The Ford government is facing questions about why a Crown agency was allowed to sell unused government land to private buyers without guaranteeing it would be used for affordable housing.
The criticism comes as the province throws its weight behind a series of controversial tools: removing parts of the greenbelt, reducing funds for cities and giving Toronto and Ottawa strong mayor powers, all introduced in the name of solving the housing crisis.
Since at least 2019, Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark has talked about surplus government land as part of the affordable housing puzzle.
“Can the minister explain how surplus land such as this will help provide much-needed housing, especially affordable housing?” Oakville MPP Stephen Crawford asked Clark in April 2019.
“It’s imperative that we create the necessary environment to bring more housing to market faster and make housing more affordable,” Clark said as part of his response, extolling the virtues of a rental housing project built in Toronto on surplus government land.
However, as the housing crisis has worsened, it appears a key government agency is failing to follow the model Clark boasted about in 2019.
A list of property sales by Metrolinx obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request shows the government agency failed to turn any surplus land into affordable housing projects between January 2021 and September 2022.
The list reveals none of the eight parcels sold are being used for affordable housing and almost 40 per cent were sold for large-scale private developments.
Speaking in October, Clark doubled down on his 2019 promise to use surplus land for affordable housing.
“Almost every mayor that I meet when I am on my travels in the province talks about a piece of provincial land that they think they can leverage into an affordable housing project,” he said.
“There’s lots of good ideas, I hear them every day, now it’s tasked to the province through Minister (of Infrastructure Kinga) Surma on some of those available lands.”
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The list obtained by Global News is made up of land parcels sold between March 2021 and June 2022. They were sold in Toronto, Orangeville, Pickering and Mississauga.
One parcel of land in Mississauga, near Goreway Drive and Highway 427, was sold to a numbered Ontario company and will become a gas station, truck stop. Land in Orangeville bought by the local municipal government — the only piece not obtained by a private party — is set to become a fire station.
Three detached family homes in Scarborough were also purchased by another numbered company. The owner told Global News he bought them as investment properties to rent out.
Other parcels have gone to major, private condo construction projects.
Universal City Seven Developments Inc., a developer, purchased a section of land near Pickering GO Station.
Planning documents filed with the City of Pickering show the developer plans to build a 37-storey condo building with 482 units. Neither the word “rental” nor “affordable” appear in the documents.
Metrolinx sold land around Port Credit GO Station to Edenshaw Developments in December 2021. That company is planning to build one 40 and another 42-storey condominium tower.
“The provision of affordable housing through these applications is currently under review,” a Mississauga planning document from June says. It does not include any written commitment from the developers.
A parcel in the area of Toronto’s Bayview and Eglinton avenues was sold in June 2022 to Country Wide Homes. A 35-storey mixed use tower has been proposed for the site.
A spokesperson for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing said the province was “working towards creating a program” that would use surplus lands to build new homes.
“The new program will leverage provincial authorities, surplus or underutilized lands, and commercial innovation and partnerships to rapidly build attainable homes in mixed-income communities that are accessible to all and will help families realize home ownership,” the spokesperson said.
Metrolinx sent Global News a statement in response to questions about why its land was not sold for affordable housing projects.
“As an agency of the Government of Ontario, Metrolinx is mandated to follow the Ontario Realty Directive as was done in each instance referenced,” Metrolinx said.
The Ontario Realty Directive is a set of rules that demand public land is offered to other governments, school boards, Indigenous groups and non-profits for first refusal.
“If there is no interest from these groups, Metrolinx can then list the property to be publicly sold at fair market value to ensure the best value for taxpayers,” the statement added.
That explanation falls short of what opposition politicians at Queen’s Park want to see.
“Many housing affordability experts have been (saying) that we should use publicly owned land for affordable housing projects,” Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said.
“That’s what public land should be used for: it’s an asset that we should be utilizing to ensure that people have access to an affordable place they can call home.”
The Ontario NDP said the sales represent a wasted opportunity to create affordable housing on public land instead of private developments.
“The Ford government should direct Metrolinx to build affordable housing on public land so we can address our housing affordability crisis,” NDP housing critic Jessica Bell told Global News.