Fewer parks and higher taxes? Ottawa staff dissect Ford's housing bill

Staff for one of Ontario's largest cities have taken stock of the sweeping new provincial housing bill and warn it could take even longer to build amenities in the suburbs, while buildings might not fit in beside their neighbours.

'Growth will not pay for growth' if Bill 23 passes, city concludes

In a memo sent to Ottawa city council Monday, city planners itemize many significant ways in which the Ford government's latest housing bill will take city building in a new direction, leaving municipalities with less local control and less money. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Staff at the City of Ottawa have analyzed the sweeping housing bill that's racing through Queen's Park and are warning that taxpayers may foot the bill for amenities in future neighbourhoods, local wetlands could be redesignated for housing, and new buildings might not fit into the character of a street.

When the Ford government tabled its Build More Homes Faster Act the day after municipal elections, pledging to boost housing supply, city planners could tell major upheaval was in store given how many pieces of legislation were being rewritten.

They said they would work nights and weekends to take stock.

In a memo sent to city council on Monday, planners now itemize many significant ways in which the Ford government's latest housing bill will take city building in a new direction, leaving municipalities with less local control and less money.

For instance, Ottawa city staff "strongly reject" the province's plan to take away municipalities' abilities to regulate the exterior of a building, its architecture, character, and scale through what's known as site plan control. 

That will leave staff unable to weigh in on whether a project fits its street, neighbourhood or the Ottawa skyline. The recently approved new energy-efficient building standards aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be "compromised."

"Bill 23 narrows the housing discussion to one of quantity and diminishes the critical role municipalities play in providing for quality," wrote Don Herweyer, interim general manager of planning, real estate and economic development.

City may forgo $26M a year

Another major theme in the staff analysis of Bill 23 is that the long-standing problem of trying to build infrastructure to keep up with new homes in booming suburbs will be made worse. 

The Ford government intends to waive development charges to encourage triplexes, affordable housing, and buildings near transit stations.

Those one-time fees are collected by cities, not the province, and go toward everything from roads and transit to libraries and fire stations.

Staff roughly calculate the province will require the City of Ottawa to forgo $26 million a year.

The province will also force municipalities to allocate 60 per cent of their parkland reserves at the start of each year, which worries Ottawa because it often saves up for larger projects over many years.

A skate park in Ottawa's Findlay Creek neighbourhood. In future, developers will be required to provide half the parkland to the city that they currently do. (Kate Porter/CBC)

As soon as the bill passes, developers will have to provide the city with half the amount of parkland they currently do. The province says that will "reduce the cost of developing housing and to create cost savings for new home buyers and renters."

Developers can even offer privately owned public space or land with infrastructure underneath, according to the provincial consultation website.

Staff counter that smaller parks will make neighbourhoods less livable and leave less open space to absorb rainwater and curb flooding.

"The bill risks creating a significant imbalance with the rest of the city — where new housing is developed absent the services, amenities and infrastructure needed for long-term success," wrote Herweyer.

As currently worded, the adoption of Bill 23 will mean conclusively that growth will not pay for growth.- Don Herweyer, City of Ottawa

Either infrastructure will have to be delayed or the city will have to turn to existing taxpayers, Herweyer writes. 

"As currently worded, the adoption of Bill 23 will mean conclusively that growth will not pay for growth," he wrote.

"A funding gap already exists for growth-related costs. The city cannot afford to subsidize development on the backs of its rate payers."

Wetland worries

The bill seeps into many other areas.

The Ford government intends to allow "units" of wetlands to be remapped rather than be taken together with larger wetland "complexes."

Ottawa city staff say that "would expose most of Ottawa's provincially significant wetlands to potential loss of status and bring complex lands into consideration for urban boundary expansion."

Specifically, they fear the Goulbourn wetland near Stittsville might be considered for future housing.

Staff are also concerned that years of work on a register of heritage buildings will be undone.

At a fundamental level, the city disagrees with the "aspirational" population forecasts the Ford government has used to justify all these changes, and to give Ottawa a target of building 151,000 new homes within a decade.

That figure is double the 76,000 homes the city projected it would need after a study just three years ago and out of line with the Ontario Ministry of Finance's own population projections, staff point out.


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.