Ontario’s minister of housing, Peter Milczyn, ended his good-news press conference on Wednesday on a cautionary note: “To the chief planners around the province, be careful what you wish for,” he said to a downtown Toronto audience that included Gregg Lintern, the newly appointed chief planner for the province’s largest city.
Milczyn announced that the government was prepared to give cities what they’d been (loudly) asking for all along: the power to require that new housing projects include affordable units set aside — what’s broadly called inclusionary zoning.
Whereas one Toronto councillor called Milczyn’s first draft of the regulation a “monstrous failure” because it was too prescriptive and required municipalities to subsidize the affordable housing units they wanted to force developers to build, this new version leaves the design of inclusionary-zoning rules up to the cities themselves.
For municipal politicians, this is great news: rather than having to take a “one-size-fits-all” approach, as dictated by an office in downtown Toronto, they’ll have the flexibility to design systems that work for their own communities.
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“It’s a breath of fresh air to be treated like a mature order of government for a change,” said Lynn Dollin, president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. “When the province stops being prescriptive and allows us to use our discretion about what’s best in our communities, almost always that spells success.”
Housing advocates are also optimistic: Harvey Cooper, from the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, said the new rules could allow developers to help fund co-operative housing as part of their obligation.
That would be welcome, and Dollin is surely correct that rules tailored to solve Toronto’s affordability problem might not be effective in smaller communities around the province. But developers predictably took the news differently — that is, as a comprehensive surrender to the noisiest anti-development voices in local politics.
“What’s happened today is we’ve thrown more politics into the planning process than ever before,” said Joe Vacarro, president of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association. “We all recognize the need for more housing, including government-mandated housing, but all that’s happened today is a complete walk-away by the province to leave us to the municipalities.”
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The thing is, it’s not really possible to say what the effect of the province’s new rules will be. That will depend on the rules that municipalities adopt, town by town — and two different cities could see wildly different results.
A cynic might say that the Liberals caved in to intense political pressure in advance of a provincial election in which they desperately need GTA voters to show up for them. Milcyzn says the decision was about something more banal: the government listened and learned.
“After listening to municipalities, after hearing how different the issues are … it became evident that it’s impossible to even build a one-size-fits-all box around municipalities,” Milczyn says. “We shouldn’t be writing the by-laws. The province does policy, but we’re giving municipalities the ability to implement the policy — they have to do the detail.”
In the United States, some cities have had positive results with inclusionary-zoning rules, but there are potential risks: Portland, Oregon, is reconsidering some of its housing policies after a precipitous drop in 2017 building applications followed an aggressive 2016 inclusionary-zoning policy.
And that was the point of Milczyn’s word of caution to planners — and, more importantly, to city councils. Assuming the Liberals or New Democrats form the next government (the NDP advocated for inclusionary zoning long before the Liberals), cities will have to be careful that their policies don’t create more problems than they solve. The flip side of municipalities being granted new powers as a “mature level of government” is that the province is trusting them not to screw things up.
As it turned out, not too far from where Milczyn was speaking on Wednesday, Toronto’s Committee of Adjustment (which deals with small planning matters) was hearing from a crowd of enraged homeowners convinced that a proposed daycare — the sort of thing that the city desperately needs more of, and that city policy encourages — would irrevocably ruin the unique character of their neighbourhood.
The committee heard arguments from proponents (who were not proposing to make substantial changes to the already existing building that would house the daycare) and critics (who argued that the laughter of small children constituted a dire threat on a near-Biblical scale) and then did the only thing it could: it denied the application for the daycare. Take that, small children and their working parents.
This silly example of Toronto’s planning policies also happens to be an example of the system working exactly as it was designed to. The city’s planning rules (as outlined in both its Official Plan and its citywide zoning by-law) contain plenty of language about why daycares are a good thing and how it should be possible to build more of them more easily — yet when someone actually proposes to build one, it’s nearly always easier to say no than yes.
City councillors are already lining up to say how regrettable it is that NIMBYism has killed a badly needed daycare, but they’ll wake up tomorrow morning and continue to defend a system that consistently produces such results.
What’s true of daycares (perhaps the most innocuous imaginable land use after parks) is even more true for housing, both in Toronto and in other Ontario cities where the housing crunch is most severe.
These new inclusionary-zoning rules could end up being good news — or they could be a disaster. But Milczyn and the Liberals are betting that the kind of local politics that has produced Toronto’s byzantine network of building restrictions won’t take inclusionary zoning and turn it into yet another weapon to be deployed in privileged homeowners’ fight against any change, ever.
It’s not clear why anyone would take that bet.