The Government of Ontario's new housing plan has missed the mark, officials and industry leaders say, potentially worsening the very issues it purports to solve.

Entitled the More Homes For Everyone Act, the bill proposes a number of changes to existing housing legislation, targeting lengthy municipal approval processes. The Ford government cited slow municipal approval processes as a contributing factor in Ontario's housing shortage and has now vowed to slash the "red tape." If the bill passes, municipalities across Ontario would be forced to make decisions on development and rezoning applications within a timeframe that experts say is unreasonably short, or else face the punishment of having to refund application fees.

According to the new housing plan, if an Ontario municipality fails to make a decision on a development site application within 60 days, they would be required to refund 50% of the fee. If no decision is reached within 90 days, 75% of the fee would be refunded. If the decision process surpasses 120 days, the entire application fee would be refunded. A similar fee refunding incentive would be put in place to speed up zoning applications. If no decision is made on rezoning applications within 90, 150, or 210 days then, then 50%, 75%, or 100% of the application fee, respectively, would be refunded.

The Timelines Aren't Feasible

In Toronto, where much of the province's development takes place, City officials are baffled by the seemingly arbitrary, and incredibly tight, deadlines that the Province has chosen.

"Ontario is facing a housing crisis, and the Ford government's response is disappointing and incredibly immature," said City Councillor Josh Matlow. "The timelines that they've set for applications with financial penalties to municipalities not only don't make our province more affordable, but it's perverse because it ends up actually creating more red tape and delaying projects."

According to a 2020 BILD study, municipal planning approvals in the GTA currently take an average of 15 months to finalize. The City of Toronto alone received over 800 planning applications last year, said Toronto's Chief Planner and Executive Director Gregg Lintern, all of which are individually considered at various levels of City Council and undergo review by multiple City staff.

"In practical terms, it is not doable," Lintern said of the proposed timelines. "Even if you and I were completely agreeing on absolutely everything you wanted to do, the system isn't built to support that that kind of a timeline."

Depending on the complexity of the project, the approval process can be extremely iterative as the City and the developer go back and forth coming to an agreement for approval. Matlow points to projects like the Honest Ed's site redevelopment or the Canada Square site of examples of complex developments requiring more time to finalize.

"When you're working on top of transit infrastructure, you can't just dig a hole anywhere," Matlow said. "It's not realistic for planners to be able to complete a report on an application, if they do it well, within the very short timelines that they've been given by the province. A cynic might call that red tape. A reasonable person will call that doing your due diligence."

Even in the private sector, the Province's timelines are raising eyebrows. Melanie Hare, partner at urban planning firm Urban Strategies, says that her clients have indeed expressed frustrations with how long applications take municipalities to process, but she does not believe the Province's timelines are reasonable.

"If we could speed up relative times by 50%, that would be great, but we still wouldn't be meeting the timelines of 60, 90, or 120 days in the legislation," Hare said. "I'm not sure requiring municipalities to refund money as a disincentives is going to change the matter of fact that these things sometimes take time and sometimes relate to staffing shortages and capacity issues within municipalities."

The office of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing was unable to provide a response by the time of publication when asked how the 60 and 90 day deadlines were decided upon, as well as whether any estimates were done by the Province as to how much revenue is expected to be lost by municipalities from having to refund fees.

City Councillor Cynthia Lai, who has extensive experience in the real estate and development industry, says that given the fact that how long an application takes to process is not entirely determined by the City, she believes that the proposed changes will not fix the crux of the issue.

"We no doubt are short of housing stock, that's for sure," Lai said. "For the Province to give some guidelines I think would be a good thing, but I don't think it solves the real problem. It is not just the City delaying it. Sometimes it could be it could be the applicant, you know, they needed to get more time to revise the application. The Province cannot just blame it on the city, because the city is trying its very best to make those applications work."

Lintern says that this very issue -- that processing time is partly dependent on the applicant -- leaves the Province's proposed guidelines open to being exploited.

"We might identify conditions, like things within the servicing report, and I'd say 'We'll approve [the application] if you make these change about the size of the pipe or the water flow in your servicing report.' And so then the onus switches to the applicant to do that. The way the Province has set this up is if I've given you my conditions, and the onus switches to you, you can decide, you know what, I'm not going to do it because I know that if the City can't make a decision, I get my refund."

Creating a Vicious Cycle

Application fees in the City of Toronto start at $60,511 for an official site plan amendment and $45,258 for a zoning bylaw amendment. These funds pay for City resources to process those very applications. Having to refund even portions of these fees, Matlow says, will exacerbate the very thing the Province says it is trying to fix.

"The the irony is that if the City loses the funds that it uses to pay for the planning process at the city level, then that in itself will slow the process down because there won't be as many people to do the work," Matlow said.

Lintern agreed, adding that it's not just the City's planning division that would be affected.

"We get hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees every year and it doesn't just support City Planning, it supports other divisions at the City: Transportation, Toronto Water, Engineering, Parks and Rec," Lintern said.

When releasing their housing plan, the Ontario government highlighted the backlog of cases at the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT), announcing $19M in funding to increase resources at both the OLT and the Landlord and Tenant Board. But the Province's prescribed timelines could very well make the backlog significantly worse and, ultimately, take decision-making power away from municipalities.

"There are scenarios where we might actually get more appeals because if we're forced to make a decision in 90 days and we can't reach a reasonable conclusion, we may just refuse [the application] because we have to make a decision one way or the other," Lintern said. "Then it gets appealed to the Ontario Land Tribunal and they make the decision."

Reasonable Changes Welcome

Rejections of the proposed timelines aren't a rejection of efficiency measures altogether. In fact, there appears to be agreement across the board that more efficiency in the approval process would be a good thing. As long as it's within reason.

"If there are reasonable proposals for efficiencies, if there are more resources put into the planning division, I would welcome that," Matlow said.

For Lai, she says that more of a focus needs to be put on preventing vexatious litigants filing appeals with the OLT to intentionally slow down or stop a particular development -- something the Councillor says she has seen first-hand.

"I worked for a developer in the Niagara Falls area on a project and it's been six years of every time there's an approval of anything, you know, maybe a zoning by law, or a site plan, or whatever, one person for a couple of hundred bucks can appeal it," Lai said, recommending raising the amount that appellants have to pay as one possible deterrent.

Both Hare and Lintern point to an increase and modernization of City resources as something that would have a meaningful effect on processing times. The City of Toronto, Lintern says, has been trying to do this already.

"The City is working on something called Concept Keys, which is a business process improvement project where we look at the whole system around development approvals to see where we can improve the service," Lintern said. "We're looking at technology improvements because we have an older system, and we're looking at different project management approaches, different issues resolution approaches, focusing on the customer experience and the staff experience."

"That's at the heart of this whole thing is making it work better for everybody and I have no dispute with that at all. The issue is with the way the Province has approached it."

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