The Greens have a housing platform, and it’s good. Can it survive housing politics?

ANALYSIS: Leader Mike Schreiner tells TVO.org about his party’s housing platform — and how to get the public to accept having more homes in their neighbourhoods
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 23, 2021
Ontario Green leader Mike Schreiner revealed his party’s housing strategy on Wednesday. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

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The housing crisis in Ontario is like the weather, in that everybody talks about it. Unlike with the weather, though, there are ways of turning the housing crisis around — and yet, nobody does anything about it.

From left to right across the political spectrum, plenty of people have proposed substantial transformations of housing policy and of land-use planning in particular. But they go nowhere because, one way or another, they step on political landmines: they involve either more regulations or higher levels of public spending and taxation, or they challenge the privileges that homeowners currently enjoy to obstruct and delay housing in already-developed areas.

The Green Party of Ontario, in a housing strategy released Wednesday, is proposing to do all three at once if it forms government after the next election — or is in a position to influence the party that does.

“The guiding principle is that we have a housing-affordability crisis that’s at a breaking point,” Schreiner says. “It is vital, coming out of COVID, that we build livable, affordable communities.”

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The Greens’ strategy is multifaceted and includes everything from stronger rent-control rules and more social-housing construction to rewriting planning rules to prohibit the expansion of towns and cities into the countryside and make it easier to build new homes in already built-up areas. In particular, the Greens are proposing to make duplexes and triplexes legal “as of right” everywhere in the province that’s already approved for residential use — meaning that someone proposing to tear down a single-family home and replace it with a triplex wouldn’t need to go through a laborious rezoning or appeals process; they would simply be able to pay their fees and apply for a building permit.

The Greens are also proposing to substantially restrict the use of ministerial zoning orders (MZOs), the controversial policy that long predates the current Progressive Conservative government — but that has become more controversial as it’s been used more often by Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark. Notably, Schreiner concedes that there are still some uses for MZOs and that his party wouldn't forswear them entirely.

“I think it’s an important tool, provided it has very strict parameters around it,” Schreiner says, pointing to examples from the Liberal government, such as the cancellation of the St. Mary’s quarry in Flamborough, where the province was able to act quickly to meet community needs and environmental protections.

While the use of MZOs has been the most controversial part of the current government’s housing policies, there’s a common thread connecting the Green party’s proposed expansion of “as of right” development and the restriction of MZOs: a planning system that’s more transparent and rules-based and not dependent on the discretion of elected officials at either the municipal or provincial levels.

“I think we need clear rules, and as much as possible that the rules facilitate development but are devised in a public process, rather than leaving them in the hands of a minister, which is more subject to potential political abuse and misuse,” Schreiner says.

The Greens are not proposing to let private development do all the work of creating a more affordable housing market, however. They also are setting a target of building 100,000 units of affordable housing over a decade, funded by a combination of higher taxes (including on real-estate speculation) and the ending of electricity subsidies. They’re also proposing to split the costs of operating public housing with municipalities, 50/50.

There’s a really big unanswered question, though: Do the Greens have what it takes to see these policies through? It’s one thing to say that Queen’s Park is going to legalize duplexes and triplexes in the name of a more “human scale” type of housing, for example. But municipalities are endlessly creative when they want to thwart provincial housing dictates, and Ontario’s planning laws give them plenty of levers to use if they want to. So getting serious about this kind of “missing middle” housing is difficult to do unless a party is willing to effectively wade hip-deep into the wonky details of planning policy from the legislature, instead of letting municipalities run the show.

Schreiner acknowledges that his party is proposing a shift in planning, one that would involve a much more “rigorous” application of provincial rules set out in such documents as the Provincial Policy Statement and the Growth Plan. 

“We don’t want to micromanage from Queen’s Park, but Queen’s Park is going to have to be more firm in setting the parameters,” Schreiner says. But a government rarely relies on “sticks” alone, and Schreiner also notes that the sums the Green party is proposing to spend — $23.5 billion over 10 years — could be a useful “carrot” to bring along recalcitrant municipalities.

The cold political reality at the moment is that Schreiner might need to do more than just be firm with municipalities: given that he’s unlikely to win a majority of seats in the next Ontario election, the extent of his political power may well be deciding which party to support in forming the next government. He’ll need to be firm after the next election, too, if his party is in any position to decide the balance of power in the legislature.

“I’ll be very clear: addressing housing affordability and the climate crisis are our two top priorities,” Schreiner says. “For us, building livable, affordable communities while eliminating sprawl and not paving over farmland, wetland, and the places we love will be critical components of any negotiations we have if the people of Ontario decide they prefer a minority government.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the cancellation of the St. Mary’s quarry in Orangeville. In fact, it was in Flamborough. TVO.org regrets the error.

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