What do Ontario Liberals have to offer on housing?

OPINION: With the election more than a year away, it’s not realistic to expect them to have all the details. But there are some big questions they’ll need to answer
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 14, 2021
Kate Graham, the Liberal party’s nominee in London North Centre, is co-chair of the party’s platform development. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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There are five political parties with an elected MPP at Queen’s Park — the Progressive Conservatives, the New Democrats, the Liberals, the Green party, and the New Blue Party (currently represented by Belinda Karahalios, who was elected as a Tory). Of those five, the Liberals are currently in a particularly interesting position: they’re in a competitive position to form the next government, but thanks to the 2018 drubbing they received, they’re basically rebuilding from the ground up. That gives them the chance to address one of Ontario’s biggest public-policy issues — the housing crisis radiating outwards from the GTA — with fresh eyes.

We know what the Tories’ housing policies look like, because they’re currently in government and implementing them. And we also have a good sense of NDP and Green housing policies thanks to their platforms in the 2018 election and the likelihood that they’ll still be led by the same people: Andrea Horwath and Mike Schreiner, respectively.

But the Liberals have a different leader (Steven Del Duca) than they had in 2018, and they’ll be overwhelmingly made up of new MPPs almost no matter what happens after the June 2, 2022, election — that means they’ve got the opportunity to start almost literally from a blank sheet of paper. So what are they thinking?

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“People have a lot of big ideas and a lot of things to say, and that’s exactly what we as a party need right now,” says Kate Graham, the party’s nominee in London North Centre and co-chair (with MPP Michael Coteau) of the party’s platform development.

So far, only a few things are clear — which is understandable, given how far from the election we are. But housing is one of the key issues the party is focusing on in its “take the mic” online policy consultations with Liberal members and supporters.

“We know that we’re not building enough housing to meet demand, but what addressing that issue looks like depends where you are, and who you are,” Graham says. “We’ve received ideas about addressing the homelessness crisis, supporting millennials and first-time buyers, and people looking to downsize, which isn’t really affordable right now.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most popular policy ideas build on policies the Liberals introduced when they were last in power.

“The idea that received the most support was expanding housing access for people with disabilities or struggling with addiction; there was over 90 per cent support for that,” Graham says. “Expanding the portable housing benefit for survivors of domestic violence and raising the non-resident tax rate — all of those had 90 per cent levels of support.”

 Graham says the party is also looking to rebuild the relationship between Queen’s Park and Ontario’s 444 municipalities, one she says has been badly strained under the Tories.

“I think they’re in a low point right now … things like cancelling ranked ballots and interfering in Toronto’s election, removing the powers of conservation authorities,” Graham adds. “I could go on and on.” 

There are still big blank spaces to be filled. With more than a year still to go before the election, it’s not realistic to expect the party to have hashed out granular policy details. But there are big questions the party needs to keep in mind as it goes forward.

The first is: What failed between 2003 and 2018? As much as the Liberals got blamed for high electricity prices, rents and home prices also went through the roof over the time they were in power. Even if you dismiss the arguments that their planning policies — the Greenbelt, the Growth Plan — were responsible for that, they’re pretty clearly an area of provincial jurisdiction and a massive policy failure.

The second big question is: Whose values and interests should prevail? Housing, as much as any political issue, means picking a side, because truly “win-win” solutions aren’t actually that common. The Tories, for example, have made no bones about their belief that, if ministerial zoning orders are required to get more housing built, they’ll use them, even if it means that the usual procedural niceties of planning law are ignored.

Graham says that voters can get a sense of the Liberal party’s values by looking at the handful of clear platform commitments Del Duca has already made: cancelling Highway 413 and putting the funds toward schools, for example, and working with the federal government to implement affordable daycare.

“I think those announcements illustrate who the party thinks about,” Graham says, emphasizing the daycare announcement in particular. “It shows a very different approach from the current provincial government, which doesn’t seem as interested as working with the federal government.”

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