Ontario’s ministry of municipal affairs and housing says Hamilton council’s decision to hold firm on the city’s urban boundary only stands to worsen an already bad situation with housing in the GTHA.
In a statement following Friday’s vote against an expansion of the city’s urban boundary — suggested by the Ford government to address an alleged “shortage” of housing — the ministry asserted that accommodating population growth through just infill and intensification is “not feasible.”
“Hamilton city council’s rejection of an urban boundary expansion will only serve to drive home prices further out of reach for Hamiltonians and exacerbate the housing crisis,” a ministry spokesperson said in an e-mail to Global News.
“We want our municipal partners to realize that Ontario is in a housing crisis, which is why we are encouraging city councils, including Hamilton’s, to put a plan in place that will address the issue of housing affordability.”
Over the past two weeks, councillors engaged in more than 20 hours of discussions through a pair of meetings on Nov. 9 and 19 which included going through 400-plus written submissions from advocacy groups and residents.
The catalyst of the debate was spurred on by a land needs assessment — an Ontario initiative accommodating population growth — which the Ford government said it needed by July 2022.
A previous expansion plan recommended by a city staff report suggested an “ambitious density” scenario to accommodate an estimated increase of more than 110,000 households by 2051.
Under that outline, the city would combine intensification within the city’s existing urban boundary and add more than 1,300 hectares of farmland to accommodate a projected increase of 238,000 residents, putting Hamilton’s population at about 820,000.
Opponents of the expansion include environmentalists and members of the agricultural community who have voiced frustration in recent months, saying the provincial guidelines don’t aid the climate crisis or repurpose land that’s in need of upgrade.
“The people of Hamilton, they want, they need, sustainable walkable community — small businesses and coffee shops right in their neighbourhoods, close to transit and jobs,” Zoe Green of Stop Sprawl Hamilton told councillors prior to Friday’s vote.
But the province says the city’s own land needs assessment shows they won’t be able to accommodate the growth and that the existing urban area does not have enough land to support new residents.
“Shifting these approximately 60,000 homes into apartments is not feasible because it would exceed the supply of lands available for intensification within the city’s existing urban area,” said ministry spokesperson Melissa Diakoumeas.
The CEO of a Hamilton-area residential construction consortium generally concurs with the province assessment, saying failure to expand won’t generate demand for a potential deluge of apartments and condos likely to hit the market in place of family homes.
The head of the West End Home Builders’ Association, Michael Collins-Williams, told 900 CHML’s Bill Kelly that buyers who want a backyard are not likely to make a compromise for high-rise living following city council’s rejection of a 1,300-hectare expansion.
“We just don’t think the market demand exists for 75 per cent of the homes going forward to be built as apartment or condo units and not having options for families,” Collins-Williams said.
Collins-Williams said the association supports some intensification, particularly along the forthcoming LRT corridor, but added he wonders if councillors supporting no boundary growth will “welcome with open arms” mid-rise and high-rise developments in their wards.
“We, as housing providers in the industry, are going to have to be fighting every single application,” Collins-Williams said.
“This means these projects (could) take four or five, six years to go through approvals simply to provide the necessary supply of housing to meet population growth.”
Dr. Frank Clayton, an urban and land development researcher with Ryerson University, says a no boundary scenario may not necessarily lessen environmental impact in Southern Ontario.
He suggested not everyone will settle for apartment-style living and will potentially resort to commuting to and from Hamilton to get the home they want.
“They’re going to force people who want low-density housing and work in the city of Hamilton to move farther away like … Niagara region, Brantford, Woodstock and those areas,” Clayton said.
More commuting would add to greenhouse gases, Clayton said.
Clayton, whose area of expertise is on the housing market side, said ultimately the best framework would be some sort of balance between the environment and the economics of the housing market.
“It’s not one or the other. Because if you do one or the other, you’re going to have inadvertent impacts that you didn’t want to have,” Clayton said.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger told Global News the decision is the right one for the moment and that it’s not a “forever decision.”
“It means in the short term, we’re looking to maximize the potential of LRT, which has always been a focus on new urban intensification and redevelopment,” Eisenberger said.
The mayor said that greenfield opportunities within’ the current boundaries still exist and that future adjustments to boundaries will be considered through continuous staff reports.
“We’ll measure as we go,” Eisenberger said.
“I put forward direction that each and every year we get information from our staff about how the housing uptake is coming and how we’re accommodating the projected 100,000 new residents that are coming into our community.”
Clayton said part of the issue with infill and reconciling old lots is the cost developers incur with a given project, sometimes creating expenses that won’t support family-style homes.
“It’s much more expensive … so you get apartments, you don’t get single houses,” Clayton said.
“If you do get some single houses, they usually are just replacing existing single detached houses, or they’re going to be very, very expensive.”
He said that any plan decided upon now would take years to reverse should the city opt to allocate urban land growth in a few years from now.
“To get redevelopment applications through the system, it can take five or 10 years,” Clayton said.
“We’re planning for the long term and you can’t turn the system around quickly.”
Eisenberger said he doesn’t believe the prospect of pivoting will be difficult and submits a number of developers are poised to present viable high-density projects.
“I think the best option for us right now is to encourage developers to look at infill opportunities in both single-family and in higher density residential in the existing urban boundary … then measure how that is impacting future supply and pricing and everything else that comes with it,” Eisenberger said.
The question now is how the ministry of municipal affairs and housing will receive the city’s decision.
Clayton said the Ford government could now simply “veto” what the city has done and tell it to do something different.
In a statement to Global News following Friday’s vote, the ministry of municipal affairs said it was standing by the “ambitious density” scenario initially brought to city council in July.
The mayor hopes the province will not override the city’s resolve leading to a potential appeals process with the Ontario Land Tribunal.
“So we’ll have to work through those issues to see how that future outcome holds for our city,” Eisenberger said.
“Hopefully, the province will adhere to our choice.”
Despite being aware of Friday’s vote, Diakoumeas said the province is still awaiting an official plan from the city for review by the ministry.