Government introduces legislation to speed up housing construction

Housing Minister Steve Clark said economic factors, including inflation and high interest rates, are expected to dampen new construction.

New legislation aims to boost density as province works to have 1.5 million homes built over the next decade.

The government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford has introduced sweeping new legislation aimed at speeding up housing construction that will cut fees for affordable and rental projects and spur “gentle density” by allowing three units on any residential lot across the province.

But Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, could not say how many more units the changes would contribute to the province’s goal of getting 1.5 million new homes built over the next 10 years – a goal at current growth rates that Ontario’s own projections show it will fall well short of hitting.

The package of legislative changes unveiled on Tuesday sets new housing targets for the province’s 29 largest and fastest growing municipalities but with no penalties set for failing to meet them.

Toronto’s target is 285,000 new homes over the next decade.

Affordable housing, rental housing and non-profit housing would see reductions, exemptions or freezes on the development charges and parkland charges they are normally expected to pay municipalities to cover the costs of new infrastructure needed to keep up with growth.

Mr. Clark said he hoped to look at whether federal housing money could be used to fill the hole this would create in municipal finances, while noting municipalities, including Toronto, have billions in development charge and park fund reserves.

The bill also includes other measures the government expects to generate blowback. Among them is a provision that would bar “third parties” who are not the developer or the municipality involved, such as residents or environmental groups, from challenging a project before the province’s land tribunal.

And it gives Mr. Clark the power to override the section of the City of Toronto Act that allows that city to force developers tearing down rental housing to replace it – although the minister told reporters he wants to have a dialogue with Toronto on this issue.

A summary of the bill provided to reporters on Tuesday says it would “streamline” the ability of the province’s local conservation authorities to review and approve developments in sensitive wetlands of floodplains.

But Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager with Environmental Defence, said the bill’s provisions would further weaken conservation authorities’ ability to block environmentally damaging development projects.

He also said the legislation’s approval of the extension of sewage capacity into undeveloped areas of York and Durham regions outside Toronto will only spur more sprawl.

The bill’s “minor tweaks” to allow more density in cities were a “bait and switch,” he said, saying the bill would actually “squander construction resources on McMansion sprawl in wetlands in outlying areas of Durham and York Region.”

The bill would loosen municipal controls over projects with fewer than 10 units.

It would reduce the role of the province’s regional governments to approve housing projects, leaving this to the “lower-tier” municipalities within those regions.

The move that would leave regional governments, who are responsible for water and sewers and other infrastructure, with less control over where development occurs.

Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, Mr. Clark said economic factors, including inflation, high interest rates and slowing growth are expected to dampen new construction even as the province faces a continuing housing crisis.

But he said when the economy recovers, Ontario’s new cuts to red tape would help more housing get built.

He has repeatedly taken credit for the more than 100,000 new housing starts Ontario had last year, breaking a record that dates from 1987. But Mr. Clark acknowledges even this rate would fall well short of 1.5 million homes in 10 years.

While he would not produce any estimates on Tuesday, an internal government document obtained by The Globe and Mail shows that the government thinks its “gentle density” move to automatically allow three units – two in a main building and one in ancillary building, such as a laneway house, provided there are no structural changes – could generate 50,000 new homes over 10 years.

(Toronto already allows for this kind of development.)

Earlier this year, the government’s blueribbon housing task force called for allowing four units and six storeys without needing any zoning changes, but Mr. Clark has so far not acted on this recommendation.

In the briefing documents handed to reporters, the government also says it intends to pass legislation requiring more density near transit stations, and provisions in Tuesday’s bill would require municipalities to update their zoning to comply within a year.

On Tuesday, both the Premier and Mr. Clark addressed a business luncheon sponsored by the Ontario Real Estate Association and the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario and summarized some of the key planks in the new legislation.

OREA president Tim Hudak, a former Progressive Conservative leader, issued a statement praising the bill.

Media were not allowed to attend the sold-out Toronto Region Board of Trade event, for which tickets were $105 a head for non-members of the organization. But the event was livestreamed on the Premier’s YouTube channel.

And Mr. Clark addressed reporters, who had received a technical briefing through teleconference, after the bill was tabled. The text of the proposed legislation was posted online late Tuesday.

“The policies would, if passed, represent the boldest, most transformational changes made to date,” Mr. Clark told the Board of Trade event.

“They are going to cut through red tape, unnecessary costs, other bottlenecks that are standing in the way of housing supply for too long in our province.”

The province’s new proposed changes come on top of an announcement on Monday that the government was increasing it non-resident speculation tax to 25 per cent from 20 per cent.

Opposition NDP housing critic Jessica Bell said the bill would do little for renters who are facing steep increases. Liberal MPP Stephen Blais said waiving development charges could leave municipalities struggling to cover the costs of needed new roads, pipes and parks.

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