Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark recently introduced the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act as a way of cutting through red tape and speeding up development timelines in Toronto and Ottawa.
The legislation is certainly a good first step towards tackling the housing supply shortage. Hopefully it will end city hall gridlock on housing development and budgets in Toronto and Ottawa.
We have a critical housing shortage and need to think outside the box, tear down barriers, reform the development approvals process and tackle inefficiencies in the system in order to build more homes quicker.
This legislation will help in several ways. It will give mayors in Toronto and Ottawa new powers to veto bylaws approved by council if they interfere with the provincial mandate to build 1.5 million homes over the next decade. There are presently no such powers in the existing framework.
There are some checks and balances. For example, to veto a bylaw, the mayors must provide written reasons for using the power. The veto can be rejected by a two-thirds majority vote of a council.
Premier Doug Ford kept the ball rolling at the recent Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference, noting that building more homes is at the top of the list and promising that in the coming months. leaders in other municipalities would be granted similar authority as in Ottawa and Toronto.
Measures such as this are necessary because it takes far too long to get housing developments approved. The process is cumbersome and should be streamlined. Serious prevailing and systemic issues remain at the municipal level which are hampering the residential construction sector from delivering housing supply. We must have systemic change in order to boost housing stock.
In the recent throne speech, Ford and his team pledged to provide the tools municipalities need and to break through logjams that have historically slowed the speed of construction. Equally important, there was recognition that there is more work ahead for the province to reach its target.
For years, Canada and Ontario have not been building enough housing to support their demographic requirements. This deficit predated COVID-19 which, combined with economic stimulus, lifestyle changes, production delays and supply chain logjams, made the situation that much worse.
To provide more housing, we must first take measures to end exclusionary zoning practices by municipalities. They limit the types of housing that can be built. We must allow more density in cities like Toronto and Ottawa. In Toronto, for example, 70 per cent of land is zoned for detached houses only.
Exclusionary zoning practices only empower NIMBYs that oppose even modest forms of density in residential neighbourhoods. But with more than 400,000 immigrants coming to Canada each year, many of whom end up in Toronto, we need a more sensible land-use policy that allows fourplexes, low-rise apartments and mid-rise housing along avenues and corridors served by mass transit.
Second, we must fix our antiquated development approvals process. The province must move quickly to set province-wide, as-of-right permissions and modernize the system as has happened in other countries. We are badly behind the eight-ball systemically when it comes to modernization.
Ontario needs standardized and digitized data exchange guidelines, so municipalities are working on the same platform. This will result in a more efficient development approvals process and quicker builds. Existing e-permitting programs in many municipalities are siloed and absence of consistency in data and information exchange slows down the process and leads to less housing being built.
RESCON and other visionary organizations have proposed the One Ontario platform be adopted to come up with the common standards.
Thirdly, we must legislate approval timelines within municipalities, remove longstanding, entrenched barriers to building housing by establishing province-wide zoning standards, and restrict abuses of heritage registries. In June, Toronto’s preservation board effectively blocked 225 buildings from being redeveloped along Danforth Avenue by adding them to the heritage register.
Fourthly, we must continue to promote the trades as a career option, particularly those vocations in the residential sector that require specialized skill sets, and support employers who provide opportunities for learning. Meanwhile, the province must keep pressure on the federal government to allow more immigrants with construction skills into Canada to help alleviate shortages.
While progress is being made, there is much still to be done.
Richard Lyall is president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON). He has represented the building industry in Ontario since 1991. Contact him at [email protected].