Developers and realtors ask Queen’s Park: How far are you willing to go?

ANALYSIS: The home-building lobby wants the province to override municipalities in order to make room for millions of new homes. The question, writes John Michael McGrath, is whether MPPs — and voters — are willing to entertain the idea
By John Michael McGrath - Published on March 11, 2019
Tim Hudak sitting at a conference table
Tim Hudak, former Progressive Conservative Party leader and current head of the Ontario Real Estate Association. (Deborah Baic/CP)

Two of the province’s biggest pro-housing lobby groups want Queen’s Park to bring the hammer down on municipalities that are happy to accept the province’s money when it comes to transit funding but drag their feet when it comes to accommodating the new housing that’s supposed to go with it.

“We’ve got a lot more people chasing fewer and fewer homes,” said Tim Hudak, former Progressive Conservative Party leader and now head of the Ontario Real Estate Association. “If we have to wait for all of the municipalities across Ontario to catch up to modern times, it would be the grandkids of millennials trying to get a home, not millennials today.”

For more than a decade, provincial policy has encouraged intensification around transit lines. The Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (the policy that guides development in the region) has always included language encouraging dense construction around transit. But the effect of that language has been to help developers win their arguments at the Ontario Municipal Board (now the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal) — it doesn’t, on its own, remove municipalities from the approval process.

The Tories have already proposed changes to the language in the Growth Plan that would encourage intensification around transit hubs — by, for example, expanding the radius of the area around major transit stations in which new construction would be encouraged — but OREA and the Ontario Home Builders' Association are calling for a more aggressive approach.

The building lobby wants the province to take local zoning into its own hands, meaning that builders would have “as of right” permission to build around transit stations across the region — they’d be able to build without having to go through lengthy and contentious applications processes with municipal councils.

The realtors and builders are basing their latest argument on new research they commissioned from Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development. The report, authored by Diana Petramala and David Amborski, suggests that if the land around rail and bus hubs were zoned for the kinds of reasonable densities that support transit use, the province would have room for 4 million new homes. They wouldn’t all be built at once, but Ontario could add 20,000 new homes per year above and beyond what’s already being built.

Amborski told TVO.org last week that if developers are going to build more, as-of-right zoning is key.

“The economic importance is that there’s greater certainty for developers when they buy,” he said after the press conference at Queen’s Park on Thursday. “If you can identify sites that have the zoning and stick to it, developers will buy at that price and build in a timely fashion.”

This all represents a bit of a turn for Hudak, who — admittedly, more than a decade ago, when housing wasn’t so vertiginously expensive — once argued against Liberal land-use planning policies, such as the Greenbelt, on the grounds that they constituted provincial overreach into local matters.

“The reality from 2009 to 2019 is quite stark,” he said. “Housing prices have gone up, incomes haven’t caught up with them, and every family in Ontario knows someone who did everything right but is stuck in mom and dad’s basement.”

CUR’s research looked at transit lines around the province and compared cities that proactively zoned for growth around their transit lines with those that didn’t. Unsurprisingly, the places that had more welcoming policies saw more new construction. But developers aren’t simply pushing for municipalities to adopt more welcoming policies.

What OHBA and OREA are arguing for would, if the province actually implemented it, arguably represent a break with nearly 50 years of municipal policy that has put public-consultation processes at the heart of planning. The greater emphasis on public consultations was itself a reaction against the preceding era, when it was far easier for developers to build housing, and rental towers were blamed for ruining neighbourhoods. The era of public-planning input has given voters more control, but it comes with serious drawbacks: the people most likely to participate in public consultations are single-family homeowners, who are more likely to benefit from rising home prices — and tend not to look like the general population of the city they’re helping to shape.

Other jurisdictions are reconsidering how much weight to give local control in the face of housing shortages. California is currently debating SB50, a law that would override local control and allow substantial intensification around transit lines. (It’s a sequel to a law that failed last year, but the idea has more support this time around.) The state of Oregon is being even more aggressive: it’s considering a bill that would overrule municipal bylaws that currently forbid duplexes, triplexes, and other denser housing options in urban areas.

While the PC government has said that it’s looking at “transformative change” for the rules governing housing approvals, it’s not clear whether the Tories are willing to go as far as the OHBA and OREA would like.

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