PCs offer incentives to municipalities that target housing goals, extend strong mayor powers for faster approvals
Last week, in a room surrounded by cabinet ministers, opposition party leaders, MPPs and industry stakeholders, Premier Doug Ford announced a new funding incentive, pushing municipalities to meet his ambitious housing targets and threatening those who don’t comply.
On August 21st, Ford introduced the Building Faster Fund at the 2023 Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) annual conference in London, a funding incentive that will provide up to $1.2 billion over three years for municipalities that meet or exceed the housing targets they have pledged to achieve by 2031 as part of the PC government’s More Homes Built Faster Act. In several press releases that followed, the government laid out how municipalities would be eligible to obtain the annual funding, which Ford insists will provide the tools to municipalities “to tackle the affordability crisis tormenting Ontarians.” In the same breath, the provincial leader, who is facing widespread backlash for his developer-friendly scheme to open up 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt for sprawling subdivisions, extended strong mayor powers for the third time, allowing municipal leaders to bypass council colleagues on major planning decisions in line with the PC housing plan.
“Once these municipalities, through their heads of council, have pledged to achieve their targets, they will have access to the new Building Faster Fund, which will reward municipalities that are on track to meet their housing targets,” a press release from the Premier’s office and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, stated. The funding announcement falls under the guise of helping “municipalities pay for housing-enabling infrastructure and related costs that support community growth,” in the PC government’s master plan to “get shovels in the ground.”
While Ford continues to use the justification of building affordable housing, a major criticism of his government has been the lack of detail and oversight to explain how its housing plan will actually address the affordability crisis, The Pointer previously reported. The legislation fails to detail how affordable housing will be guaranteed and municipalities have seen no commitment from developers in meeting increasing core housing needs. A recent report by the Region noted there are approximately 91,000 households living in core housing need in Peel currently.
Doug Ford has announced a funding incentive for municipalities that meet or exceed the housing targets they have pledged to achieve by 2031 as part of the PC government’s More Homes Built Faster Act.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Under the newly announced funding program, municipalities that reach 80 percent of their annual target each year will become eligible for funding based on their share of the overall housing supply goal and their performance compared to their annual assigned targets. Performance, the province explained, will be evaluated by comparing the municipality’s number of housing starts and additional residential units created annually against the annual target. If a municipality’s target represents 10 percent of the province-wide target, they will be eligible for that same percentage of funding, the release notes.
Municipalities that exceed their target will be eligible to receive additional funding on top of their allocation. Those that do not reach their 80 percent annual target will receive nothing.
“If a municipality has a total housing target of 150,000 homes by 2031, this represents 10 percent of Ontario’s target of 1.5 million homes and makes them eligible for $40 million in annual funding, plus bonus. The Building Faster Fund provides double the funding for every one percent above 100 percent of a municipality’s target,” the provincial press release explained.
“Municipalities are critical partners for our government and we're absolutely committed to making sure they have the tools they need to succeed,” Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steven Clark stated in the release.
In traditional political scandal fashion, the funding announcement comes on the heels of the PC government's controversial move that pulled thousands of acres of protected Greenbelt land for housing development, putting billions of dollars in land value into developers’ hands, a scandal the NDP have called “one of the most serious breaches of public trust in Ontario’s history.” Earlier this month a report from Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario’s auditor general, exposed details of a flawed process that bypassed traditional planning practices and offered up 15 parcels of cherished Greenbelt lands for the taking. The RCMP has announced it is “investigating irregularities” surrounding the land swap scandal.
The report revealed that in June 2022, Ford authorized Housing Minister Steve Clark to “codify processes for swaps, expansions, contractions and policy updates for the Greenbelt.” In the months following the direction from the Premier, Minister Clark’s chief of staff Ryan Amato discreetly approved construction on the lands where two developers instructed the PC government to grant land swaps in the previously protected Greenbelt, which would later become the 7,400 acres approved for future home construction. The move was in stark contrast to the years of promises from the Premier who had repeatedly claimed publicly that he would not allow any development in the Greenbelt. Lysyk reported the assessed value of the 7,413 acres proposed for future development in the Greenbelt had been $240 million. Now, following the culmination of the last year of decisions from a government seemingly intent on developing every inch of greenspace that led to this point, the land is valued at $8.523 billion.
On Tuesday last week, the PC government revealed Amato had resigned from his position in Clark’s office. Less than 24 hours later, the OPP announced it was referring the investigation into the scandal over to the RCMP, which the federal police service later confirmed in an email to The Pointer, stating “We will review and assess the information received and will take appropriate action as deemed necessary.” The investigation comes after repeated requests for a police investigation from opposition politicians and advocates.
“Housing shouldn't be built at the expense of the Greenbelt or the environment,” Peel ACORN representative Tanya Burkhart told The Pointer. The organization has been highly critical of Bill 23 since the legislation’s introduction.
“There is enough land to already build on without opening up the Greenbelt and environmental protections are essential to combat climate change and so simply increasing the housing supply and using the Greenbelt to do it is not an environmentally responsible choice.”
She added the organization is also very concerned that the provincial government’s housing supply targets don’t address the severe lack of affordable housing in Ontario, offering no tangible solution to soaring housing prices and the lack of rent control.
“Increasing the housing supply doesn't address the affordability question because new units will not be protected by rent control and there's no rent control policies in the province. [Ford has] failed to talk about the root causes of why rent is so high and why units are unaffordable,” she stated. “[ACORN] believes that we need to protect existing affordable housing and create new affordable housing and protect our tenants.”
Phil Pothen, Ontario Environment program manager with Environmental Defence, said the most efficient way for the government to move forward on housing supply would be to cancel the Greenbelt removals and focus on developing low-density, single-detached zoning in existing neighborhoods — a strategy he said would be a positive move from an environmental standpoint.
“The problem that we have is that the government's own actions are making it harder, not easier, for municipalities to deliver the number of homes that the government says it wants,” he told The Pointer. “In particular, the Greenbelt removals and the MZOs for development outside of settlement area boundaries are actually diverting construction away from projects that would produce more homes, more quickly.”
He added the organization will be pushing to ensure the acceleration of housing is focused on already built up neighborhoods — the most obvious, affordable and efficient place to add houses, he explained — if the government is truly concerned about increasing housing supply. The organization’s concern right now, he said, is that the announcement is creating a false impression that the government is taking the housing supply seriously when in actuality it will likely slow down development.
“If anything, it's designed to change the channel and the government being caught out on not considering housing supply on the Greenbelt removals themselves,” Pothen said. “The key takeaways of the auditor general's report is that despite repeating again and again that it was somehow trying to increase housing supply by removing land from the Greenbelt, the government did not even consider whether the lands removed from the Greenbelt were anywhere near ready to build housing on or would have any positive impact on housing supply.”
“Put it simply: [the government] was lying about these lands and it chose to use housing supply as a convenient post rationalization for stuff that would actually result in fewer homes being built more slowly than if no land were removed from the Greenbelt.”
As advocacy groups question the timing of the announcement in the wake of the auditor general’s findings on the removal of protected Greenbelt lands, the Premier has also extended strong mayor powers once again, granting them to four more municipalities on Monday during the AMO conference — a move that some elected officials and advocacy groups have labelled “undemocratic”. In June, the province expanded strong mayor powers to 26 municipalities who agreed to submit a housing pledge, on top of already granting Toronto and Ottawa the power to override their colleagues in the fall of 2022 with the caveat of complying with the PC government’s housing targets.
Premier Doug Ford has extended strong mayor powers for the third time since last fall.
(Government of Ontario)
This is now the third time strong mayor powers have been expanded, giving municipal leaders across the province more power to do what they want under the pledge of building more housing, and allowing municipalities to run rampant if they choose. And with an incentive program designed to reward municipalities which get more homes built in a shorter time frame, it could lead to reckless decision making as applications are rushed through. Ford and Clark have said the speed at which decisions were made is to blame for the flawed process that led to 15 parcels of land being removed from the Greenbelt. With these newly acquired powers, mayors have a final say in major decision making like the hiring and firing of municipal staff, proposing budgets and approving projects unilaterally without council's permission, allowing them to “cut red tape” in the name of getting housing built and fast-tracking provincial priorities.
The province announced this week it would grant strong mayor powers to 21 more municipalities that are projected to have populations of 50,000 by 2031 on the condition they commit to the assigned housing target. The expansion of strong mayor powers for those municipalities will take effect October 31st. The housing mission, should they choose to accept, will allow municipalities access to the new provincial fund that rewards municipalities that are on track to meet their 2031 housing targets.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie used the strong mayor powers granted to her the same day they came into effect on July 1, opting to retain her authority to appoint and remove any of Mississauga’s four commissioners, who are the City’s senior leadership team overseeing major departments like planning and development, in consultation with recently appointed CAO and City Manager Shari Lichterman. Crombie also utilized her new power to appoint or dismiss the city manager at her discretion, while also delegating the City manager with the authority to determine the organizational structure of the City. Caledon Mayor Annette Groves has also played around with the new powers allotted to her when she replaced the Town’s CAO earlier this month. In another case, she used the newfound freedom to restructure central positions within the municipality.
With municipalities now carrying the knowledge that if they speed up housing construction they will get more money from the Province there is potential to see environmental safeguards ignored (more so than before), heritage properties destroyed to make way for housing subdivisions, community consultations bypassed, and more requests for MZOs to fast track developments.
The pressure of the Building Faster Fund has the potential to trample on proper planning for development projects like Lakeview Village which took nearly two decades to create a design concept that satisfied residents, councillors and developers and other major developments like Heritage Heights in Brampton, a major greenfield area — the City’s last remaining undeveloped lands — that’s anticipating an estimated 36,000 housing units and 43,000 residents. Now, if cities want to plan complete communities like Lakeview Village that find something that works for both the community and the development industry, municipalities hands are going to be forced to complete these plans within a year if they want to get funding they will ultimately need for the infrastructure to accommodate these incoming developments.
These developments may not meet communities’ needs, but they'll put municipalities closer to being “on target” to receive funding for the much-needed infrastructure to accommodate this hyperdensity, leaving little accountability to ensure the right types of housing are built to create complete communities.
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