning approvals required by the municipality. The idea is to add more affordable homes -- from basement suites to backyard houses -- in neighbourhoods zoned almost exclusively for relatively expensive, single-family houses.
The new units would offer rental income to homeowners and allow them to share their property with adult children and aging parents.
The problem, say critics, is that the housing bill doesn’t go far enough. Most GTA communities already allow the density set out by the province.
“For the missing middle it changes as close to nothing as possible while still changing something,” said independent planner Sean Galbraith, who favours up to six units per lot, a minimum of three-storeys on every street and no parking minimums.
Toronto tech worker Eric Lombardi of a volunteer group called More Neighbours Toronto, which advocates more density in single-family neighbourhoods, agrees.
“The reason we’re in a housing crisis is because we’re not allowing the construction of enough homes in the places that people want to live,” he said.
The status quo risks turning Toronto into the kind of transient city he saw when living in San Francisco.
“Tech people are all coming to the city, doing their thing for a couple of years. They don’t really care about (the city) and then they leave,” said Lombardi. “What you’re going to see is a lot of people move to Toronto for that initial economic opportunity. But they’re not going to be invested in the long-term success of the city.”
Paul Freeman, chief planner for York Region, says it’s not just about supply but about a diverse housing stock. If you’re going to address affordability, you have to have the right mix of housing.
The region has 50,000 units that are registered ready for construction but a number of factors have delayed them, including labour shortages. As well, they are just too expensive and people are moving further out to find a home.
“The number one goal is to find solutions to make housing more affordable, to provide rental and a good mix of housing. If you look at supply alone, you aren’t looking at the whole picture,” he said.
Shutting out the neighbours
When the government announced its sprawling bill, residents’ associations scrambled to understand not just the impact on their neighbourhoods but also their civic participation.
The government has said it wants to reduce delays from development pushback by some residents’ groups or NIMBYs (not in my backyard). The housing bill would eliminate the requirement for public meetings in plans for subdivisions and limit third-party appeals, including those of community groups, at the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT), the body that rules on issues related to land use and planning matters.
Geoff Kettel of the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario said Bill 23 is “a housing initiative on steroids.”
The limit on OLT appeals is “unbelievable” and “outrageous,” he said.
The removal of appeal rights “is something we need to get the constitutional lawyers involved in,” said Kettel.
Tremain, the head of Options for Homes, doesn’t necessarily see the OLT changes as a negative.
“One of the things that’s happening there is that they’re really limiting the rights of appeals of other parties,” she said. Whereas before, “you could file an application for a couple hundred dollars and hold up your neighbour’s rezoning.”
Some planners and politicians fear Bill 23 will eliminate municipal rent replacement programs, essentially making it open season on the redevelopment of affordable rentals.
Under the current rules, if you want to redevelop a property with six or more units in Toronto, you have to replace any rentals that will be demolished in the process. The new units have to be the same size, configuration and offered at a similar rent to those being destroyed.
Mississauga has had a similar program since 2019 that applies when the city’s vacancy rate is below 3 per cent.
The Toronto policy is costly to developers but was designed to prevent the widespread demolition of the city’s limited affordable rental stock, said Galbraith, the planner.
It’s unclear if rental replacements will be eliminated under the housing bill or whether the province will administer the programs differently by giving the minister of municipal affairs and housing the power to regulate its implementation, said Christine Ono, Toronto planning project manager.
“Any dilution of our existing protection would really limit our ability to maintain our existing rental housing stock and protect renters,” she said. “It probably would result in an incentive to purchase or demolish existing rental units.”
Since 2007, council has considered 117 applications to demolish or convert rentals with six or more units. Some 4,311 units have been approved for demolition or conversion and 3,947 units were approved for replacement.
“That we continue to see these (rental demolition) applications every year demonstrates (rental replacement) is not acting as a barrier to the renewal of existing stock,” said Ono.
In the 905, two-tier governments in York, Durham, Peel, and Halton have always managed planning for the local municipalities to ensure co-ordination of infrastructure and services. But Bill 23 removes them from the planning process altogether.
The upper-tier governments would no longer have the power to adopt official plans, make amendments or appeal planning decisions. Instead, individual municipalities would assume these functions, and their official plans would be approved by the province.
“We co-ordinate huge infrastructure … and the biggest implication is that co-ordination … will now be lost and will be the responsibility of local municipalities who don’t have the resources to do it,” said York’s chief planner Freeman.
“I think there will be a lot of unintended consequences for municipalities and taxpayers,” he said, adding that municipalities are hoping for consultations and time to discuss the changes with the province.
Freeman says the changes will do nothing to speed up housing approvals -- and could slow the process down.
Bill 23 proposes to “renew and update heritage policies,” including some that haven’t been reviewed in over a decade.
But heritage advocates say these changes will make it virtually impossible to protect most of the identified heritage properties in the province.
Two proposed changes have caused most concern.
The first will require a municipality to officially designate a heritage property within two years and those that are not done within that time cannot be reincluded for at least five. Often municipalities will identify properties with heritage value, and will include them in their heritage registry before formally proceeding with the process to designate. This way a property cannot be demolished without approval.
The process is quick and less costly for municipalities, but it also means properties can remain on the registry for decades without formal designation until it is developed.
The second change will require heritage properties and heritage conservation districts to meet more stringent requirements, including two provincially designated criteria for protection.
The bill will also allow the province to override any determination of heritage value and seek exemption from strict compliance with heritage requirements in places where they are trying to advance transit, housing long-term care or other priorities.
In a statement, the Architectural Conservancy Ontario (ACO) slammed the proposals: “Making it harder for communities to preserve places is misguided, cannot solve the housing crisis but will certainly lead to loss of heritage valued by the diverse peoples of the province,” says Diane Chin, ACO President.
The changes in Bill 23 will severely narrow the scope of the province’s 36 conservation authorities in the development process and prohibit them from offering their expertise outside their “core mandate” of flooding and erosion hazards.
Currently, specialized experts at conservation authorities can offer comments and expertise on topics like ecology, wetlands, biodiversity, or natural heritage for municipal development applications.
But Bill 23 will prohibit authorities from doing so -- even if municipalities ask for their help. Their role would be strictly limited to assessing flood risk on individual projects at the permit stage.
The province has also asked the conservation authorities to “identify conservation authority owned or controlled lands that could support housing development.”
According to the province, authorities own 145,000 hectares of land, making them the second-largest landowner in Ontario after the province.
The legislation will also require conservation authorities to issue permits for projects approved under the new “community infrastructure and housing accelerator,” which expedites development if requested by a municipality -- even if it is on protected and environmentally sensitive areas.
The province will be allowed to review and amend any conditions attached to those permits.
One of the other impacts of the changes around the planning process is that the bill strips the ability of municipalities to hold new buildings to energy efficient standards in new buildings, which are crucial to meeting climate net zero targets.
“We’re not going to be able to go to developers and say, we want you to use certain materials because it’s more sustainable, and we used to secure that through the planning authorities that we had,” said Bailão. “In the future, we won’t be able to do that.”