So, the civic election is over and Toronto has a handful of new progressives on council, though probably not enough to make a difference. Still, it’s much needed fresh blood at the table.
Even better, perhaps, the voters of Etobicoke-Lakeshore turfed veteran councillor Mark Grimes; a rare reminder that incumbency doesn’t always ensure re-election. And, oh yes, John Tory is still mayor. Though rival Gil Penalosa’s campaign was vastly superior, Tory proved once again that an unadorned promise of no tax increase is enough to win in this bottom-line burg.
If that wasn’t enough good news, Premier Doug Ford then promised to solve Ontario’s housing crisis by building 1.5M residential units over the next 10 years, 285,000 of them in Toronto.
Even for the great and powerful Premier, that’s a tall order. But Ford is not one to make any small plans. For him, bigger is better. To reach his target, the Master of Queen’s Park will have to clear the regulatory deck of any impediment, municipal or otherwise, that might get in the way of his good friends in the development business. Thanks to Doug, environmental rules, approval processes, building fees, indigenous niceties and other impediments will soon be weakened or discarded.
And so, despite interest rate hikes, the industry is well on its way to yet another prosperous decade. If all goes according to plan, local developers will ride to our rescue and eliminate the housing crisis once and for all.
Yet as Gilbert and Sullivan reminded us, things are seldom what they seem.
Apparently oblivious to anything beyond his immediate political needs, Ford is rushing to trash legislation that serves a purpose. Some of these environmental rules, for instance, were implemented by the terrible events of October, 1954, when Hurricane Hazel washed away scores of homes and killed 81 people, many of whom had the misfortune to live on Raymore Drive in the Ford family fiefdom, Etobicoke, and, incidentally, in the flood plain of the Humber River.
“After Hazel,” the Canadian Encyclopedia informs us, “the provincial government amended the Conservation Authorities Act to allow conservation authorities to acquire and regulate vulnerable lands (including the former Raymore Drive) for recreation and conservation…. Regulations enacted since Hurricane Hazel restrict new development in flood plains, allowing rivers to flow naturally and reducing the risk to people and their property…”
No question, the past is a nuisance, one best forgotten. But that’s why those who fail to learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat it. We’re about to find out the hard way just what that means.
The wetlands that Ford is so impatient to pave over are precisely what could save whole neighbourhoods in our climate-altered future. Flooding has replaced fire as the number one source of insurance claims.
Ford also blithely ignores the lesson of the present; namely that simply making it easier to build housing will do little to increase affordability in a market controlled by developers and investors who have every reason to keep supply low and cost high, the exact opposite of what’s needed. The Premier’s insistence on “cutting red tape” by reducing development charges, redrawing zoning regulations and the like will encourage sprawl not affordability.
And by the way, who will pay the price if Ford freezes development charges? Not the province, no, but towns and cities that rely on those fees to accommodate growth. No wonder the mayors of Milton, Oakville and Burlington are pleading for time to study the legislation.
Even mild-mannered John Tory is warning that Toronto stands to lose $200M annually if Ford’s plan to cut development fees is implemented. For a city already facing a shortfall as high as $1B, that’s worrisome. What the Conservative government doesn’t understand is that these fees don’t go to general revenues but are earmarked for specific infrastructure projects. The only way cities can replace the lost funds is to raise property taxes and/or cut services. When Mike Harris was premier, this was called downloading.
Though builders will be thrilled, the biggest obstacle they face is still higher borrowing costs. They made that clear in August when they cancelled 10,000 condo units planned for release this year. Ford’s measures might alleviate construction costs, but they won’t lower mortgage payments.
The inconvenient truth is that social housing won’t be built without the financial contribution of federal and provincial governments. Until they write a cheque, truly affordable accommodation will remain forever beyond our grasp.
Ford’s scheme would run roughshod over municipal finances, zoning regulations and approval processes. In these ways, it reduces or removes the ability of towns and cities to control their destiny.
Ontario’s communities need more autonomy, not less. That’s why Ford’s approach will make a bad situation worse.