Housing crisis

LACKIE: Can the housing crisis be solved by tapping into the Greenbelt?

Creating communities where there is currently nature can only be laborious, time-consuming and expensive when we need speed and agility

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Blink and you might have missed it.

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Last Friday afternoon, as parents across the province were busy crossing the finish line of a truly PTSD-inducing day of homeschooling, Ontario House Minister Steve Clark, quietly announced his government’s intention to open the province’s protected greenbelt to development.

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Under Bill 23, Ontario’s Building More Homes Faster Act, the central premise is that as we face a housing crisis, there is time to act quickly to start digging the ground and building housing.

And yes, absolutely. Let’s go.

But lest there be any confusion, the Friday night news dump should be a sign that this particular piece of the puzzle was sure to be mired in controversy.

After all, it was our Premier Doug Ford who said during his 2018 campaign, “We will not touch the Greenbelt unequivocally.”

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“Unlike other governments that don’t listen to people, I heard it loud and clear: people don’t want me to touch the Greenbelt? We will not touch the Greenbelt.

Except now, of course, we’re going to hit the Greenbelt.

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First of all, it must be said that our housing crisis is absolutely undeniable.

Provincially, new household formation has long outpaced new housing completions. For a multitude of reasons, new housing production has stagnated. Purpose built rentals have pretty much fallen off a cliff. And all the while, our population has grown, further exacerbated by our federal government’s stated mandate to be big and bold with Canada’s immigration goals.

We talk about affordable housing as if it occupies its own separate silo in the conundrum when the simple fact is that if we had more supply to meet demand, prices would naturally moderate.

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When the province’s Housing Affordability Task Force released its findings in February, its recommendations were very clear: We needed to be bold in our goals with clear direction. The housing density had to be increased. We needed to remove the exclusion rules and eliminate the red tape that bogs down the process. And we had to partner with municipalities to get buy-in and encourage success.

But does tapping into the Greenbelt serve these purposes?

Well, not particularly.

The opposite of density is sprawl, which is exactly what it would be. And creating communities where there is currently nature can only be laborious, time-consuming and expensive when speed and agility are needed.

These new communities will need sewers and power lines, schools and grocery stores. Oh, and transit, which has a proven track record of producing on time and on budget.

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But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that all of these factors aren’t problems and we can just wave a magic wand and these houses will appear. Would these homes even be the homes people want or need the most?

Right now, the number one complaint you hear from young people in Toronto is that if they ever want to achieve their dream of home ownership, they will have to leave the city where they have friends, family, jobs and lives. This conundrum has been attributed to greater demographic lags among young people settling, marrying and starting families. That is why we are now seeing an exodus to Alberta, where housing is cheap and jobs are plentiful.

So explain the logic of looking for the complicated, slow, expensive type of housing when the city that people already live and work in, that already has resources, that has pent up demand beyond comprehension, has heaps of land developable within its boundaries.

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Want to be bold? Go after the step up. Eliminate restrictive zoning regulations that functionally ensure that the only dwellings deemed acceptable are massive single-family homes on lots that can comfortably accommodate a townhouse parcel or low-rise multi-unit dwelling. No but really – do it. Announcing a decision to allow right-hand triplexes sounds great until you take a closer look and realize that such properties will still be subject to height restrictions that make building one virtually impossible.

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Stop prioritizing parking lots.

And space won’t even allow me to get into the very obvious reality that this land has not been arbitrarily designated as ecologically significant. There is a moral imperative to protect wildlife and fragile waterways. So to suggest that one can just swap it out with even more terrain somewhere different is literally bait and switch.

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Let’s say I’m going to a resort and pay extra for a special ocean view room, but when I check in I’m given the keys to a room facing the parking lot. Now let’s say the hotel looks me in the eye and tries to suggest it’s the same thing. It would look like a scam. This example, while completely ridiculous, is really no different. Location matters.

There is a lot of work to do here and it is amazing to see our government up to the challenge. But the optics of scrapping the Greenbelt in the first place certainly doesn’t sound like a bold move; it looks more like a thinly concealed gift to the political donors who will reap the lion’s share of the benefits of this decision.

@brynnlackie

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