Opposition to building homes in Ontario will only worsen affordability

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Insufficient housing supply is the primary contributor to unaffordable housing prices and rents

Homes being built in Brantford, Ontario. Homes being built in Brantford, Ontario. Photo by Brian Thompson/Brantford Expositor/Postmedia Network Files

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After decades of frustrating inaction, the Ontario government has a plan to quickly build many more homes by setting new construction targets and proposing sweeping changes to the governance structure needed to implement the plan.

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Despite the urgency to address the supply shortages that have accumulated over the past five decades, critics are doing all they can to maintain the status quo of inadequate housing supply, which is a major contributor to unaffordable home prices and rents.

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Ontario’s plan isn’t perfect — no plan ever is — but it does present a chance at last to solve the province’s supply problems. The status quo of not building homes is and has never been an option when the goal is for people to have affordable housing.

The first of two major Ontario initiatives is Bill 23, also known as the More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022, which introduces a series of land-use planning changes to cut red tape and sets explicit, non-binding targets for large communities to build new homes.

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The other initiative empowers the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa, the province’s most populous municipalities, to take decisive action on housing developments without garnering the support of a majority of council members, who often vote to approve new developments at the behest of their NIMBY (Not in My Backyard ) components.

The opponents of these plans are different, but they have some things in common. Many are supply skeptics who pay lip service to the notion that we need more housing but are unwilling to do much to get there.

Others are sticklers for the status quo who want to “preserve” the spirit of their neighborhood, a polite way of saying they want to keep new citizens out of their areas. Then there are the planners, some of whom have been taught a Soviet-style central planning system that sets ad hoc limits on what land can be farmed and at what intensity. Most builders and developers struggle for years to have these plans and by-laws changed, causing delays and inflated prices and rents.

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Some believe empowering mayors disenfranchises local officials, which is hardly true. Municipal representatives are free to represent their voters in all matters except the blockade of new housing construction.

Consider that Toronto Mayor John Tory received more votes from citizens than the sum of all votes received from elected council members. Shouldn’t executive powers be weighted by the support each voting member of the council, including the mayor, received in local elections?

Premier Doug Ford came into office with a promise to build more housing, and voters overwhelmingly backed the Conservative platform, electing 83 of its candidates, more than twice as many seats as all other parties combined.

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If democracy can be trusted, Ontario voters overwhelmingly approved plans for more housing in June’s provincial elections. Empowering NIMBY types and their enablers is hardly a pro-democracy advocate.

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However, we support some suggestions from critics. First of all, we believe that the plan to permit construction of 7,400 acres of the green belt should be put on hold pending further study. We are aware that the province will expand the green belt by 9,400 acres to compensate for the land removed, but first we need to understand why such a move might be necessary.

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First of all, not every square foot of the Green Belt’s two million acres is environmentally sensitive land. Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley identified several parcels that were not used for agriculture and, in some cases, are enclosed by the development surrounding them. Building on non-sensitive land that already has roads, sewers and pipes should not be discouraged just because it is part of the green belt.

Critics also argue that development should target already built-up areas first, leading to intensification. We couldn’t agree more. However, NIMBYism thwarts or delays any plans to intensify. Because of this, we need additional powers for mayors to act for the good of the city or province, even if it conflicts with the aspirations of local people to maintain the status quo.

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We want to go further and recommend building affordable, family-friendly housing before committing funds and resources to building larger, more expensive homes.

Land, labor and capital are in short supply, all the more so due to pandemic-related disruptions. Focusing first on family-friendly housing, with a significant proportion of purpose-built rental housing, can help Ontario meet affordability goals sooner than waiting for trickle-down benefits that can take years, if not decades.

Murtaza Haider is Professor of Real Estate Management and Director of the Urban Analytics Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at the Haider-Moranis Bulletin website, www.hmbulletin.com.

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