Housing crisis

Editorial from Peterborough: Solving the housing crisis needs a helping hand and cooperation

The president of the Peterborough and the Kawarthas Home Builders Association fully agrees with his provincial organization’s five-point plan to get more homes built, but says even with the recommended changes, it would take 10 years before buyers do not notice a significant drop in prices.

Premier Doug Ford’s promise has a shorter timeline. He wants to see 150,000 new homes built over the next five years, and this week revealed details of a ‘strong mayor’ plan for Toronto and Ottawa as part of his government’s plan to get there.

There are overlaps between the two plans but also differences.

Homebuilders and Ford share the front seat of a pickup truck heading to the job site. They want to get to work building single-family homes and are committed to eliminating the bureaucracy and bureaucratic inertia that gets in the way.

Homebuilders, however, are also more likely to lobby cities to allow more apartments, townhouses, and generally higher-density buildings in existing neighborhoods and new developments.

Neither is particularly interested in creating real housing for low-income people or fighting homelessness. It is a federal priority.

All three areas need help. Homeless shelters in Peterborough are full; rents are rising beyond the ability of low-income people to pay and apartments are scarcer than anywhere else in Ontario; and the average single-family home costs $750,000, more than double what it was five years ago.

Ford and homebuilders focus on what they consider to be specific, fixable problems.

The premier usually targets the municipal government with controversial changes. However, the “strong mayor” system he is imposing on Toronto and Ottawa is not as drastic as some feared. The mayors of the province’s two largest cities get a veto over most council decisions that could affect housing supply – zoning bylaws and line items are two powerful tools – but the veto can be overridden if two-thirds of councilors disagree.

One of the shortcomings of Ford’s strong mayor system is that the mayor must use the powers offered. Toronto Mayor John Tory agrees, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson disagrees.

Another is that it only applies to two cities. If it helps – and used correctly, it could – Ford will have to do a better job of securing municipal support before giving the same powers to mayors in towns like Peterborough.

The homebuilding industry’s five-point plan also has some good doable elements. Municipal approvals need to be streamlined – as many as 20 departments across multiple agencies now have to approve the simplest application.

There is also room for better use of provincial legislation which expedites simple projects by requiring a municipality to apply for a ministerial zoning order.

But there are also gray areas that could turn dark if followed too vigorously. Environmental reviews can be used by opponents to unnecessarily delay approvals, but in most cases they provide crucial protection.

Home builders are also calling for greater housing density. They recognize that not everyone needs or wants a single-family home and that people who already own one should not have permits to block off apartment towers and multi-unit projects.

A task force appointed by the Ford government made the same recommendation, but the prime minister ultimately backed down. He should listen to builders and order municipalities to open up their zoning bylaws.

In a world of supply and demand, making it easier and faster to build housing should bring prices down. Whether it takes two, five or ten years, we have to start now.