Ontario’s about to learn whether the Greenbelt can survive a housing crisis — not to mention a Tory government

OPINION: Doug Ford says he’d open the Greenbelt to housing development. It’s a bad idea — but the Liberals are partly to blame for this threat to their most popular policy, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 1, 2018
Sign for Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve
The 800,000-hectare Greenbelt is one of the few Liberal policies that remains broadly popular.

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The election hasn’t officially started, but Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford has managed to perform the near-impossible: he’s offered GTA land developers something that’s incredibly lucrative but so politically toxic they’ve had to publicly restate their refusal to even discuss it.

Only hours after the Liberals released video yesterday of Ford telling a crowd in February — before he’d won the PC leadership contest — that he wanted to open up parts of the Greenbelt to development in order to lower housing prices, the CEO of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association put out a press release reiterating that as far as his organization is concerned, the Greenbelt is here to stay.

“OHBA supports the Greenbelt, and we support growing the Greenbelt through a science-based approach that protects significant environmental features,” said Joe Vaccaro. He also emphasized that the government needs to do a better job of ensuring that developers can build more — the OHBA’s recent lobbying, though, has focused on trying to remove municipal barriers to building in existing communities, rather than restarting the sprawl engine of the 1990s.

It’s no wonder that the OHBA doesn’t want to be seen as greedily eyeing the Greenbelt: the 800,000-hectare swath of protected farmland across the GTA is one of the few remaining Liberal policies that’s broadly popular — substantially more so than either developers or the Liberals themselves. The question is, why do the Tories want to go anywhere near this idea?

Patrick Brown, before he was ousted as leader, certainly didn’t. Whenever Brown was asked whether he’d open the Greenbelt to development, he had a one-word answer: “No.” Sometimes, if he was feeling chatty, it was two words: “Absolutely not.” Politically, it was the smart play: there’s no obvious upside to saying anything else.

What has changed is the party leader: Brown is out, Ford is in, and now the Greenbelt is up for grabs. Or parts of it are, anyway: Ford clarified on Monday that a PC government would require that any land taken out of the Greenbelt be offset by newly protected land.

So why is he taking this line? In the February video, Ford tells his audience that building in the Greenbelt would reduce housing prices.

“We’re gonna start building, and making it more affordable, and putting more houses out there … the demand for single-dwelling homes is huge, but nobody can afford them,” he tells the room, before adding the line that restored Liberal faith in a kind and loving deity: “I’ve already talked to some of the biggest developers in the country. Again, I wish I could say it was my idea, but it was their idea as well.”

The Liberals are — and fair enough — going to have a field day with Ford’s having promised developers a windfall in back-room meetings before he’d even won his party’s leadership. But it’s worth pointing out that the evidence that his approach constitutes good policy is shaky at best.

Yes, there are land economists in the province who think the GTA is facing a real land shortage, which is leading to high housing prices. But even those economists don’t necessarily think the answer is opening up the Greenbelt for development; instead, most argue in favour of opening up the so-called white belt, a buffer zone between areas intended for settlement and areas where it’s forbidden.

Developers who own land in the Greenbelt — especially land near 400-series highways — obviously have an interest in ringing alarm bells about a perceived shortage of traditional subdivisions, but it’s not even clear that creating more of them would dramatically lower Toronto home prices. A large home in pastoral Halton Hills might be lovely, but it’s not really in competition with the most expensive homes in the region’s core. Even if building more homes in the fringes of the region were the answer, land isn’t the only consideration: local municipalities are loudly screaming for help building the sewers, water treatment plants, roads, transit, libraries, parks, and schools that new homes need to be worth living in. Do the Tories have a plan for that, too?

Another option — which OHBA actually spent years lobbying for while loudly proclaiming its lack of interest in developing the Greenbelt — would be to make it easier to build new homes in the places where people most want them and where infrastructure already exists: infill homes in pre-existing communities. Officially, this is also Liberal policy. Practically, the government did little to actually sell voters on it and was letting the Ontario Municipal Board do the dirty work of forcing municipalities to accept new homes. And then last year it gutted the OMB, too.

And this is where Ford, despite himself, has the nugget of a point. The Greenbelt was always going to face threats if runaway housing prices became a political issue, and now they have. It’s easy to ask voters to protect empty farmland when they don’t have to pay for it; it’s harder when they’re paying million-dollar prices for homes their parents picked up for a song.

The fact that Ford’s prescription is dubious is important, but then nothing the government has committed to is working terribly well either. The Fair Housing Plan has done little: prices began rebounding sharply this spring, and the average home needs a buyer with a minimum six-figure salary to qualify for a federal “stress test.”

A government serious about protecting the Greenbelt has to be just as serious about keeping housing affordable, and the Liberals haven’t been. They’re going to pay a price for that — and the Greenbelt may very well pay one, too.

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