There hasn’t been an election in the past year where housing affordability hasn’t been a hot topic, including last Monday’s Ontario council elections.
No one promised anything too drastic during the campaigns, but when the municipal elections were over, the provincial government blindsided municipal workers and newly elected councilors with new legislation that would be passed in a short period of time.
Cities are fighting for them through House Bill 23, known as the “Build More Homes Fast Act.”
They are sure of one thing: the Progressive Conservative government’s new legislation overrides some of the powers councils had to oversee their city planning.
This is necessary, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark said on Tuesday, because local pressures make it almost impossible to increase housing supply fast enough.
“We’re at the BANANA point where it’s ‘Build absolutely nowhere near anything,'” Clark said this week.
Really? A few days ago, the Ottawa council’s planning committee approved more than 4,500 units in a single meeting, among other things. 950 near wetlands. In addition to the 41,000 units approved by the commission in the past, but developers have not built, not to mention the 69,000 homes that can be built on plots that are already serviced and ready.
The province is setting a target of 151,000 new homes for Ottawa by 2031. How much housing developers will build – usually a decision based on market forces like interest rates and the labor supply – has not been addressed.
But Ford’s government appears ready to overturn some municipal rules to make construction easier.
Here are four ways the province hurts local authorities when it comes to approving new housing.
1. Cheap housing at the expense of city amenities
The new legislation offers incentives to developers to build affordable housing — a laudable goal — but one of the ways it’s doing it is robbing cities of the millions they need to build roads and pipelines, libraries and recreation centers.
Development charges (DC) are fees the city applies to most new construction in the city. This money goes into a big pot for the whole city, and the law allocates it all for different types of infrastructure. (On Tuesday, Clark suggested Ontario municipalities were sitting on $8 trillion in DC reserves, as if it were a city slush fund instead of legislated money for specific purposes.)
The province will waive these fees for affordable and affordable housing. (“Affordable” is defined as 80 percent of the median market rent or purchase price, while “affordable” is housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a person’s gross income. How this will all play out in the real world is unclear. that. still clear.)
These waived fees will amount to millions of dollars, which are used to pay for infrastructure to support growth. Where will that lost revenue come from? The municipality has few ways to raise money: rates and taxes. Failure to recover this money could have a major impact on the amenities of this city.
Now, the province could choose to use one of its powers, such as tax breaks, to encourage developers to build more affordable units. Instead, Gov. Ford suggests that money from the federal government’s $4 trillion Housing Accelerator Fund should be used to pay cities back lost DCs.
The federations have so far been silent on how the provinces should use their housing money.
2. Less money for parks
The province also believes that one way to make housing more affordable is to leave less for parks.
In the suburbs, the city requires developers to leave one hectare of land for every 300 units built. The new law requires a hectare of 600 units. In other words, the province will halve the land needed for parks.
In the core, where there isn’t much land to physically set aside for parks, developers pay money — known as parkland cash — and the city saves until it has enough to buy the land or turn it into a community green space.
Bill 23 appears to be weakening in several ways. It will limit the amount a city can charge for parkland, forcing a municipality to spend 60 percent of its park reserve each year. This will make it extremely difficult to buy inner city parks where land is expensive.
And finally, the province will waive all park requirements for affordable and affordable housing, but it has no guidance on how cities should address the shortfall.
3. Exceeding R1 zoning
The province appears to be putting an end to exclusionary R1 zoning, rules that only allow single-family homes to be built on a single-family home. When the bill is passed, apartment buildings with up to three units will become an automatic title for the property owner.
The thinking is that municipalities would not have the political will to remove R1 zoning. In fact, many candidates in our last election advocated exclusionary nomination. But why should a huge single-family home built on the lot line be approved, but not a similarly sized building with three apartments?
The change is not just for single-family homes. Two rental houses can also have three apartments. Now, the city has infill rules that talk about setbacks and landscaping — to avoid paving over the frontage, for example — but they only apply to units inside the Green Zone. The new bylaws will apply to homes throughout the city.
4. Cities not having a say in design
The new legislation could severely curtail its powers to control the appearance of building exteriors. A planning process called planning control is usually the last step in a project before applying for a building permit. A site plan includes everything about a building’s exterior—from landscaping to parking to building design.
For any building with less than 10 units, the province is completely removing site plan control (see concerns about triplexes above). And for larger buildings, Bill 23 states that “exterior design is no longer subject to site plan control.”
This means that city officials will not be able to regulate architectural, scale, appearance or sustainable design features or environmental design standards (such as requiring green roofs on larger buildings).
Removing all or part of the city’s control over the site plan may speed up development approvals, but what long-term effects will it have on the city’s livability and sustainability?