You can’t be a political party in Ontario, it seems, without having some kind of meaty housing policy. And the Greens, now, are no exception. At its annual convention this past weekend, in Scarborough, the Green Party of Ontario introduced a discussion paper for its members to chew over in coming months as the party develops a comprehensive housing plan. Last week, ahead of the convention, TVO.org spoke with Green leader and Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner about the discussion paper, what’s up for debate, and what’s off the table as the party moves forward.
TVO.org: How many prior assumptions are you bringing to this discussion? You are the party leader, but the discussion paper doesn’t dictate your views to the party.
Mike Schreiner: No, this is a discussion paper to engage a wide variety of stakeholders in a really comprehensive solution to unlock affordable housing in Ontario. I think one of the concerns I’ve had is that a lot of the discussion has been too narrow. Things like, “If we just open the Greenbelt for development and increase housing supply, we’re going to solve the problem” or “If we impose rent control, we’re going to solve the problem.” But I think it’s much more complex and needs a more comprehensive solution than that. And I think one of the roles the Green party can play, that I can play as an independent MPP, is to bring a more non-partisan perspective and one that looks at best practices around the country and around the world.
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TVO.org: The way these discussions are usually framed involves people saying things like “nothing is off the table,” but you mentioned the Greenbelt, so I’ll ask: I’m assuming the Green party is not going to support opening up the Greenbelt?
Schreiner: Oh, yeah, there are certain things that are not on the table for us — I want to be really clear about that. For me, it’s about how we unlock affordable housing in a way that protects the people and places we love. One of the concerns I have is, if we continue to pave over the Earth’s ability to absorb excess water, for example, we’re going to just escalate the risks associated with flooding, especially as we address the climate crisis. So one of the motivations for me in doing this is to look at a lot of the options out there that will allow us to increase the amount of affordability in the housing market without opening the Greenbelt, without threatening prime farmland, without paving over our wetlands and green space. But also without the solution being, I think, a false choice between single-family-detached urban sprawl and 80-storey towers. There are a lot of other options in between, and, if you look around the world, there are a lot of creative solutions being implemented.
For me, the question is, what can we learn from around the world and apply to Ontario and the distinctive characteristics of our communities?
TVO.org: When we talk about housing as an environmental issue, we tend to talk about increasing density, making neighbourhoods more transit-compatible, and hoping for that virtuous cycle that sees people drive less and take transit or bike or walk more. But there’s also resistance to change in a lot of neighbourhoods. What do you think the province’s role is here?
Schreiner: I think the province’s role is in making sure that we zone neighbourhoods appropriately for mixed use, that we remove restrictions for things like laneway housing, secondary suites, triplex, duplex-type buildings. And, you know, I often think there’s an education and public-engagement role the province can play as well. Obviously, you’re not going to alleviate everyone’s concerns about changing the character of neighbourhoods, but I think there are ways in which we can preserve the character of neighbourhoods if we can get past the discussion where it’s either single-family detached homes or a massive tower. We can densify our cities at a human scale and do it in a way that maintains the character of neighbourhoods.
TVO.org: In the United States, a number of state legislatures have simply taken powers away from municipalities on the grounds that they were not permitting enough housing to be built. What’s your perspective on that? What’s the proper role for local municipalities?
Schreiner: The role the province should play is to establish the rules of the game, the density targets, issues around urban-boundary expansion. But I think its important to allow municipalities some flexibility to determine how they’ll best meet those criteria within their own communities and not have everything dictated from Queen’s Park. So I wouldn’t go as far as that. We did include some examples of the West Coast in the discussion paper, in part so that people would just know what approaches other places are taking.
TVO.org: The question of housing is bigger than owning or even renting. You’ve got a section in the paper about supportive housing and shelters. In government, there’s often a temptation to try to find clever ways to avoid spending more money, but is that really an option here?
Schreiner: Sometimes, the discussion is too focused on, let’s say, young middle-class families who are trying to access homeownership — without thinking about other ways that there are affordability barriers. And, sometimes, we say “affordable housing,” and people immediately think we’re talking about people who are un-housed. To me, an important part of the solution, and an important contribution we can make, is that housing is really a continuum. So if you have affordable opportunities for seniors, for example — to either downsize out of their family home into an affordable retirement community, or maybe something like co-housing — then you open up more homes for people who are in the years when they’re having children and need more space.
So there are trickle-down effects all through the continuum if you can unlock that. I’ve heard statistics that there’s as many as 40,000 homes available if we can unlock bottlenecks in that continuum. And I think that we also need to look at vacation homes and Airbnb and the pressure those are putting on housing, taking units out of the market. Speculation, vacant units, people just purchasing homes or condos and hanging on to them as investments. There’s no single silver-bullet solution.
TVO.org: I’m hearing you talk about speculation, and there’s a section in the discussion paper about “housing being used as a bank.” The Green party hasn’t historically been a doctrinaire left-wing party that’s totally opposed to capitalism. Is this an area in which you see an argument for more government?
Schreiner: I think there are two areas where government involvement is critically important. One of those, and it’s a point you made earlier and I should have answered your question better: we do need more government money going into the system. Since governments really pulled back from co-op and social housing, we’ve seen the affordability challenges grow, and I think we are going to need to have more government investment. That being said, big chunks of our discussion paper talk about “how do we create incentives for the private sector to be involved in affordability solutions?” So we’re not saying government has all the answers, but we are going to need government investment in some areas, particularly around housing the most vulnerable. I think the other way in which government involvement is important is just using taxing powers to reduce speculation and deal with vacancy issues. I think the previous government made some positive steps with the foreign-buyers tax; my perspective is if we’re going to address speculation, let’s not limit it to foreign buyers who are speculating in the market. Let’s look at anyone speculating in the housing market.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.