Digging into development under Premier Ford

Experts forecast the future of provincial housing and planning policies
Thursday, July 5, 2018
By Michelle Ervin

How might Ontario’s development landscape shift as the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) take over the provincial policy levers from a 15-year-old Liberal government? That was the overriding question that the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Toronto chapter asked panelists including lawyers, planners and industry representatives to ponder last Thursday, the day before Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet were sworn in.

Moderator John Matheson, principal at Strategy Corp, observed that, other than talk of increasing the supply of affordable housing and vowing to preserve the Greenbelt (after initially saying he would loosen some of it for development), Premier Ford was quiet on land use on the campaign trail this spring. That leaves some unknowns as to how a PC-led government might approach these issues differently from its Liberal predecessors. Among other things, Kathleen Wynne’s government expanded rent control, imposed a speculation tax on foreign home buyers and overhauled the appeal process for land-use planning disputes.

The rationale for Premier Ford’s abandoned plans to make some of the province’s protected lands available for development was to fuel the supply of affordable housing, as Matheson pointed out. Premier Ford could find other ways to fulfill this objective. Panelists zeroed in on his pledge to cut red tape, suggesting that he might aim his scissors at the cumbersome approval processes that can drag out how long it takes to bring homes to market.

But questions remain. Is redrawing the boundaries of the Greenbelt really off the table? Will the OMB-replacing Bill 139 be rolled back? Will the land transfer tax be lowered or scrapped? The answers, respectively, are yes, no and maybe, according to the predictions of some of the panelists at the recent ULI Toronto event dubbed Post Election: The New Development Landscape.

Greenbelt likely to be preserved — for now

Burkhard Mausberg, CEO of Grow Ontario Together, a collaboration of agricultural organizations, said he expects to see Premier Ford make good on his promise to preserve the Greenbelt — for now at least.

Premier Ford backtracked on plans to open up some of the protected lands to housing development in response to public outcry during the election campaign. Mausberg said doing another about-face on this issue would undercut Premier Ford’s claim of listening to the people.

“What he recognized was — as he said, the people had spoken — is that the Greenbelt is near and dear to Ontarians,” said Mausberg, “so if I may make a prediction, I would say that, certainly in the first mandate, that a Ford government will not touch the Greenbelt and will leave it as is.”

With loosening the Greenbelt seemingly shelved as an option for stimulating the supply of affordable housing in the short term, Premier Ford could alternatively look at greasing the development pipeline by finding ways to expedite the approvals process for planning applications.

“We all know that the longer it’s going to take you to get through an approvals process, the more challenging it’s going to be for you to follow through with that project if you’re trying to build affordable housing or that missing-middle piece,” said Emma West, partner at the community planning firm Bousfields Inc.

This is one area where Premier Ford will have an opportunity to deliver on his vow to cut red tape.

“On the intensification front, partly what he and others have been talking about is this red tape challenge — it’s cutting the red tape, getting the supply in more quickly,” observed Marcy Burchfield, executive director of Neptis Foundation, which conducts non-partisan research on urban regions. “Part of doing that is really the pre-approvals — pre-zoning — of certain densities that fit within the current policies, that would cut some of the appeals process perhaps and streamline some of the housing to come on board more quickly.”

OMB-replacing Bill 139 unlikely to be undone

Before the outgoing Liberal government was defeated in the provincial election, it set in motion plans to replace the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Bill 139, the Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act, paved the way for the establishment of the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, among other things, when the legislation was passed late last year.

The overhaul of the appeal process was branded as one that would empower communities, in an apparent response to the criticisms leveled against the OMB that it frequently favoured developers and overturned local decisions made by elected representatives.

“I think there are a lot of people who are hopeful that the Conservatives will roll back Bill 139,” said Mark Noskiewicz, partner at Goodmans LLP. “I just don’t see that happening. First of all, it’s too early to tell whether the changes introduced by Bill 139 will be as catastrophic as some think.”

“I think people generally believe Bill 139 has swung the pendulum, giving municipalities more leverage in the approvals process than developers have,” he added, “but interestingly, the province has really retained all of its powers under the Planning Act.”

For one, he said, the province has approval authority over the conformity exercises whereby municipalities align their official plans with provincial plans and for which there are no rights of appeal under Bill 139 as long as a decision is made within a set timeframe. He cited an amendment proposed for midtown Toronto as something the province could potentially alter if it so chose.

“As an example, in the Yonge-Eglinton area, there are concerns that the city has kept densities around major transit station areas too low, so it will be interesting to see what the province does with that,” said Noskiewicz.

Calls for more housing supply likely to be heard

David Wilkes, president and CEO of BILD, said the building industry and land development association will be drawing the PC government’s attention to issues such as the red tape that ties up housing supply and the fees and taxes faced by home buyers, citing the recent finding of an Altus Group study that government charges account for close to one-quarter of the cost of a new home.

Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson City Building Institute, predicted that Premier Ford is likelier to lower the provincial land transfer tax and/or rescind the right of municipalities to levy a land transfer tax than he is to abolish the speculation tax imposed on foreign home buyers by the previous government. She pointed out that since Premier Ford floated the idea of nixing the 15-per-cent surcharge earlier this year, a poll has shown that a majority of Ontario voters support the speculation tax.

“I do think on the supply side that the new government will listen to the strong lobby to get more supply in the market,” said Burda. “The question is: Will a ripping of tape or streamlining of approvals or other policies be targeted toward building the right supply in the right places, or will it just be build everything everywhere, as much as we can?”

Burda indicated that one measure of this will be whether the policies improve the cost-effectiveness of building medium-density options that are proximate to jobs, schools and transit and have the potential to bridge the current gap between housing type and location preferences.

“We have 100,000 condo units coming down the pipeline — it’s the most ever on record in the GTA — but the majority of them are one-bedrooms in high-rises and mostly sold to investors before the shovel hits the ground,” said Burda. “I know a lot of people still want to live in detached houses and those are being built in fewer amounts, but most of that is occurring farther and farther away in the greenfield, so it’s becoming more distant to get a home. It’s not where people want to live.”

Will expert predictions come true?

Whether these predictions for the new PC government’s approach to housing and planning will pan out remains to be seen. In the meantime, Premier Ford has named his cabinet, making Steve Clark, MPP for Leeds-Grenville, his minister of municipal affairs and housing.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.

Pictured above L to R: Marcy Burchfield, Burkhard Mausberg and Emma West.

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