Cities can obstruct new housing. Ontario shouldn’t let them

OPINION: Toronto is once again trying to thwart provincial planning policy, this time around transit stations. There’s a better way
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 02, 2021
Toronto has designated 167 properties along the Danforth subway line as heritage properties. (Google.com/maps)

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Should new homes be placed near major transit stops, such as subways and GO stations? In the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-One, this seems as if it should be a settled question, like gravity or germ theory: yes, obviously we need new housing that complements our investments in transit, and as much of it as possible. Except, ha-ha, it turns out that it’s not that simple. It never is, when we’re proposing to house more people on land already occupied by Toronto’s landed gentry.

The latest chapter in this most exciting of all possible tales — planning law, hot — involves the always-sludgy interface between provincial planning policy and municipal politics. The government began introducing a raft of planning changes in 2019, with the passage of the More Homes, More Choices Act and amendments to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. As a result, Ontario municipalities — but primarily Toronto, by dint of its size and transit endowment — needed to plan for more density around such things as subway and GO stations. Similar language had existed in planning documents under the Liberals, but the rules for so-called major transit station areas (MTSAs) now had some actual teeth that the government hoped would compel cities to plan for a lot of new housing, easing the shortage in the province’s largest city.

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You’ll never guess that happened next, unless you’ve paid even minimal attention to municipal politics in Ontario or in almost any other wealthy jurisdiction around the world: Toronto is proposing to substantially limit the number of new homes around some of the designated MTSAs by using a … let’s call it expansive interpretation of some of the exemptions provincial policy gives them. It’s not the end of the world — we’re talking about 11 out of 180 possible MTSAs in the city — but it’s galling to read that bucolic neighbourhoods with six-figure incomes are being preserved in amber while the city’s planning policies shoehorn ever more housing into the scarce (and therefore expensive) downtown land left for redevelopment. What’s the point of building transit projects out into the city’s far-flung suburbs if those suburbs won’t be asked to help fulfill the need to build more homes?

It's tempting to blame planning staff, but we shouldn’t: Toronto’s planners are simply doing what Toronto’s elected officials have instructed them to do, either explicitly or implicitly. (Given the recent fiasco around rooming houses, the city’s planners have zero incentive to be ambitious.) We can – and should – blame those elected officials, but they are simply responding 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 municipal elections than NIMBYs, this will be the predictable result.

Ever since the Liberals introduced the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan — the twin policies intended to curtail sprawl and encourage more compact development in the vast area around the GTA — Queen’s Park has had a hard time actually getting its policies implemented at the municipal level. The division of labour between the province and the municipalities makes this inevitable: the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing sets broad planning targets, and those flow downhill to regional and lower-tier municipalities, where they’re turned into planning decisions. And that’s where the problem lies: municipalities have a near-infinite number of ways to obstruct the province’s planning policies, if they want to. Toronto’s shenanigans with MTSAs are one example, and they come after it had already designated nearly 1,000 properties across the city, including 167 along the Danforth subway, line as “heritage" — another way of trying to slow down the production of urgently needed new homes.

This all means that planning, as it’s actually practised in Ontario, is less about achieving desirable outcomes than it is about city councils ensuring that housing can’t be built, at scale, without ensnaring new homes in a net of costly processes designed to maybe, eventually, bribe local homeowners into accepting new neighbours. Nobody honestly believes that three-storey townhouses are an actual harm to anyone living nearby, but they’re illegal to build in many places because no city is going to pass up the opportunity to squeeze a new project for as much as it can — even if that ratchets up housing prices.

The critical point, though, is that municipal councils are only using the powers the province has given them. If Toronto city council manages to pull off its gamble with those 11 MTSAs, that’ll be because the province has allowed it do so. If the province doesn’t want municipalities to obstruct the production of new homes, it could … take those powers away. The housing plan presented by the Green party earlier this year is a start, but Queen’s Park would need to go even further. Experience from other jurisdictions suggests that the province would need to become what amounts to the planner-by-default for the largest cities. It would need to override everything from height restrictions to parking minimums and everything in between, not because this is work the province wants to do but because these are exactly the powers that cities use when they’re laying out tripwires.

California is well ahead of Ontario on this file; last month, it signed bills allowing homeowners to build as many as four new homes on a lot otherwise zoned for single-family homes and dramatically lowering the regulatory barriers to building as many as 10 homes on a parcel near transit. New Zealand may be going even further: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour-led government are proposing a massive liberalization of planning rules.

The New Zealand example, in particular, bears watching: a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal suggests it could effectively transfer $200 billion ($176 billion CAD) from existing landowners to tenants and new homebuyers over 20 years. There are three Ontarians for every Kiwi, so the numbers in Ontario would be even larger, if we tried a similar experiment.

What California and New Zealand have in common is that they are treating a housing crisis as an actual crisis — when you’re facing one, you make big changes and don’t tinker around the edges of the status quo. Faced with municipal intransigence, they’re overruling local governments in the name of getting more people housed.

More than a decade into a housing shortage that started in Toronto but has now spread to every city and large town in the province, maybe someone at Queen’s Park should be willing to try something new. If they don’t, decisions about how many people deserve homes will just be whatever decisions survive the sausage grinder of municipal politics. One way or another, the choice is up to the province. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Toronto had designated nearly 1,000 heritage properties along the Danforth subway line. In fact, that number was city-wide. TVO.org regrets the error.

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