4 ways the PC government's new housing bill could override city powers
Bill 23 could shortchange cities on fees needed for infrastructure and parks
There hasn't been an election in the past year where housing affordability hasn't been a hot issue, including Ontario's municipal ones that took place last Monday.
No one promised anything too drastic during the campaigns, but the moment the city elections were over, the provincial government blindsided municipal staff and newly elected councillors with sweeping new legislation that is expected to be passed in short order.
Cities are scrambling to figure out what Bill 23, known as the "More Homes Built Faster Act", means for them.
They are sure of one thing: the Progressive Conservative government's new legislation overrides some of the powers municipalities had to oversee the planning of their own cities.
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That's necessary, said Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark on Tuesday, because local pressures are making it virtually impossible to increase the housing supply fast enough.
"We're at the point of BANANA, where it's 'Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone,'" said Clark earlier this week.
Really? Only a few days ago, Ottawa council's planning committee approved more than 4,500 units in a single meeting, including 950 near wetlands. That's on top of the 41,000 units that the committee has approved in the past, but developers haven't built, to say nothing of the 69,000 homes that could be constructed on land that's already serviced and ready to go.
The province is setting a new-homes target for Ottawa of 151,000 by 2031. How they will make developers actually build that many homes — a decision usually based on market forces like interest rates and labour supply — has not been addressed.
But the Ford government appears ready to steamroll over a number of municipal rules to make it easier to build.
Here are four ways the province is hamstringing local authorities when it comes to approving new housing.
1. Affordable housing to the detriment of city amenities
The new legislation provides incentives for developers to build affordable housing — a laudable goal — but one of the ways it's doing that could rob cities of needed millions to build everything from roads and pipes, to libraries and recreation centres.
Development charges (DCs) are fees the city applies to most new construction in the city. That money is put into a big city-wide pot, and it's all earmarked by law for different types of infrastructure. (On Tuesday, Clark suggested that Ontario municipalities were sitting on $8 billion in DC reserves, as if they are some sort of city slush fund instead of money legislated for specific purposes.)
The province is going to waive these fees for affordable and attainable housing. ("Affordable" is being defined as 80 per cent of average market rents or purchase price, while "attainable" is housing that costs no more than 30 per cent of a person's gross income. How all this will work in the real world is not yet clear.)
These exempted fees will amount to millions of dollars, which are used to pay for the infrastructure to support growth. Where will that lost revenue come from? The city has few ways to raise money — fees and taxes. Not recouping this money could have a significant effect on amenities in this city.
Now, the province could have chosen to use one of its powers, such as tax breaks, to incentivize developers to build more affordable units. Instead, the Ford government is suggesting money from the federal government's $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund should be used to refund cities for lost DCs.
The feds are so far silent on the province's idea of how to use their housing money.
2. Less money for parks
The province also seems to believe that a way to make homes more affordable is to put less aside for parkland.
In the suburbs, the city requires that developers set aside one hectare of land for every 300 units built. The new legislation is calling for one hectare per 600 units. In other words, the province will halve the land being required for parks.
In the core, where there isn't much land to set aside physically for parks, developers pay money — known as cash-in-lieu of parkland — which the city saves up until it has enough to buy or develop land into community greenspace.
Bill 23 appears to be undermining this in several ways. It will limit the amount a city can charge for parkland, and will force a municipality to spend 60 per cent of its parkland reserves every year. That will make it incredibly difficult to buy parkland in the inner city, where land is expensive.
And finally, the province will waive all parkland requirements for affordable and attainable housing — but has no plan for how cities are to make up the shortfall.
3. Overriding the R1 zoning
The province appears to be putting an end to exclusionary R1 zoning — the rules that allow only a detached single-family home to be built on a residential property. When the bill is approved, residential buildings with up to three units will become an automatic right for a property owner.
The thinking is that local councils wouldn't have the political will to get rid of R1 zoning. Indeed, many candidates in our most recent election defended the exclusionary designation. But why should a giant single-family home built out to the lot line be allowed, but not a similar-sized building containing three apartments?
The change isn't just for single detached home. Semi-detached and town houses can also each contain three apartments. Now, the city does have infill rules that speak to setbacks and landscaping — to avoid paving over the front yard, for example — but they only apply to units inside the Greenbelt. The new provincial rules will apply to homes across the entire city.
4. Cities to have no say on design
The new legislation could seriously curtail the city's powers to control what the outside of buildings look. A planning process called site plan control is usually the last step in a project before applying for a building permit. Site plan incorporates everything about the outside of a building — from landscaping to parking to building design.
For any building with fewer than 10 units, the province is removing site plan control completely (see concerns around triplexes above). And for larger buildings, Bill 23 declares that "exterior design is no longer a matter that is subject to site plan control."
That means city officials won't be able to regulate issues like architecture, scale, appearance or sustainable design features or environmental design rules (like requiring green roofs on larger buildings).
Removing city involvement in all or parts of site plan control may make development approvals faster, but what long-term effects will it have on the livability and sustainability of the city?