There hasn’t been an election in the past year where housing affordability hasn’t been a hot issue, including Ontario’s municipal ones that took place last Monday.
No one promised anything too drastic during the campaigns, but the moment the municipal elections ended, the provincial government blindsided municipal staff and newly elected councilors with sweeping new legislation that is expected to be passed soon.
Cities are scrambling to figure out what Bill 23, known as the “Build More Homes Fast Act,” means for them.
They are sure of one thing: the new legislation from the Progressive Conservative government overrides some of the powers that municipalities had to control the planning of their own cities.
That’s necessary, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark said Tuesday, because local pressures make it nearly impossible to increase housing supply quickly enough.
“We’re at the BANANA point where it’s ‘Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone,'” Clark said earlier this week.
Really? Just a few days ago, Ottawa council’s planning committee approved more than 4,500 units in a single meeting, including 950 near wetlands. That’s in addition to the 41,000 units the committee approved in the past, but developers didn’t build, to say nothing of the 69,000 homes that could be built on land that’s already serviced and ready to go.
The province is setting a goal of new homes for Ottawa of 151,000 by 2031. How they will get developers to actually build that many homes — a decision usually based on market forces such as interest rates and labor supply — was not addressed.
But the Ford government seems willing to roll over some municipal rules to facilitate construction.
Here are four ways the province gets in the way of local authorities when it comes to approving new housing.
1. Affordable housing at the expense of city amenities
The new legislation provides incentives for developers to build affordable housing – a laudable goal – but one of the ways it does it, which could rob cities of needed millions to build everything from roads and tubes, to libraries and recreation centers.
Development charges (DC) are fees the city applies to most new construction in the city. That money is put into a big city-wide pot, and it’s all earmarked by law for different types of infrastructure. (On Tuesday, Clark suggested that Ontario municipalities are sitting on $8 billion in DC reserves, as if they were some kind of city market fund instead of money legislated for specific purposes.)
The province will waive these fees for affordable and affordable housing. (“Affordable” is defined as 80 percent of average market rents or purchase price, while “affordable” is housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a person’s gross income. How all this will work in the real world is not; however, clear .)
These exempt fees will add up to millions of dollars that are used to pay for the infrastructure to support growth. Where will that lost revenue come from? The city has few ways to raise money – fees and taxes. Not getting this money back could have a significant impact on amenities in this city.
Now, the province could choose to use one of its powers, such as tax credits, to encourage developers to build more affordable units. Instead, the Ford administration is suggesting that money from the federal government’s $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund be used to reimburse cities for lost DCs.
The feds have so far been silent on the province’s idea of how to use their housing money.
2. Less money for parks
The province also seems to believe that a way to make homes more affordable is to set aside less for parkland.
In the suburbs, the city requires developers to set aside one hectare of land for every 300 units built. The new legislation requires one hectare per 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 — that the city saves until it has enough to buy or develop land into community green space.
Bill 23 appears to undermine that in several ways. It will cap the amount a city can charge for parkland and force a municipality to spend 60 percent of its parkland reserves each year. That will make it incredibly difficult to buy a parking space in the inner city, where land is expensive.
And finally, the province will waive all parkland requirements for affordable and accessible housing — but has no plan for how cities will make up the shortfall.
3. Predominance of the R1 zoning
The province appears to be ending exclusionary R1 zoning — the rules that allow only a detached single-family home to be built on a residential lot. When the bill is approved, residential buildings with up to three units will become an automatic right for a homeowner.
The thinking is that local councils would not have the political will to remove R1 zoning. Indeed, many candidates in our most recent election defended the exclusionary designation. But why should a gigantic single-family home built to the lot line be allowed, but not a building of the same size containing three apartments?
The change is not just for a single detached home. Semi-detached houses and townhouses can also contain three apartments each. Now, the city has infill rules that talk about setbacks and landscaping — to avoid paving over the front yard, for example — but they only apply to units within the Green Belt. The new provincial rules will apply to homes across the city.
4. Cities have no say in design
The new legislation could severely limit the city’s powers to control what the outside of buildings look like. A planning process called site plan control is usually the last step in a project before applying for a building permit. A site plan covers everything about a building’s exterior – from landscaping to parking to building design.
For any building with less than 10 units, the province completely removes zoning control (see concerns about triplexes above). And for larger buildings, Bill 23 states that “exterior design is no longer a matter that is subject to site plan control.”
That means city officials won’t be able to regulate things like architecture, scale, appearance or sustainable design features or environmental design rules (like requiring green roofs on larger buildings).
Removing city participation in all or parts of site plan control may speed up development approvals, but what long-term effects will it have on the livability and sustainability of the city?