Ontario's inclusionary zoning plan raises more questions than answers

By John Michael McGrath - Published on March 14, 2016
Image of tightly-packed together condo buildings.
Inclusionary zoning promises to increase access to affordable housing.

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Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ted McMeekin made it official on Monday morning: as reported by TVO.org last week, the Liberal government intends to add inclusionary zoning to the planning powers for Ontario municipalities, a tool cities both big and small have been seeking to address poverty in their communities.

Inclusionary zoning allows municipalities to require real estate developers to set aside a certain number of new units for affordable housing in exchange for more flexible building permissions (such as adding more height to a tower project than bylaws normally permit.) 

McMeekin’s announcement, however, came with almost no details attached. As the government holds both public and private consultations, it will flesh out the details of how inclusionary zoning comes forward. Until then, observers are left with a bunch of unanswered questions:

1. When will the government present actual legislation?

A full evaluation of the government’s proposals will have to wait until the public sees proposed legislation, and for now there’s nothing to evaluate. McMeekin wouldn’t even commit to having a bill in the house before the summer break starts, saying only “I hope so” when reporters asked if he would.

There are two bills currently in the house that could be moved forward: Liberal MPP Peter Milczyn and NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo both have bills with inclusionary zoning language in them, though Milczyn’s is wider-ranging than DiNovo’s. However, for political and procedural reasons the government is likely to move its own legislation instead of relying on the bills before the house. That means the process is going to take longer.

2. What will developers get to sweeten a bitter pill?

The construction industry regularly complains that it (and by extension, new homebuyers) already pay for a lot of public infrastructure: municipalities often charge developers fees that go into building sewers, parks, roads and other public projects that support new buildings and neighbourhoods. Inclusionary zoning just adds another item to the list, and developers are looking for some give and take from the government if they’ll be forced to provide new affordable housing units. That could mean tax breaks, lower planning requirements in other areas (such as reducing the required number of parking spots in exchange for affordable housing units) or rules that give developments with affordable housing accelerated approvals from city councils.

Not all developers are leery of inclusionary zoning. Mitchell Cohen of Daniels Corporation (the same man who former Toronto mayor John Sewell says is the only good developer he ever met) said Monday that people looking for homes in downtown Toronto are increasingly open-minded and aware of the benefits of living in mixed-income communities.

3. What will city councils do?

Both Toronto Mayor John Tory and Gary McNamara, president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, were present at Monday’s announcement and both praised the Liberal pledge to move forward on inclusionary zoning. It’s going to be municipal councils, though, that actually have to turn the provincial permissions into zoning bylaws in Ontario’s 445 municipalities.

Will every community that’s seeing an affordability problem use the tools that Queen’s Park is giving them? There’s almost nothing in urban politics as dangerous as threatening to disrupt “neighbourhood character,” and proposing to bring low-income residents into some areas may create more political backlash than councillors are willing to face.

Toronto Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon recently wrote in the Toronto Star about the backlash against a homeless shelter in her ward, saying the outrage among her constituents was so fierce she now thinks politicians should be removed from the approval process altogether, to send the message “you do not get to choose your neighbours.”

4. Will the province forbid “poor doors”?

In practice, one of the more controversial aspects of inclusionary zoning is ensuring that developers or higher-income residents don’t discriminate against low-income families. It’s a problem that’s most visible with “poor doors,” separate entrances for people living in units dedicated to affordable housing. New York City has banned them, but in other cities the issue isn’t as fraught.

None of the elected leaders at Monday’s event wanted to be pinned down on whether poor doors will be banned outright. And the issue doesn’t end with entrances. How does a condominium board deal with condo fees for a low-income unit? What kind of access to a building’s common amenities will be provided? Will provincial and municipal rules for access apply to condominium units and rental apartments equally, or not? Cities will be looking to the province for some guidance on at least some of these questions.

5. What’s Ottawa going to do?

Now that the province has stepped forward with its plans, one big question for municipal leaders is going to be what Ottawa does this year and in the future on the housing file. The federal Liberals were elected last fall in part on a pledge to have a “national housing strategy”, and there are important federal policies Ottawa could pursue to make housing more affordable. Renewing subsidies for housing co-operatives and big infrastructure amendments are some examples. How Ottawa’s moves work in conjunction with inclusionary zoning has yet to be seen, but voters will likely get some hints in the federal budget on March 22. 

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