Housing affordability is one of the most widely acknowledged problems facing Ontario right now: what five years ago was largely seen as a Toronto problem — or at most, a GTA problem — is now understood as a provincewide issue, as house prices spiral in places as distant from the provincial capital as London and North Bay. The Tories know that it’s also a political issue they’ll need to address as they prepare for their re-election bid, which in part explains why Premier Doug Ford has announced both a housing-affordability task force (whose members he named last week) and a housing-affordability summit between provincial and municipal leaders, which will be held Thursday. Neither the task force nor the summit will change anything on their own — only the government can do that — but they’re both visible signs of that the Tories are paying very close attention to an issue that could make or break their future.
That’s the context behind the latest report from the Toronto Region Board of Trade, which has been ringing the housing-cost alarms loudly for years now. The problem is now so acute, the TRBT is effectively calling for a revolution in Ontario’s land-use policies: a dramatic reduction in the amount of planning autonomy that the province grants to municipalities as small as 30,000 people. The board is calling on the province to prohibit single-family zoning — that is, land-use rules that reserve vast swathes of Ontario’s cities for the least-dense, most-expensive form of housing — in all large and medium-sized towns and cities.
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It argues that the province should instead require that cities, in areas they permit homes to be built, allow at least four units (potentially more, within a reasonable distance of transit) and in forms compatible with so-called missing-middle forms: smaller three- and four-storey apartments of the kind that proliferated throughout Toronto before increasingly restrictive zoning rules legislated them out of economic viability.
“We’ve heard loud and clear from our members that housing is an issue that affects them and their ability to access talent,” says Craig Ruttan, TRBT’s director of housing policy. “This felt like the right time to move on this, because the window of opportunity is there.”
The board’s report also calls on the province to put a cap on how much municipalities can levy in development charges (fees that cities require to offset the costs of serving new residents). Those changes alone would represent a revolution in land use if they were to be applied as broadly as the TRBT recommends: 85 per cent of the province’s population lives in a municipality of 30,000 or more, and the places where housing demand is highest are some of the largest cities, like Toronto and the surrounding municipalities.
“Folks who live in those communities are also facing housing-affordability challenges,” Ruttan says. “I wouldn’t expect Stratford to have a boom of fourplexes tomorrow, but, as it grows, this is an important way it can choose to grow.”
The report also calls on the province to legalize more flexible forms of partial home ownership along the lines of how condominiums are organized — but designed to make it possible for people to buy, for example, one floor of a three-floor building.
“The current legal structure for condo corporations gets more onerous the smaller the building is,” says Ruttan. “It gets to a point where it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for smaller buildings, because of the expense and barriers.”
The TRBT’s interest in the housing crisis is relatively clear: it represents businesses, which generally have employees, and those employees need four walls and a roof they can afford to keep over their heads (preferably close Toronto, so that they can cut down on the time needed to drive between home and work).
But exactly because it represents business, it has played an interesting role in advocating for provincial policies in the recent past. Earlier in the decade, the TRBT spent years arguing for major transit investments in the GTA; now even the conservative position on transit investment is that the province should spend unprecedented sums on new subways and other forms of transit across Toronto and beyond.
The political lift that the board is proposing in Tuesday’s report is, if anything, larger than the transit file: voters are generally happy to see new and better transit services brought to their neighbourhoods, but anything that threatens the exclusive enclaves of leafy suburban single-family home neighbourhoods has historically been politically difficult, to say the least: see the recent sad spectacle of Toronto’s rooming-house non-decisions.
But, late in 2021, the pendulum might be swinging. The TRBT is adding its voice to a chorus that already includes one party in the legislature — the Greens proposed a similarly aggressive attack on exclusionary zoning earlier this year. And lending the voice of the business community to the proposal makes it all appear slightly less radical than when it’s coming from urban advocates (or, ahem, public-broadcaster columnists). And, while Toronto’s rooming-house debacle is dispiriting, there are signs of hope even there: this week, city council will debate meaningful reforms to its zoning rules, including eliminating parking minimums and taking the next steps on allowing precisely the kinds of missing-middle housing the TRBT is advocating for.
Which, if any, of these policies can actually get a majority of votes at Toronto city council or the Ontario Legislative Assembly — either before next year’s election or after — will bear watching over the coming months.