Ontario Premier Doug Ford didn’t really mean it when he said he wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt.
That’s par for the course, as politicians always lie, especially on the campaign trail. Perhaps not as egregiously as Ford in this instance, but they always go that route, well-intentioned or otherwise.
Prior to first being elected in 2018, Ford pledged to protect the Greenbelt after a video surfaced in which he said he’d open up the protected land to development.
“There have been a lot of voices saying that they don’t want to touch the Greenbelt. I govern through the people, I don’t govern through government. The people have spoken – we won’t touch the Greenbelt,” he said in response to the initial criticism, a pledge he reiterated at times. That stance changed completely with his argument development is needed to deal with the housing crisis, one that will be worsened by Ottawa’s plan for massive increases in immigration levels.
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Some people have taken umbrage at Ford’s lie. The bigger issue is Ford’s willingness to push aside democratic practices to speed up the development of more housing. More troubling still is the impression his actions are of benefit primarily to developers, most notably those with ties to the party.
That some developers bought Greenbelt land on speculation and now find the land being withdrawn from the protected areas does raise an eyebrow or two.
“Since Ontario Premier Doug Ford was first elected four years ago, developers have paid tens of millions of dollars for a number of properties that include protected lands the province is now proposing to carve out of the Greenbelt,” the Globe and Mail reports this week.
“Among those properties is a substantial piece of land lying largely in the Greenbelt that sold for $80-million in September, just weeks before the government revealed its new plan.”
That’s a serious concern that warrants an investigation.
Also troubling is the fact the fast-tracking measures of Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, are unlikely to deal with the housing affordability crisis.
The government says Bill 23 will foster conditions to build 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years. In that span, Ontario is expected to grow by more than two million people, with approximately 70 per cent of this growth taking place in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area.
There’s nothing in the act that says the housing created will be affordable. Given that growth is expected to outstrip new housing development, prices aren’t likely to moderate.
Now, current inflation-fighting measures – i.e. interest rate hikes – are already having a dampening effect on housing sales. Construction was already curtailed by both a shortage of materials and lack of labour, issues unaddressed by Bill 23. Even provided carte blanche to build, build, build, developers already face constraints unrelated to the proverbial red tape the province is looking to cut.
Critics have in fact suggested Bill 23 will actually prove counterproductive.
“Its provisions to require high-rise zoning and increase development profitability will contribute to rising land prices, which makes affordable and/or missing middle housing impossible due to high land costs. In addition, high-rise builds are expensive housing—two-and-a-half times as costly per square foot as low-rise builds. This is just one example of how the bill will exacerbate unaffordability in housing,” writes Dr. Dawn Parker, a professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo.
“It may not increase housing supply. With a cascade of current construction project cancellations due to rising construction costs and interest rates, increasing financing costs, and decreased demand for units from investors, small increases to development profitability may have minimal impact on housing supply.”
Locally, groups such as the Grand River Environmental Network, Water Watchers, the Nith Valley Ecoboosters and APT Environment have been protesting Bill 23.
“We are very concerned about the ongoing actions by the provincial government pandering to a handful of developers while acting totally against the best public interest” said Kevin Thomason of the Greenbelt West Coalition.
The provincial goal for 1.5 million new homes means an average of 150,000 per year, but its own projections are going the other way, to fewer than 80,000 annually for at least the next couple of years.
Likewise, government efforts to provide affordable rental housing do little to help. While small amounts of new housing can be of benefit to the most-vulnerable residents – those with special needs, the homeless or a segment of the senior population, for instance – such projects have no impact on the market rates paid by the vast majority of Canadians.
The numbers are simply too small. Building affordable housing on a scale large enough to impact the private sector would require resources well beyond the conceivable.
At current growth rates, we simply can’t build our way out of the housing deficit, where demand outstrips supply and drives up prices. That’s true of the market as a whole, public and private.
Suggestions from developers that increased supply – the result of cutting red tape and planning restrictions, for instance – would ease rising prices are clearly unrealistic. There’s simply no capacity to match population growth, particularly in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Still, there are some in government willing to listen, as we’re seeing from Queen’s Park.
What Ford government calls streamlining is seen as bypassing local controls, including removing some municipal planning functions, eliminating conservation authorities from part of the equation and muting the appeals process … for the public, though not developers.
Likewise, the province has taken aim at municipal development charges. While that can be seen as a positive given the rapid increase in such fees, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a new home, runaway municipal spending means the money will simply be added to all property tax bills. Cutting fees doesn’t mean municipalities will make the cuts necessary to reduce the financial burden on residents. Quite the opposite, if history is any guide.
Housing supplies won’t be able to keep pace with unsustainable growth projections. Neither will the healthcare system, for instance, which is already coming apart at the seams with no solution in sight. Add in the likes of education and transportation and you’ve got the making of a systemic crisis that will make today look like some kind of golden age.