Ford government unveils sweeping new changes to housing rules

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RELATED: Ontario Premier Doug Ford is shutting down efforts to introduce fourplexes in neighbourhoods across the province, calling the policy a “massive mistake” that would raise the ire of residents living in traditional single-family suburbs. Global News' Queen's Park Bureau Chief Colin D'Mello reports – Mar 21, 2024

The Ford government has unveiled a new omnibus bill focused on streamlining home building and approvals in the province.

The new Cutting Red Tape to Build More Housing Act includes a reduction in the amount of parking developers need to build, special rules to fast-track the construction of student accommodation and a long-awaited use-it-or-lose-it policy.

“These measures recognize the struggles that our municipal partners have faced in building homes and are targeted at removing those obstacles,” said Paul Calandra, minister of municipal affairs and housing.

Speaking to reporters after the new legislation was unveiled, Calandra repeatedly said the law included many “targeted” measures to fix parts of the province’s planning rules.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles called the new law “weak,” and said it failed to fix the housing crisis.

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“Again, the Conservatives are refusing to treat Ontario’s housing crisis with the urgency it needs,” Stiles said.

“This is a weak bill from a government lacking in the bold vision and leadership that is needed in order to do what they should have done years ago: build at least 1.5 million homes by 2031.”

The government has not calculated how many new homes its planning changes will bring online, as it bids to build 1.5 million by 2031.

Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie said the proposed law was “a random grab-bag of small-ball measures.”

Alongside changes to housing, the omnibus law also tweaks other areas of government.

They include increasing the collision reporting standard for vehicle crashes, changing the composition of some university boards and streamlining registration for internationally educated health-care professionals.

Changes to parking

A key change the government plans to bring in with the new changes will be to remove parking minimums for developments planned near transit stations.

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Under current laws, zoning and planning rules tell developers how many parking places they need to provide for every unit they build. It means new projects dedicate significant space to accommodating the cars they expect to come with new tenants and homeowners.

The government estimates parking spaces cost between $2,000 and $100,000. It calculated the new rules would save as much as $50 million for a 750-unit development in Ontario cities with the highest parking minimums.

The province’s new proposal would remove the requirement to offer those parking spaces in developments that are being constructed near certain transit stops, including GO trains, subways and light rail routes.

The change, if implemented, would mean people living near major transit stations would not necessarily have parking spaces provided in their new homes.

It wouldn’t stop developers from providing parking if they felt it was necessary to make their new homes appealing, but instead, builders would decide how many parking spots they need to offer to sell or rent units.

Calandra said that removing parking minimums would help save developers on a key homebuilding cost, hopefully reducing the price of new homes as they hit the market.

Use-it-or-lose-it policy

The government is also proposing to introduce rules designed to stop developers from sitting on land that is ready for housing construction until market conditions are more favourable — something known as land banking.

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It’s a policy mayors of towns and cities in the province have long asked for, claiming they approve thousands of building projects every year, only to see developers wait to get shovels in the ground.

With high interest rates, a slower sales market and other challenges, municipal officials have said builders are holding off on starting construction.

As early as last summer, the province indicated it was consulting on how to implement the rule.

Developers, on the other hand, have said a use-it-or-lose-it is not necessary and have claimed the industry is operating at a 33-year high. A study by the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) suggested the municipal presentation of “shovel-ready” projects not being built was unfair.

The use-it-or-lose-it policy has two prongs: one allows cities to redirect key infrastructure to projects that are ready to start building, while the other sets clear timelines for approvals to be removed from developments that take too long.

In particular, the proposed bill would change how water and wastewater infrastructure, which cities build to connect developments to municipal systems, are allocated. It would allow cities and towns to move around which projects get connected to servicing based on how close they are to getting shovels in the ground to build new homes.

New rules would also focus on inactive or slow development projects.

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The province is currently governed by a patchwork of rules that say approvals will expire for certain subdivisions or site plans if developers don’t make progress over a number of years.

If the province’s new legislation passes it will work to bring more uniformity to those rules, meaning that if developers across Ontario fail to hit specific milestones on their subdivisions or site plans, they could see approvals yanked away.

The removal of lapsed approval would then see the developer forced to begin the entire process again from scratch.

Special rules for student accommodation

The province is also proposing to give university-led housing projects special status and exemptions to build student accommodation faster.

Publicly assisted universities will be exempted from the Planning Act, the provincial rules that govern housing construction in Ontario. That means universities could push through projects without the need to request new zoning for the area or certain site plan requirements.

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The government said the move would bring universities in line with publicly assisted colleges. The changes would allow projects to sidestep the majority of municipal bureaucracy around homebuilding, potentially saving years of planning consultations and requests.

As housing minister, Calandra said he retains the power to step in if he feels a university is misusing its powers. The aim of the new powers handed to universities was to build student housing, not to allow post-secondary institutions to become real estate developers, he added.

The new rules to sharply boost the provision of student accommodation come as Ontario weighs adding student housing to its definition of new homes.

The Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation, which tracks official housing start data across the country, does not include student accommodation in its housing statistics because each dorm does not have an individual bathroom, entrance or kitchen.

Ontario, however, plans to add student accommodation and retirement homes to its expanded definition of the homes it counts toward its goal of 1.5 million new housing units by 2031.

Calandra confirmed his plan in a late March letter to the City of Mississauga.

“We will continue to explore data sources for tracking the numbers of other institutional types of housing such as student residences and retirement homes for future program years and commit to engaging municipalities on the same,” he wrote.

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Reversing previous housing plans

The omnibus legislation also includes reversals to housing plans the Ford government has relied upon in the past.

Certain rules introduced in previous housing supply bills added conditions and some reductions to the fees paid by homebuilders. Those changes will be walked back under the proposed new bill.

The new law would scrap a phased-in approach to development charges and only offer savings where developers are set to build affordable housing.

The new bill also proposes a codified process for minister’s zoning orders (MZOs). The powerful tool allows the minister of municipal affairs and housing to issue wide-ranging decrees that trump local planning laws.

The Ford government has handed out more than 100 such orders since taking office in 2018, compared with just 18 given out by the previous Ontario Liberals over 15 years.

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Last year, the Ontario NDP pointed out that the province handed out as many zoning orders to guests at Ford’s daughter’s wedding as the Liberals did through their entire decade-and-a-half in power.

New rules are designed to add rules and conditions for how and when the orders are issued, bringing some more clarity to when the orders will be used.

The new law also includes other changes to how housing rules in Ontario work.

Other changes introduced in the law include:

  • Limiting the rights of parties like community and neighbourhood groups to appeal housing projects to the Ontario Land Tribunal
  • Creating standardized designs for new homes which would be exempt from planning laws to speed up construction.
  • Increasing the use of mass timber construction to allow for it to be used in homes as tall as 18 storeys high.

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