“We’ve Got a Lot of Work Ahead of Us:” Housing Minister Steve Clark on Ontario’s Supply Challenges
Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and Leeds – Grenville – Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes PC Party candidate, speaks to STOREYS Managing Editor Penelope Graham on what the priorities should be for housing policymakers moving forward. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
P: You’ve been the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing since 2018, and you’ve seen considerable evolution in the housing market over the time period. With that in mind, what would you say should be the priorities for housing policymakers moving forward?
S: “I think the Housing Affordability Task Force report that I commissioned was a very bold opportunity for Ontario. We’re going to use it as a government for our long-term roadmap. Municipalities told us that it was a bit too bold for them, so we’re going to take the summer in a re-elected Doug Ford government to be able to sit down with municipalities and talk about concepts like intensification to create a multi-generational community and also, to look at the unique challenges that we find in rural and northern Ontario. So, there’s much more work that we need to do. But there’s also a lot of political will at all three levels of government. I’ve always said that the housing supply issue is a long-term problem, it needs coordination and collaboration from all three levels of government. So that’s what I hope to hit the ground running on, so to speak, on June 2nd. But in terms of implementing the Task Force recommendation, that’s the long-term roadmap that’s going to get five million homes built in Ontario in the next 10 years.
P: Supply has been such a key issue, it’s been a key point of recommendation from the Task Force. But there’s been a lot of change on the demand side recently, with mortgage rates rising, more new listings coming to market. Do you think this requires a pivot in terms of strategy in terms of how to address these issues moving forward?
S: You’ve highlighted some of the demand-supply issues that have emerged. I still say the crisis is supply, supply, supply. Even looking at my own Housing Supply Action Plan, this would have been the first bill I did and was passed in 2019. Many municipalities are just starting to implement some of those recommendations, so I’m very encouraged. We’ve had a 100,000 starts, last year was the highest we’ve seen since the mid-80s. I think we need to build upon that success and make sure that municipalities can implement not just what I put in law in 2019, but also some of the measures we’ve passed as issues for this election. I’m encouraged that we’re going to get shovels in the ground faster, and regardless of the demand side, I think supply is still going to be the number one housing issue that we’re going to face in 2022.”
P: One of the challenges we hear about frequently, as inflation is spiking and construction costs are rising, there are construction worker strikes occurring in the province right now — a lack of skilled labour has really been highlighted as a key issue. Do you foresee that being a logistical hurdle in the supply up and running?
S: I believe Minister McNaughton has done a great job prioritizing the skilled trades. Just as we want to build on my Housing Supply Action Plan, we have to build upon Minister McNaughton’s great work. And I think no matter whether it’s someone who wants to get into the skilled trades in Ontario, or someone from another part of Canada that wants to use the Ontario model as an opportunity, or even looking abroad; the Premier has talked about the conflict in Ukraine and trying to bring skilled workers to our province, I think we need to use every opportunity that’s made available to us; not just to bring skilled workers here, but to build upon our success. I look to my own family, I’ve got two twin stepsons who have changed careers in the middle of the pandemic to work in construction. One is apprenticing as an electrician right now because they see these jobs as high-paying jobs in the future, and they’re going to put a plan in place to be part of the regeneration and also the creation of new housing stock in Ontario. So I’m encouraged by some of those young men and women who are now looking at the skilled trades as a viable option. I need them, I need them to build homes and create that dream of homeownership.
P: Going back to the personal angle — a lack of housing supply really impacts everyone. Older Canadians who have kids who are trying to get into the market, people who can’t find housing close to where they work. How has this impacted you personally, and in the area where you serve?
S: The same challenges that are in urban Ontario are in rural Ontario and in ridings like mine in Leeds-Grenville -Thousands Islands and Rideau Lakes. And this is not a this is not an Ontario problem. It’s not just a Canadian problem. It’s a problem all around the globe. And there are many, many pressures that are affecting it. My own personal story, you know, I started as most; renting and saving up for a downpayment. And then as my needs changed, my housing changed.
I agree with you, I think there are a number of people who are young couples who just don’t realize the dream of homeownership yet. And the same thing from a senior who wants to downsize, maybe their health changed and their housing need has changed. Some of them are very worried that they’re not going to get the return, and that there’s not going to be that viable option for them. So I think that’s why, from an Ontario perspective, we need to work with all 444 municipalities, we need to ensure that the federal government recognizes that we’ve got a tremendous core housing need far greater than many other provinces and territories, and we need to get our fair share. So it is a complex problem. It needs coordination and collaboration from all three levels of government. And I’m committed to making sure that we’re going to build upon our housing supply success this year, because it’s just not enough, we need to have shovels in the ground and build more.
P: One of the key recommendations made by the Task Force that didn’t necessarily make it into the budget at the time, was to bring in more gentle density with a max of up to four storeys and four-unit homes, on lots that had originally been zoned for just single-family housing. Do you foresee that coming back down the pipe in the future?
S: I do — I think the consultation we’re going to have about the concept of multi-generational communities, using density intensification in areas, it’s certainly something that, on the campaign trail, is talked about at all candidates’ meetings. Many of the parties have talked about the need to do this. And we need to get our municipal partners on board. So that consultation that will take place this summer, I think is critical on that concept of multi generational communities. And the issue around intensification using gentle density increases within existing neighborhoods. So I’m encouraged by that conversation, and we’ll get right on it. If we’re reelected, it’s a top priority for us.
P: And another key focus has been the creation and implementation of a data standard across all of the municipalities. So can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re hoping to achieve with that, and the progress of how that’s coming along thus far?
S: Well, it’s funny, I was just talking to [Associated Minister of Digital Government Kalee] Rasheed this morning – I called him just to see how the campaign was going in Mississauga. Minister Rasheed and I are both committed to having that data standard put in place; the Premier has been very adamant that he wants the system to not just be more efficient with our municipal partners, but there has to be some similarity between a process in a municipality in one corner of the province to one in another corner.
The fact that there’s so many different interpretations of the rules, we need to create that data standard so that there’s that commonality. And we’ve got to be able to build in efficiencies; Premier Ford’s a big, lean methodology person in terms of the way he approached business, and we’ve met extensively with the lean office in government. Both Minister Rasheed and I, we’re both committed to ensuring that we create that common data standard across the system when it comes to pulling a permit and getting approvals for a new building and municipalities.
P: Going back to some of your previous comments about your own personal experience in the real estate market, how you started off as a renter and eventually made the jump over into homeownership: what are some of the key challenges you see facing today’s young people looking to make the same kind of jump?
S: Well, that’s exactly the issue. I’ve got a number of my adult kids who haven’t yet bought their first home, and they want to be homeowners. They want to realize that same dream that I was able to do, many years ago. And I think they need to have the confidence that all three levels of government understand that this is a big issue.
Certainly we’ve heard at the federal level in the last election, the governing Liberal Party has talked a lot about ensuring that housing supply is there, they’ve talked about programs, like a rent-to-own program, that we just haven’t yet realized the details. And we also have some municipalities who really want to be more housing-friendly, they want to present a housing-first strategy for their residents. But there are barriers that we need to eliminate for them. So it’s an ongoing conversation that I think has to happen. Certainly, when you’re knocking at the doors, and our election, housing affordability and housing supply have consistently come up at the door, from voters. We need to build on the success of our plan: more choice, and more homes for everyone. And again, I’ve committed to you before and I’ll commit to you today, that in a reelected Doug Ford government, we’re gonna have a housing supply bill each and every year of the four years, because it’s just that much of a priority for our government.
P: Speaking of renting, the the other major political parties have all committed to reimplementing rent control, which has been an issue that’s bounced back and forth over the past few years, with controls being implemented and then scaled back. What do you think are the pros and cons in regards to that? And where do you foresee that going?
S: Well, when we made good on our commitment in the last election [in] our first fall economic statement in the fall of 2018, we protected rent control for existing tenants. But at the same time, we also removed that exemption. And we did it for one reason, and one reason only, and that was to get new supply into the market. The opposition parties opposed it and said that it wouldn’t increase supply of purpose built rental, and they were wrong!
Today, we look at last year’s purpose-built rental construction, we’ve had more last year in terms of starts, the likes we hadn’t seen in over 30 years. So why would we want to go back to stopping new purpose-built rental construction? We actually want to foster more purpose-built rental construction, and providing that exemption would help that. And, and I want to remind people that in 2017, when the previous government did it, there were a number of purpose-built rental projects that basically converted to condo because of that exemption. So we need to work with municipalities, we need to provide, the climate in Ontario, where more purpose built rentals are built. And you know, quite frankly, some of the tenant protections we put in, all the other opposition parties voted against it. So they can’t talk one way and then vote another way. I want to continue to build upon the success we’ve had in building more purpose built rental. And that’s exactly what our government is going to continue to do.
P: Anything else you’d like to add?
S: I want to highlight the fact — I don’t want people to get the wrong impression — that yes, we’ve seen purpose -built rental, the likes we hadn’t seen in 30 years, yes, we’ve seen housing starts hit the 100,000-mark for the first time since the mid 80s. That doesn’t mean to say I’m trying to pat myself on the back. The fact is, we need to do a lot more. And the housing affordability Task Force indicates that we need to build 1.5M homes in the next 10 years. That takes a lot of work and a lot of effort from all three levels of government. So we’re not going to rest on the numbers. We want to build upon those numbers. And I just want to make sure people understand that there’s not a one and done scenario. We’ve got to continue to put policies, procedures and legislation forward that gets shovels in the ground faster than that increases housing supply. So we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.