The Handmaid’s Fail: Margaret Atwood has bad housing policy ideas, like everyone else in Ontario

OPINION: It turns out Atwood doesn’t know much about urban planning. Will we learn anything from this teachable moment? Don’t count on it, says John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on August 29, 2017
It turns out Canada’s preeminent novelist is also a bog-standard NIMBY. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

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We can assume Margaret Atwood has an imagination. Canada’s most-famous living author can imagine a patriarchal dictatorship in which women are used as brood mares; she can imagine a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by climate change and genetic engineering; she can imagine a woman-centred version of The Odyssey.

But she just can’t imagine life might still be livable next to an eight-storey building in downtown Toronto.

Atwood, you see, has added her name to the long list of combatants in Toronto’s age-old fight against building any new housing anywhere. Specifically, she’s up in arms about a proposed condo on the periphery of the Annex, one of the city’s toniest neighbourhoods. And it’s not just Atwood who’s against it: scrappy underdogs such as billionaire Galen Weston Jr. and an Eaton heiress have taken up the fight as well. Their objections to this development are the same as any NIMBY’s to any development: it’s too tall, too big, too rich, and too here.

The thing is, Atwood is a novelist and not a city planner. Actual city planners — notably, those employed by Toronto and well-versed in municipal policy — recommend approving the condo, which meets the city’s height, shape, density, and land-use regulations and is consistent with provincial policy. No, it doesn’t conform to certain zoning by-laws, but those by-laws are so irrational that plenty of currently standing homes (including mine) also contravene them. And no, it’s not a perfect development; like everything else in the Annex, it’s unlikely to be even remotely affordable. Of course it will have an impact on the neighbourhood, but it’s an impact the city’s rules say is bearable.

(Assuming council lives up to its own policies — we’ll see what happens when it goes to committee on September 6. Councillors could always choose to reject their planning staff’s advice.)

If these were just the out-of-touch complaints of Toronto’s 1 per cent, this would be an amusing local tale of little wider importance. But it actually exposes one of the basic problems with Toronto politics right now: despite oft-repeated assertions that we face a housing crisis in this city, nobody is willing to make the radical changes that crises demand.

There are many paths toward a more ambitious housing policy, whatever your politics might be. If you think the private sector needs to be let loose to solve the housing shortage, then big changes to the city’s rules are in order: from the aforementioned zoning regulations, to Toronto’s overreliance on hefty development fees, to lengthy approval timelines — all would need to be rewritten.

Developers would love it, but developers aren’t exactly popular in this town. So fine then, ditch the private market policy. Toronto’s a stunningly wealthy city, and it has the capacity to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes that could service billions of dollars in debt. If we don’t trust the private market to build housing, we can do it with public spending.

Except no, we won’t do that either. What we’re going to do instead, apparently, is more of what we’re doing now: scream about “over-development” and elect mayors and councillors who promise to keep taxes low no matter how many social housing tenants get evicted from their dilapidated homes.

Which isn’t to say new funds won’t occasionally fall into our lap, as happened last week with yet another announcement of money from Ontario’s cap-and-trade program. That announcement might end up being good news, but it underscores how limp the current policies are. Toronto could get as much as $343 million over five years (depending on how the province’s carbon auctions go), but that money can be spent only on green retrofits. Given that auction revenues can be wildly inconsistent — and that the whole cap-and-trade system might not survive next year’s election — it would be irresponsible for Toronto to create a multi-year plan based on any of this.

But it’s entirely consistent with how the city and the province have handled this file. The only money worth spending is someone else’s: Toronto wants provincial or federal tax dollars but refuses to raise its own; Ontario will spend cap-and-trade revenue but not make the billion-dollar commitments cities across the province need. Ottawa has made some promising pledges, but nothing close to what’s needed has materialized yet.

All of which is to say: the status quo is the result of status quo policies. And status quo policies are, when it comes down to it, the responsibility of status quo voters. Including those in the Annex, who worry more about removing a couple of trees than where the city’s dire need for new housing will be met.

If we’re not going to treat it like a crisis, maybe we should stop calling it one. Had we fought the Great Depression this badly, people would still be in bread lines.

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