The housing crisis being faced in Ontario today is not unique to this province or country. It seems that, wherever you look, the cost of housing, whether mortgaged or rental, is very quickly getting beyond the means of most people. The results of a recent survey shows that the dream of home ownership is a fading one for far too many people. The stories of young people living with their parents into their thirties are common across the nation. Everybody knows that house prices are incredibly high and rental accommodation, or at least reasonable accommodation, is scarce.
The Ontario government released a report by a housing taskforce set up by Minister of Housing and Municipal Affairs, Steve Clark, and he has, based on its recommendations, introduced what he is calling the “More Homes for Everyone Act” to deal with the many issues preventing citizens from being able to afford decent housing. The new piece of legislation aims to fight real estate speculation, speed up development processes and bolster the housing supply in Ontario. The report of the task force, and the contents of the Bill have been criticised by both opposition parties in the Ontario legislature, which was to be expected, and by many of the larger municipalities in Ontario.
Opposition parties will always criticise government policies and plans, even the good ones. Government plans either don’t go far enough, or else they’re condemned as being useless and not addressing the real problems. Such is provincial and federal politics. But the opposition by the municipalities in Ontario is based much more on practical complaints. Municipal government is the one that actually affects residents most closely and immediately. And it has been the role of municipal government to deal with the relevant housing issues, such as building permits, height requirements, heritage designations, zoning changes, and all aspects of residential development.
The objections to Steve Clark’s “More Homes for Everyone Act” focus on the loss of control municipalities will face if the Bill becomes law. And Steve Clark has indicated that he is quite prepared to enter into serious conflict over his proposals. In recent press conferences and media interviews, he has come out strongly to attack municipalities for what he sees as attempts to “neutralise” many of the recommendations of his 2019 report, and to fail to implement others. He argues that, considering the large sums of money provided to the municipalities by the provincial government to improve the process of granting building permits and to streamline the system, municipal councils should be cooperating with his Ministry, but have, instead, stonewalled.
It has been the mantra of the Ford government since it was elected that they wanted to “cut through the red tape”, make government and business more efficient and effective. What this means in practice is the removal of regulations which the government considers to be unnecessarily restrictive. Steve Clark wants to do the same to the development processes, which, he says, are creating roadblocks in increasing the housing supply in Ontario.
No-one would deny that more housing is needed, and quickly. No-one, either, would disagree that housing costs have risen out of control. More housing is needed, particularly more affordable housing and more rental units also. The need is real and great, but what is the solution? The Minister wants municipalities to reduce the time taken to handle things such as building permits and zoning changes, and to be more flexible when setting height limits, density requirements, and other technical considerations.
Municipalities point out that what is involved in the government’s plans is a serious loss of control of local conditions by local councils. The Minister wants to have standards set that would be consistent across all 444 municipalities in Ontario, because sometimes, he says, it takes years to get the permits through the system and get shovels in the ground. But would such a universal system work, when the conditions in Toronto would be transposed to rural municipalities like ours?
North Grenville, for example, is one of the fastest growing municipalities in the province. Residents have seen an amazing growth in the number of homes that have been built around Kemptville. That kind of growth was encouraged by previous councils and the resulting increase in taxes, housing prices, and land values has meant that local builders find it almost impossible to build what anyone with a budget would call “affordable housing”. The same possible problem faces other areas around Eastern Ontario as more and more people seek to escape Ottawa prices for what has traditionally been the cheaper areas outside the capital. The pressure on local councils from Steve Clark’s legislation can mean local communities will no longer be allowed, under law, to set limits on housing density, the height of apartment buildings, the protection of heritage buildings and districts, or the character of neighbourhoods. Municipal planners, even in large urban areas such as Ottawa, have already raised their concerns over the legislation and its impact on local autonomy in these areas.
Steve Clark has stated that there would be consultation between municipalities and the province over the implementation of his “More Homes for Everyone Act”. There are many who remember what consultation meant when it came to the location of a prison in Kemptville, for example. Communities are in danger of losing control over the character and content of their neighbourhoods. Let’s hope that real consultations take place. It is not encouraging to note that Steve Clark wants those consultations to result in municipalities committing themselves to implementing provincial government demands. Another topic to be discussed in the upcoming election.