Ontario bill aims to accelerate construction as house prices continue to rise

Homes under construction in Toronto in 2015. Ontario’s Secretary of Municipal Affairs is introducing a series of proposed changes intended to speed up the municipal planning process to increase housing supply.GRAEME ROY/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs is introducing a series of proposed changes designed to speed up the municipal planning process to increase housing supply in the province, though they rule out most of the recommendations made earlier this year by a government-appointed task force.

A key housing affordability recommendation not included in the bill Steve Clark presented to the legislature on Wednesday is a sweeping proposal to ban zoning, which currently excludes all but single-family homes in parts of the county’s cities. That idea, supported by many housing experts and the Toronto Region Board of Trade, was expected to elicit opposition from some homeowners, with the upcoming state and municipal elections.

Mr Clark, who had promised a bold plan to tackle rising house prices ahead of the June election, told reporters that councils had backed off against these zoning reforms, prompting the government to wait. But he said he is launching new public consultations and a working group with municipalities on future action, and that he remains committed to using the task force’s report as a “long-term roadmap” over the next four years.

“I couldn’t move forward…when municipalities are so adamant,” he said, citing the reluctance of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, as well as Toronto, which has nevertheless begun its own investigation into similar zoning changes. “I have to get them in. This isn’t going to work if only one level of government does what they want.”

Provisions in the bill target what the development industry has long lamented is a slow municipal approval process that could take nine months to two years before homes can be built. One change would see municipal planning officials, and not elected councils, oversee the detailed “plan control” process for development projects, which involves arranging landscaping, walkways or parking lots. Municipalities will also be forced to refund developer fees if they miss approval deadlines. And new rules, which have yet to be drawn up, would limit the authority of municipalities to approve subdivision plans.

The bill also includes a new procedure for municipalities to seek accelerated county approval for certain key projects, a measure to address criticism from the Auditor General and opposition politicians about the government’s frequent practice of issuing so-called ministerial zoning plans. to take. (MZOs). The government says this new “community infrastructure and housing accelerator” can be used to accelerate projects such as hospitals and community centers, “while increasing transparency and accountability.”

MZOs, critics have noted, isolate projects from county court appeals and have been used to circumvent environmental regulations. Many have been awarded to major developers who are also major donors to the PC Party. Mr Clark said the new process requires municipalities to consult the public about these projects, make the request and any resulting order public. The Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing will also be able to set conditions for the approvals.

The bill would also change the county’s building code to allow for 12-story wooden buildings, something proponents say is a more environmentally friendly alternative to concrete and steel.

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Richard Joy, president of the Urban Land Institute, said he was disappointed the government didn’t adopt the task force’s most notable recommendation — to enable greater density in neighborhoods across the province — arguing that proposing such legislation before the election could have helped the Tories pursue a mandate for the controversial move.

“I have no doubts about how difficult it would be to promote that idea politically, but it is essential nonetheless,” he said. “It’s arguably one of the most important frontiers going forward.”

Tim Hudak, head of the Ontario Real Estate Association, a former leader of the Progressive Conservative, said in a statement that the group would continue to push for an end to zoning laws that allow only homes in many city neighborhoods. But the group praised the government for its move to speed up development bureaucracy.

Toronto’s Deputy Mayor for Housing Ana Bailao said that while it was positive to speed up the approval process, there were other factors that stood in the way of housing construction, such as supply chain problems and labor shortages.

“I think there’s more to it than just saying, ‘oh, councils approve things too slowly,'” she said. “Could there be improvement? Absolutely, and I think we all recognize that.”

Opposition NDP leader Andrea Horwath said the plan isn’t doing enough to make housing more affordable or lower rents. Ms. Horwath said the county should reintroduce rent controls and help potential new home buyers enter the housing market.

“People need a roof over their heads if they want to build a good life in this province and they have to be able to afford that roof,” Ms Horwath told reporters. “Today’s announcement does nothing to solve that housing crisis.”

On Tuesday, Ontario announced another move aimed at cooling the red-hot housing market, saying it would extend a speculation tax on foreign property buyers to the entire province and increase it from 15 percent to 20 percent.

Since its election in 2018, the government has made a series of major changes to the county’s planning regime with the aim of building more housing units. Mr. Clark points to recent housing projects, the highest in decades, and increasing numbers of rental properties as proof that his strategy is working.

But opposition critics and environmentalists have said too many of the policy changes, including easing density requirements and requiring municipalities to allocate more farmland for development, have favored companies seeking sprawl with a low density outside of Toronto.

In February, the government’s task force on housing affordability, chaired by Jake Lawrence, the CEO of the Bank of Nova Scotia and group head of global banking and markets, made a series of sweeping recommendations for changes to the planning process and said the province committed to building 1.5 million new homes in the next 10 years.

The report said the government should declare that up to four units, with up to four floors, will be allowed “as of good” – automatically without repurposing – removing local rules now requiring only single-family homes. It also called for the legalization of room housing and the end of parking requirements for developments in municipalities of 50,000 people or more.

With a report by Dustin Cook

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