Ontario passed a housing bill Monday intended to spur development but critics say it will lead to higher property taxes, weaken conservation authority powers, and not actually make homes more affordable.
The new law is just one move among many in a flurry of recent housing changes from the Progressive Conservative government, including plans to open some areas of the protected Greenbelt land to development and allowing the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to pass bylaws with just one-third council support.
Premier Doug Ford’s housing push comes as the government attempts to get 1.5 million homes built in 10 years, while high inflation and interest rates force the province to revise projections for housing starts downward. Ontario expects to build fewer than 80,000 new homes a year in the next couple of years.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark said Ontario is facing a “severe” housing crisis and it requires bold solutions.
“If we are truly going to build affordable housing in this province, if all the mayors and councillors who said during their municipal election they want to incent more housing opportunity in their communities, this is a way that the government has very clearly said we wanted to investigate,” Clark said Monday after the bill’s passage.
But critics say the government is trampling democracy and the environment to get those 1.5 million homes built. One move that has raised particular ire is the decision to open Greenbelt land for housing — despite previous public vows not to — while adding more areas to the protected tract elsewhere.
Media reports have suggested that some prominent developers who are Progressive Conservative donors stand to benefit from the move. Some bought land not long before the government’s announcement earlier this month, despite the land being ostensibly undevelopable at the time, according to investigations by the Toronto Star and the Narwhal as well as The Globe and Mail.
When asked Monday about the optics of developers buying land shortly before the announcement, Clark said it was important to do everything he can to get shovels in the ground.
The Opposition NDP’s sole leadership contestant, Marit Stiles, has asked the auditor general to investigate.
“I think where there’s a whole lot of smoke, somebody better be looking for the fire,” she said Monday after question period.
One of the most controversial aspects of the bill that passed Monday is freezing, reducing and exempting fees developers pay to build affordable housing, non-profit housing and inclusionary zoning units – meaning affordable housing in new developments – as well as some rental units.
Those fees go to municipalities and are then used to pay for services to support new homes, such as road and sewer infrastructure and community centres.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario has said the changes could leave municipalities short $5 billion and see taxpayers footing the bill – either in the form of higher property taxes or service cuts – and there is nothing in the bill that would guarantee improved housing affordability.
Clark argues that in the Greater Toronto Area, the average homebuyer faces $116,900 in municipal development charges and fees added to the price of a home, but AMO and other critics say that reducing or eliminating those fees does not guarantee developers will pass the savings on to buyers.
Clark said he is working with the federal government to secure support for municipalities to pay for critical infrastructure.
Ontario for All, a United Way project, told the government when the bill was being considered by committee that the legislation would constrain municipal efforts to require affordable housing in new developments and puts at risk rental replacement programs, which ensure tenants have access to affordable units when apartment buildings are redeveloped.
The organization also questioned the bill’s definition of affordable.
“By setting the definition of affordability for home ownership at 80 per cent of the market rate, units that would have sold for a million dollars are now considered affordable and exempted from development charges if they sell for $800,000,” Ontario for All coordinator Sean Meagher told committee earlier this month.
“Eight hundred thousand dollar homes are not affordable homes.”
The bill also reduces the role of conservation authorities, including limiting the areas they can consider in development permissions, removing factors such as pollution and conservation of the land.
Conservation Ontario said it shifts some burdens to municipalities and weakens protections for people and properties.
“The planning process is insufficient to ensure natural hazard concerns are addressed through design and construction alone,” the organization told committee.
“This places additional pressure, responsibility and liability on municipalities that could result, for example, in building permits being issued in error.”
Clark said he values the work of conservation authorities and they should focus on their core mandates of flood mitigation and natural hazard protection.
The Chiefs of Ontario also issued a statement saying the government’s passage of the bill without consulting First Nations violates the province’s duty to consult.