Doug Ford's government wants housing built quickly, but this project is in limbo

A housing project that the City of Toronto describes as urgent sits in limbo nearly a year after council asked Premier Doug Ford's government to fast-track its approval. 

Toronto's request to fast-track housing in Willowdale sitting on hold for nearly a year

modular housing.
An artist's rendition of the City of Toronto's proposed supportive housing project in Willowdale. City council asked the province nearly a year ago for a ministerial zoning order to fast-track the project, but the Ford government has not granted the request. (City of Toronto)

A housing project that the City of Toronto describes as urgent is sitting in limbo nearly a year after council asked Premier Doug Ford's government to fast-track its approval. 

City council aimed to have construction on the supportive housing project in the north Toronto neighbourhood of Willowdale completed before winter set in. Last March, the city asked the province for a ministerial zoning order (MZO) to shorten the planning approval time frame. 

That MZO has not come.

The Ford government is on a big push to boost Ontario's housing supply by getting municipalities to speed up development approvals, so housing advocates are wondering why the province isn't green-lighting this particular project. 

Meanwhile, the studio-sized components for the modular housing project are ready to be assembled, but sit surrounded by locked fencing at a Toronto Transit Commission parking lot.

modular housing components
The components of the modular housing project are ready for assembly but are currently locked behind a fence at a Toronto Transit Commission parking lot. (CBC)

During an interview at the storage site, the NDP's housing critic, Jessica Bell, gestured toward the snow-covered units and called the scene "symbolic of Doug Ford's approach to homelessness and housing in general." 

"The reason why these homes are sitting empty is because Doug Ford is refusing to say yes to a City of Toronto request," said Bell.

"If we'd built these homes, then we would have 59 individuals and families moving into them," Bell said. "They wouldn't have to be living in parks and shelters, and they'd be able to rebuild their lives, raise their families and live in a safe and warm house this winter." 

The modular housing project would see a three-storey building with 59 studio apartments built on Cummer Avenue in Willowdale. It is partly funded by the federal government's Rapid Housing Initiative.

Coun. Ana Bailão, chair of Toronto's Planning and Housing Committee, is struggling to reconcile the provincial government's hurry-up approach to most development with its slow pace of approving this particular affordable housing project. 

Premier Doug Ford, left, and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

"We've been waiting," said Bailão in an interview. "When we have a [provincial] housing summit that is all about speeding the approval of housing, we don't understand why this one is taking so long."

Ford's cabinet minister with the power to grant the MZO, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, was unavailable for an interview. 

"We expect that city councils have done their due diligence and have conducted proper consultation in their communities before any request for an MZO comes to the minister for consideration," said Clark's director of communications Zoe Knowles, in an emailed statement.

"The ministry was not satisfied that proper consultation with impacted members of the community had been completed by the City of Toronto. As such, further consultation is needed," Knowles added. 

MZOs are a tool that allows the province to expedite zoning changes without the usual requirements for public consultation. The government has faced criticism for granting MZOs for far larger developments with little or no public consultation. 

The Ford government has issued 72 MZOs since taking office, four times as many as Liberal governments did during the previous 15 years. The bulk of them came at the behest of city councils, and while many are for housing projects, some have been for commercial developments. 

Jessica Bell is the Ontario NDP's housing critic. (CBC)

The city councillor for the Willowdale neighbourhood where the modular housing would go, John Filion, is on record as supporting the project.

However, the local MPP, Progressive Conservative Stan Cho, asked Clark to hold off granting the fast-track zoning order. 

"The federal government's Rapid Housing Initiative is designed to build affordable housing extremely quickly, without any consideration given to adequate public consultation on the projects or site selection," Cho wrote in a letter to Clark last March. 

Cho describes the project's proposed site as "just not suitable" in a more recent letter to Bailão. 

"This location would fail to support those it purports to serve," writes Cho in the Jan. 25 letter. "This is a suburban neighbourhood where those with cars have the easiest time getting around."

Bailão counters that the location has good access to transit. 

"The need is great for housing, and for supportive housing in particular, so it is very upsetting that we have these units on a parking lot where they could be somebody's home," she said. 

CBC News requested an interview with Cho but a spokesperson said he was unavailable.

The government has granted MZOs for seven other modular housing projects in Toronto, in a range of neighbourhoods from Parkdale to Scarborough. One of the seven is in a riding held by a PC member of the legislature.     

"This is a desperately needed and rare opportunity to create homes for people," said Kira Heineck, executive director at the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness. 

"It's something that can be done quickly at relatively low cost to the community," said Heineck in an interview. "In Toronto, people experiencing homelessness live everywhere."


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.