Ford criticizes Ottawa’s funding for dense, affordable housing, defends his developer-driven sprawl agenda
Even for those Ontarians who have never left North America, dense urban centres such as Singapore and Seoul can serve as examples of smart growth. High-rise buildings with mixed use residential and employment spaces are dotted with green roofs covered by tree canopies.
Known as one of the greenest urban centres in the world, Singapore City is years ahead of planning innovations in western countries, skipping the urban sprawl boom almost entirely.
Across continental Europe, the horizon looks vastly different, with ample examples of poor planning, as mismatched modernity rises incongruently over centuries-old architecture. But a city like Amsterdam still has few highrises, featuring human-scale medium density three, four and five-storey buildings that line cobblestone streets. Within the dynamic capital city, with a landmass a third the size of Toronto proper, it would be a rarity to see a single-passenger vehicle whip by, and there are no highways through the city centre. City planners promote active transportation and all amenities and services are easily reachable by walking or biking.
Amsterdam is a small city, geographically, with less than 1.2 million residents in its metro area, who live in medium density areas.
(The Pointer file photo)
But in Canada, the availability of vast tracts of land and the lack of interest in building mass transit systems in places designed to be dominated by the car have led to donut-style sprawl, with hyper-verticality and few residential neighbourhoods in the middle of major cities surrounded by stretched out subdivisions splayed to the edges.
In an effort to aid provinces and territories to build more of the “missing middle” residential stock needed to tackle the current housing crisis, the federal government announced a $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund which will help build up to 100,000 homes across the country in the next two years.
In the GTA the average home price increased about three percent since October 2022, according to the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board, to $1.125 million. Average rent prices in Ontario have increased seven percent.
While Ontarians struggle to afford any sort of housing, steadily growing demand from population growth puts even greater pressure on the market.
Projections released by Statistics Canada in 2022 predicted Ontario could see its current population of almost 15 million increase to 19 million by 2043 in a medium growth scenario. In a high growth scenario that number could surpass 21 million—an additional 6 million people, or two extra Torontos—in just 20 years.
Doug Ford has made housing his top priority, forcing through legislation to support the construction of 1.5 million homes by 2031, to meet the coming population boom.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford met with other provincial leaders at the Council of Federation meeting last week where a hot topic was the federal housing Accelerator Fund.
(Government of Ontario)
Last week Ford accused the federal Liberal government of stepping on the toes of provinces and municipalities by bringing forward the national Housing Accelerator Fund which allows Ottawa to work directly with municipalities on housing starts—3.5 million of which are needed across the country by 2030 according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation—and has already seen some success since its conception earlier this year.
At a joint press conference with all of the premiers last Monday, following the Council of Federation meeting held in Halifax, provincial leaders—including Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston and Ford, all conservatives—chastised the Justin Trudeau Liberals for stepping on their jurisdiction to build homes in their respective provinces.
Houston said the “lack of collaboration” on housing has “created duplicate processes”, while Smith said the plan lacks “fairness and equity”.
“You can’t have the federal government going into a certain town or a certain city and dumping funding and not even discussing it with the province,” Ford said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Ford's hypocrisy, calling out the feds for “jurisdictional creep” while he continues to run roughshod over municipal planning control in Ontario, was hard to ignore. His PC government is currently under criminal investigation by the RCMP following the Greenbelt land swap scandal, while his takeover of municipal land use decision making was at the centre of the developer-driven urban boundary expansion scandal. Ford and his PCs are also facing intense scrutiny including calls for more investigations into the use of Minister’s Zoning Orders to circumvent the municipal planning approval process.
In May, the PCs stunned the City of Mississauga when they issued a Minister’s Zoning Order for Lakeview Village. The City, in collaboration with the Lakeview Ratepayers Association, had prided itself on nearly two decades of planning for a modern and sustainable mixed-density lakefront community that would house approximately 8,000 units along with a new conservation area and plenty of other amenities. The MZO threw it all out the window, greenlighting the construction of twice as many units on the site, radically altering the plan created over a decade by local residents and the City.
“Places in Europe from Barcelona to Copenhagen. Places that really work well where people can walk down from a sixth floor but not from a 60th floor, where they can connect with the street and the community there, and these places have densities of about 10,000 people per square kilometer… that's roughly where inspiration Lakeview ended up,” John Danahy, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and former director for the Centre of Landscape Research who worked closely with the Lakeview Ratepayers Association, tells The Pointer. But that human-scale density he helped shape for Lakeview was bulldozed by the MZO and the development consortium that will reap massive profits because of it, with buildings far taller than what his plan was designed to handle.
The original concept for Lakeview Village was innovative and resident driven, a novel idea for planning in Ontario.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Mayor Bonnie Crombie—currently on leave while she runs for the provincial Liberal leadership—told The Pointer the MZO “pulled the rug out from underneath” residents and the City who she said were ignored by the PCs when the decision was made with no input from the stakeholders.
Cities like Singapore and Amsterdam do not grow randomly. Everything from transit planning, subsurface water infrastructure and other utilities, greenspaces and additional recreational features, cultural amenities, commercial corridors, active transportation and considerations for community well being are all meticulously planned by professionals and approved by elected officials who directly represent the wishes of local residents.
“Minister’s zoning orders try to bypass all of that stuff. It's like trying to wave a magic wand and wish all of that away. And the idea is that the developer would just come in and have all of the answers and it's like, here's how we're going to just do it all, except that they can't do it all themselves,” Laura Taylor, an associate professor in the department of environmental and urban change at York University and a former member of the Ontario Greenbelt Council, tells The Pointer.
Over the past decade, the provincial policies that guide planning—mainly the Places to Grow Act, the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement (now the Provincial Planning Statement (PPS)—have changed faster than municipalities can adapt.
“We've had three different provincial policy statements. We've had two to three different versions of the growth plan for the greater Golden Horseshoe. We've had two different land needs assessment methodologies, we've had changes to the development charges, which just come one after the other,” Kevin Eby, a registered professional planner and former member of the Ontario Greenbelt Council, tells The Pointer. “And the reality is that if you look at the 2013 growth forecasts, the 2014 provincial policy statement and the 2017 growth plan, there was not a municipality in Ontario that managed to update their official plans, to bring them into conformity with those policies.”
With all of these changes, Eby says it is only upper tier regional municipalities and single-tier cities that have even been able to update their plans—with some still in the process—while lower-tier municipalities such as Mississauga sit idly by watching the changes before their eyes, unable to accommodate many of them. Just days after the Housing Ministry approved a bundle of regional and single-tier official plans, the government announced a new PPS that would guide growth across the province. In some cases, Eby says he has watched municipalities spend more than two years updating an Official Plan just to be faced with a new set of policies.
“They are just simply confusing the logical progression that typically is planned in a world where municipalities have not been able to catch up, and this just makes it worse,” he says. “If the government was truly intent on delivering housing, what they would have done is freeze all the rules until 2031.”
With all the confusion this has caused, the current PC government has been amplifying the use of MZOs as a solution to the supposed problem of backlogged housing construction applications by developers.
Between 2018 and 2022, 12 Minister’s Zoning Orders were approved for the three lower-tier municipalities in Peel.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
MZOs are a tool available under the Planning Act which can be used to fast track the traditional planning process typically used in extraordinary circumstances like a natural disaster. Prior to the election of Ford in 2018, MZOs were issued approximately once per year over the prior decade, on average. In the 15-year tenure of the Liberals, 18 MZOs were handed down for all of Ontario. Under Ford’s government, this number has increased exponentially. In his five years as premier, Ford has forced over 100 MZOs on towns and cities. Planners across Ontario have said MZOs are a valuable tool, but only when used properly. For residential planning this often is not the case.
“They don't fit in,” Eby says. “They don't fit into a system that is logically going through the process.”
There are two broad categories of MZOs that divide most of the orders that have been handed down by the province in the past five years: those that are within urban boundaries and those that are outside. Lands within existing urban boundaries will likely have already been subjected to servicing studies or planned extensions of services through master plans for water, wastewater, etc. Since the lands are within urban settlement boundaries, the municipalities will have determined whether they can be serviced and how they will be serviced. But for lands outside of existing settlement boundaries, they have not necessarily been subjected to environmental assessments and servicing studies and, in some cases, may not even be zoned for the desired being pursued by a developer. While an MZO can be handed down to force zoning changes, it cannot expedite the needs for studies to make sure the land can be serviced.
“Quite frankly, it sounds like in a lot of the cases where the MZO is outside the urban area, your ability to fast track it is incredibly limited because you have no idea whether it can be serviced. There may not be capacity available,” Eby says. “The likelihood is if it's just for residential or something of that nature, there's no way you can fast track. It's just too difficult to do.”
The result then is a backlogged system where staff and resources of municipalities are diverted away from the regular planning process and applications in order to work on these “fast-tracked”, often mismatched development applications.
“You're basically spreading your resources over more area and there's more applications and slowing things down,” Eby added, describing a snowball effect where the more MZOs issued, the slower the planning gears turn, leading to more misguided requests for MZOs.
Experts say MZOs allow developers to “jump the queue” used in the traditional municipal planning process.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Documents show very few MZOs issued by the Ford government have led to fast-tracked projects, with the vast majority stuck in a quagmire of planning complexities created by the rush to push technically challenging projects through a system that is simply not designed to do this.
Local officials have warned the Ford government of this for years, only to be ignored as the PCs tried to give impatient developers what they want.
Eby says many developers are aware that receiving an MZO will not necessarily speed up the process, but rather it is a way for a select few to “jump the queue”. Taylor adds that MZOs serve to shift attention from where investment in the infrastructure needs to be. Many examples, she says, show MZOs disrupt phasing of certain amenities which stalls the entire system regions and cities work within.
This, in turn, inhibits smart growth.
“The train is speeding to a very unsatisfactory solution,” Danahy says.
Smart growth principles direct the sustainable development of communities, including transportation options including transit, along with vital greenspace, recreation facilities, water and wastewater infrastructure, the design of commercial features and other amenities and services, all within complete, walkable communities designed to sustain healthy local employment and economic development. Smart growth is a result of good planning.
Climate change has forced progressive planning to incorporate mitigation and adaptation features. But for some developers, as the recent investigation into the Greenbelt land swaps revealed, natural heritage features and environmental sustainability are often viewed as hindrances to construction rather than a critical consideration in the process.
In 2021, an MZO was requested by the Town of Caledon to fasttrack the development of a 2.2-million-square-foot warehouse in the Town’s south end. In order to accommodate the massive storage space, engineers are planning to divert a tributary of the Humber River flowing directly through the site. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the lot is a significant habitat for amphibians and waterfowl, including the endangered redside dace.
Shock was expressed when former Caledon councillor Jennifer Innis, who also sat as the chair of the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority at the time, the largest conservation authority in Ontario, claimed the radical alternation of the watershed would be ecologically beneficial.
“The environment will benefit from the work that will be done on this site,” she said, offering zero evidence or research. The TRCA, which was under her leadership, backed the claim.
The Caledon warehouse is just one example of why planning and development needs to be supplemented with expert research, but the investigations show the PCs have increasingly viewed planning as standing in the way of development.
The phrase “cutting the red tape” has been tossed around by the Ford government to expedite housing development. But Taylor stresses this “red tape” is, in fact, smart planning.
“We're trying to protect the public interest so that people aren't harmed or aren't living in a house or an apartment unit that is missing something, or that they don't have a park to go to or they don't have a way of getting around and that sort of thing,” she stresses.
While certain processes could likely be made more efficient, she says planning in essence is complicated and time consuming, and it should be that way.
“I don't think anybody thinks that you can build a place that's for thousands of people, and just wave a magic wand and say there's no environmental issues. There's no infrastructure requirements, there's no budget implications for anybody.”
Recent evidence suggests the increased use of MZOs across the province is part of the scheme by the Ford government to mollify developers. Documents obtained by the Ontario NDP reveal that 18 MZOs were given out to developers who attended Premier Ford’s daughter’s wedding, and communications between individuals representing developers and PC officials reveal the behind-the-scenes work to get MZOs issued for favoured builders.
Some of the MZOs that have been granted across the province are for lands that were traditionally outside of urban boundary settlements, but Eby says once land has the permission to develop, its value increases exponentially. The same holds true for instances like Lakeview where density for the land was suddenly doubled. The dramatic increase in units will add hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars in additional revenues to the development consortium behind the unprecedented Lakeview project which will completely redevelop the entire eastern waterfront of Mississauga.
“I would like to see a good audit of how the industry negotiates and how much benefit goes to the developer and how much public benefit actually comes out of those extra units and what do you really get for and then at what cost,” Danahy says. “That would be a fascinating thing, to see some transparency.”
By request of the Ontario NDP, the province’s Auditor General is investigating the government’s use of MZOs. Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra has also hinted the Ministry may conduct its own review.
“I think it's a profit binge,” Danahy says. “The developers are the ones walking away with a real gift.”
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