Inclusionary zoning gets one step closer for Ontario cities

By John Michael McGrath - Published on March 11, 2016
Illuminated windows shine from a condo building at dusk.
The Ontario government is considering an idea that affordable housing advocates have wanted for years.

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On Monday, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ted McMeekin will announce the government’s long-term affordable housing strategy, and activists and municipalities will get to see the beginnings of something they’ve wanted for years: inclusionary zoning powers for Ontario towns and cities.

Inclusionary zoning has been used for decades in the United States to address affordable housing shortages. In exchange for broader building permissions (for example, adding more height to a tower project than currently allowed) developers are required to dedicate some fraction of the project to affordable housing.

On Friday afternoon, Toronto City Councillor Mike Layton and others appeared at Queen’s Park, demanding the government “stop stalling” and incorporate inclusionary zoning into the province’s municipal planning laws.

“Every time [McMeekin] delays, we lose out on opportunities to build affordable housing at no cost to the taxpayers,” said Sean Meagher, executive director of Social Planning Toronto. “It’s a question of how much they want to solve the problem.”

Sources tell TVO.org the government will only begin consultations on inclusionary zoning and is not making immediate legislative changes. However this is further than the government has ever gone in the past, and McMeekin has spoken positively about the potential for inclusionary zoning in the past.

This would mark a change for the government: NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo has been a longtime advocate for inclusionary zoning, having introduced bills in the legislature in nearly every session since she won her seat in Parkdale-High Park in 2006. After the 2014 election, newly elected Liberal MPP Peter Milczyn also introduced a bill that would allow inclusionary zoning. Milczyn’s bill was referred to committee but has not had any attention at Queen’s Park since November 2014. DiNovo’s most recent bill hasn’t even had a second reading vote.

The NDP also tried and failed late last year to amend the government’s Bill 73, which dealt with development charges and other municipal planning laws, to add inclusionary zoning language.

Proponents of inclusionary zoning exist across the province. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario says it could facilitate additional affordable housing. The Ontario Professional Planners Institute is in favour. Toronto City Council has repeatedly voted in favour of provincial changes. Advocates exist outside of the big cities, too.

“All they need to do is pick up either one of the two bills already in the legislature, and move it through committee and pass it before the summer,” Meagher says.

However, critics charge that inclusionary zoning puts the burden of providing affordable housing on new homebuyers, as developers internalize the cost of subsidized units and pass that “tax” on to the customer. Municipalities are fond of inclusionary zoning because it doesn’t require them to spend public dollars directly (something the current deficit-saddled Ontario government also appreciates) but that doesn’t mean affordable units are “free.”

Others argue that inclusionary zoning is simply unnecessary. Ryerson University researchers Frank Clayton and Geoff Schwartz argued last year that Ontario municipalities have existing legal tools that allow them to accomplish the same goals that inclusionary zoning would.

Under Section 37 of the Planning Act, Ontario municipalities can demand community benefits in exchange for granting more density than their current bylaws allow. However, those benefits have to be negotiated each time a new development is proposed.

If inclusionary zoning goes forward, one key decision the government will need to decide is what limits will apply to it. For example, the province currently limits how much cities can use development charges to fund parks, sewers, and transit. Developers will want to ensure they aren’t forced to build a city’s entire affordable housing supply.

Clayton and Schwartz also argue the most optimistic projects for what inclusionary zoning can accomplish are exaggerated, with substantially less than 10 per cent of new units being affordable in cities where it’s implemented.

Meagher concedes that inclusionary zoning is just one aspect of solving the affordable housing puzzle, but insists it’s fair and necessary.

“Nobody begrudges the right of people to get a return on their investment,” he says. “But some of that return comes from us building a great city: good sewers, good parks, strong communities, and asking developers to play a part in that is in no way unreasonable.”

Inclusionary zoning is only one part of what the government will announce Monday morning as part of its long-term affordable housing strategy. Other measures have been previewed in the 2016 provincial budget, including a pilot program testing a basic income, as well as a portable housing benefit that doesn’t tie low-income households to a particular home or apartment. The government also plans to introduce a specific housing strategy to address aboriginal homelessness.

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