Undermining Municipalities, Imposing Sprawl
We’ve already seen how the Province is consolidating its power to overrule virtually everyone, and how they defunded CAs back in 2020; Bill 23 also undermines and defunds municipalities.
Municipalities have an Official Plan, a locally-generated plan that uses the expertise of Planners, the framework provided by the Province, and the input of local residents and municipal councils to determine the shape and experience of a municipality as it grows. The Official Plan determines where new homes will be built, in what density; as well as where and what type of commercial and industrial development, which lands will be preserved for environmental reasons or as agricultural land, etc.
Bill 23 steps on the expertise of Planners and the input of local residents and councils by issuing required zoning changes that are the same everywhere. The biggest one is that they’re now requiring that every Residential zone allow 3 dwelling units per property, so that a single-family detached dwelling effectively becomes a triplex. Now, I’m in favour of increasing density in low-density neighbourhoods: Brighton recently changed our zoning to allow for secondary units in every house, and I think that’s a great thing. But any policy that treats downtown Toronto and rural Bancroft (and everywhere in between) as being the same is a bad idea. Local decision-making matters for exactly this reason: not everywhere is the same.
Also, let’s be clear: while it’s important to increase density, adding 1 or 2 suites to every single-family home is the worst way to do it. It’s bad planning. It brings a low-density neighbourhood to…the high-end of low density. It’s still low density, medium at best. It gets none of the benefits of density, and all of the problems. It creates neighbourhoods that still aren’t dense enough to support quality transit, but so dense that parking and traffic become the main concerns. It incentivizes maximizing the size of all new houses so that they can fit three units inside, which means having huge homes without yards. It means endless subdivisions where everyone drives for everything because there isn’t enough density to support commercial development in the neighbourhood, except for strip malls.
Planners call this “sprawl”, and know how to avoid it. The Province is forcing it on us all.
But here’s the other thing about sprawl: it’s actually very expensive. Yes, if every new build has three units in it, each unit will rent for less (let’s be real, they’re not talking about ownership with this model). But when municipalities grow through expansion around the edges, rather than through densification downtown, they need all sorts of new infrastructure: roads, sewer and water pipes, etc., all of the maintenance for such things, and all of the bureaucratic and legal requirements that come with setting it all up. Some of those costs are borne by developers (e.g., often a developer installs the roads and the municipality only assumes them once the development is complete), and some of them are borne by the municipalities directly.
Municipalities often can’t afford to bear those costs without raising property taxes or instituting service fees. One type of fee is called a Development Charge (DC), which is a fee designed to cover these types of costs and levied on the developer. In the grand scheme of the cost of housing, DCs are a small but not negligible amount.
Schedule 3 of Bill 23 directly amends the Development Charges Act, 1997, to reduce or waive DCs on “affordable rental units and attainable rental units.” That designation is very misleading. The relevant definition of “affordable housing” refers to housing that costs no more than 30% of someone’s income; the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) came up with the term “attainable housing” to mean the same thing, but with reference to entrance into the housing market – i.e., if you can afford to get into the housing market and eventually move up in it. So while “affordable” might also apply to rental housing, “attainable” refers to buying. The reality is that the housing market is neither affordable nor attainable, because they both mean housing that costs less than 30% of people’s income, at a time when most people pay more than that. But Bill 23 is explicitly aimed at producing triplex housing in the GTA; if it will count as “affordable” or “attainable”, it will be barely; the little bit shaved off the sticker price by saving developers the DCs might help them achieve that status.
But sprawl is expensive, and without DCs to cover those costs it will be on municipalities to bear that cost. Unless there’s a fund to cover those costs from somewhere else (the province or the feds), finance departments across the province will be scrambling to come up with funding from reserve and contingency funds, or else cutting services or raising property taxes, or both. So ultimately, the high cost of “affordable” housing in this format will be borne by entire communities.
So What Can We Do?
This plan is very bad for the environment, grossly undermines municipalities, conservation authorities and local decision-making in general, will lead to more sprawl with all of the costs and lower quality of life that comes with that, and won’t actually make housing much cheaper (especially compared to densification options that this strategy will actually undermine). And it was introduced in a way that excluded public and municipal engagement, and is being rushed through with two readings in its first week.
The good news is, none of it has to happen. Here are some ways you can help:
- Contact your MPP and let them know what you think about it. Our MPP here in Northumberland – Peterborough South is David Piccini, who also happens to be the Environment Minister. You can find his contact info here. Blue Dot Northumberland and Environmental Defence are holding a protest at David’s office in Port Hope (117 Peter St, AKA County Road 2) on November 18th, 11am-1pm. Both of those last links are to pages with other ways to “take action”.
- Fill out the Environmental Registry of Ontario’s feedback forms. This one is for the changes to the Greenbelt Plan. This one is for changes to the Greenbelt boundaries. This one is for changes to the Oak Ridges Moraine Plan. They’re all related, and you could submit the same comment for all three – because ultimately all of them are part of the same land swapping strategy. This public consultation is required before the changes to the Greenbelt can be completed; at least be on the record as opposing them.
- Rest assured that your municipal councillors (and staff!) are concerned about this bill; but talk to us about it anyway!