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Ontario bill aims to speed up stalled housing developments, boost student housing

TORONTO — Ontario proposed Wednesday to allow municipalities to enact “use it or lose it” policies on developers, speed up the creation of student housing, and streamline approvals for standardized housing designs as it seeks new paths to reach its goal of building 1.5 million homes.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra introduced an omnibus bill tackling so-called red tape across several ministries, but the largest sections deal with rules and regulations on housing that he said stand in the way of home construction.

“We have made a commitment to get at least 1.5 million homes built by 2031,” he said at a press conference.

“Municipalities know their communities best. They know where it makes sense to build homes and that’s why we’re supporting them with giving them the funding and the tools they need to build more homes and to build the infrastructure needed to support homes of all types.”

Calandra and Premier Doug Ford have repeated that sentiment often in recent days as fourplexes have become a flashpoint in Ontario politics and housing policy, with Ford rebuffing calls to automatically allow up to four units on a residential property anywhere in the province. 

Municipalities can build them if they want, but the province won’t force them, Ford has said. He has stood firm even as the federal government ties $5 billion in new funding for the provinces to implement a similar policy.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said fourplexes are among the cheapest and fastest ways to increase housing supply, and the bill is notable for its absence of that measure and others he has urged.

“(The housing crisis) is a raging forest fire that the government has brought a garden hose to try to deal with,” he said.

Ontario’s spring budget shows the pace of new home construction is picking up in the province, with 88,000 housing starts projected in 2024, but is still far off the levels needed to get to the government’s target by 2031.

Calandra has previously indicated that Ontario needed to be building at least 125,000 homes this year, ramping up to at least 175,000 per year in the near future.

Calandra’s new bill does seek to remove barriers to building additional housing like garden and laneway suites, such as restrictions on the number of bedrooms per lot. It would also exempt standardized housing designs from certain planning rules to speed up approvals, which the government says could allow Ontario to partner with British Columbia and the federal government on a catalogue of pre-approved designs.

Universities would be exempt from planning rules so they could save time on approvals and avoid barriers to building higher density student residences. 

The “use it or lose it” provisions would allow municipalities to re-allocate water and wastewater servicing if a development sits inactive for a certain period of time. The government said seven municipalities have reported that 70,000 units have remained inactive for at least two years.

It would also eliminate a requirement to have a minimum amount of parking for developments near major transit stations, limit third-party appeals to the Ontario Land Tribunal, and allow municipalities to more quickly increase development charges that builders pay on market housing that doesn’t qualify as affordable housing.

The changes on development charges reverse previous rules the government enacted that saw municipalities complain they would be out billions in revenue. This bill keeps intact cuts to development charges builders pay for affordable homes.

Municipalities have long urged the government to make them “whole” for the previous slate of changes to their development charge revenues, which they use to fund housing-enabling infrastructure such as water and sewer lines. Calandra said Wednesday that the changes in this bill combined with about $3 billion the government is making available for municipalities for such infrastructure will make them whole.

“We have listened to our municipal partners and we’re moving forward in a way that I think is much more co-operative,” he said.

A statement from the Ontario Big City Mayors group, however, suggests they do not believe this makes them whole.

“We continue to call on the province to sit down with municipalities for a municipal-fiscal review, which includes how they will address their commitment to keeping us whole,” the mayors wrote, while adding that the bill contains several measures that will spur housing creation.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the legislation fails to present a real plan on housing since a large chunk of it is reversals.

“The bill makes clear that this government doesn’t want – or perhaps know how to – take seriously the urgency of this housing crisis,” she said.

“All told, this bill won’t make it easier for you to find a home that you can afford or protect you from illegal eviction.” 

Environmental Defence said that some aspects of the bill, combined with other recent changes to land-use planning, would promote low-density sprawl.

“Land speculators could demand at any time that farmland, wetlands and wildlife habitat be earmarked for sprawl development, with the new law letting them appeal any refusal,” the advocacy group wrote in a statement.

The legislation covers a number of more minor regulatory changes, but also proposes to allow municipalities to provide incentives to certain businesses to help attract investment and enacts the government’s reversal of dissolving Peel Region.

This bill would amend the law that would have broken up the upper-tier region to instead task the transition board initially responsible for overseeing that municipal divorce with considering how to make Peel Region more efficient. 

The province has also launched a new process for how it receives and considers requests for Minister’s Zoning Orders, which allow the province to fast-track development and bypass normal planning processes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2024.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press


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