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Steve Lafleur: Ontario needs more housing—but where?

Commentary

It’s no secret that Southern Ontario has a shortage of housing units. Scotiabank estimated that Canada has the lowest number of housing units per 1000 residents in the G7,Estimating the Structural Housing Shortage in Canada: Are We 100 Thousand or Nearly 2 Million Units Short? https://www.scotiabank.com/ca/en/about/economics/economics-publications/post.other-publications.housing.housing-note.housing-note–may-12-2021-.html and the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) has the lowest number in Canada. The Ontario government’s Housing Affordability Task Force recently recommended that the province double annual housing construction to build 1.5 million new homes in the province over the next decade.Report of the Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force https://files.ontario.ca/mmah-housing-affordability-task-force-report-en-2022-02-07-v2.pdf With the provincial election in the rearview mirror, Premier Ford has a mandate to meet this goal.

Given that there is widespread agreement on the problem, one might expect some urgency in allowing more housing starts. Unfortunately, a new CMHC report shows that Toronto lags behind other large Canadian cities in terms of housing starts.Housing Supply Report: Canadian Metropolitan Areas https://assets.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/sites/cmhc/professional/housing-markets-data-and-research/market-reports/housing-supply-report/housing-supply-report-2022-05-en.pdf?rev=e66a4117-594f-4b3e-8477-c33fbe1e7766 In 2021, Vancouver led the country’s large CMAs with 93 housing starts per 10,000. Ottawa came in second at 84, followed by Edmonton and Calgary at 78. Toronto came in with a paltry 54 units per 10,000. This isn’t a new development. Toronto has been near the bottom of the pack for over a decade. Meanwhile, the average home price in the GTA increased by 23.9 percent from May of 2021 to May of 2022, hitting $1.26 million

This isn’t just a Toronto problem. Toronto’s housing supply shortage is spilling into parts of Ontario that up until recently were relatively affordable. For example, the Canadian Real Estate Association estimated that housing prices in Tillsonburg increased 22.6 percent between May 2021 and May 2022 to $671,800. Similarly, Woodstock-Ingersoll saw prices increase 18.6 percent over that period to $786,800. For context, those prices are in the same ballpark as a detached house in Miami when factoring in the exchange rate. 

It’s clear that we need more housing units not just in Toronto, but throughout Southern Ontario. The question is, where can those incremental new housing units be built? Building an additional 750,000 on top of the 750,000 that would be built at the current pace will require some concessions somewhere. It’s already a battle to build at our current pace, with zoning restricting density even in urban areas and red tape slowing approvals. Moreover, we’re running out of places to build detached houses unless we open up more of the Greenbelt to development. So the provincial government has difficult choices to make. 

Seven hundred and fifty thousand homes is not a trivial number. If we were to plunk those units all down in one place, it would be the second-largest metropolitan area in Ontario (the average Ontario household has 2.6 residents, so it would hold nearly two million residentsCensus Profile, 2021 Census of Population https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2021/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&SearchText=Ontario&DGUIDlist=2021A000235&GENDERlist=1,2,3&STATISTIClist=1&HEADERlist=0). Obviously, we’re not going to build a new, large city from scratch. We could also develop a dozen new Miltons. Milton added just over 57,000 residents between 2011 and 2021. Or we could find room for 18 to 20 condo megaprojects like the 40,000 unit project in York Region recently greenlighted by the Ford government. While I can’t pronounce on the viability of either approach, there is reason for skepticism. Either approach depends on having the right infrastructure available (sufficient highway capacity, or a major transit hub, respectively) and a tolerance to allow large-scale developments that, to be blunt, tend not to be popular.

Of course, there is a simpler path: the Ford government can follow the Housing Affordability Task Force recommendation to allow four units “as of right” per residential lot. While this kind of small-scale development seems trivial, it can add up quickly. Increasing density in the City of Toronto by ten percent would lead to around 116,000 new dwellings. While that might sound like a lot of people to pack into Toronto’s existing borders, it would only make Toronto about as dense as Montreal. Well short of Vancouver or Boston, let alone San Francisco or New York. More than half of occupied dwellings in Toronto are in buildings under five stories tall and around 40 percent are detached or semi-detached houses or row houses. So there is plenty of room for incremental density.

If we were to take that approach across the province, it would result in roughly 550,000 new occupied dwellings. While it is true that housing demand is not as voracious in Northern or Eastern Ontario as it is in the GTA, this nevertheless highlights that allowing more “gentle density” can add up to a lot of new units. That doesn’t get us all the way to 750,000 units—and it is on top of the 750,000 we’re on pace to build—but it would be a very healthy start.

But adding incremental density is difficult, absent zoning changes. Around 70 percent of land in the City of Toronto is restricted to single-detached or semi-detached homes. That doesn’t leave a lot of room to add new housing units within existing boundaries, given that most of the city is already built out. Allowing for the conversion of single-detached houses to up to four units could meaningfully increase the capacity to build housing in Toronto. 

The politics of densifying existing neighbourhoods are challenging. There is always a reason for existing residents to oppose new development. Noise, shade, traffic. These are the kind of tradeoffs that come with city living. But Ontario wouldn’t be blazing a new trail. Several other North American jurisdictions have overcome these challenges. Cities such as Minneapolis, Portland, and Edmonton have essentially ended exclusionary zoning. The cradle of North American NIMBYism, California, has effectively ended single-family zoning. There’s no reason the same couldn’t be done for Toronto and other Ontario cities.

While many of the most desirable neighbourhoods in the entire country are in older corners of Toronto where detached housing is the exception, rather than the rule, densification sounds scary to some. But we should be far more afraid of Southern Ontario becoming permanently unaffordable for young people. Long-standing homeowners who don’t like the changes can take solace in the home equity they’ve built as a result of those changes. It sounds harsh, but if we’re choosing between allowing Toronto to become a dynamic global city where young people can afford to live or a playground for the wealthy, the choice shouldn’t be that hard.

Of course, one might argue that the lack of housing in Toronto and other Ontario communities is created by local governments. So shouldn’t they be solved by local governments? The trouble is that city councils have little incentive to allow more housing. After all, prospective residents don’t have a say in whether a building gets built, even if they live one town over; but the neighbours do. So even minor inconveniences can trump needed housing. 

While there is a healthy, ongoing debate about whether upper levels of government should intervene in local housing policies (see the recent exchange between Sean Speer and Ken Boessenkool in these pages), it doesn’t appear likely that any substantive zoning changes are coming from the City of Toronto in the near future. No one seems to want to run for council, let alone challenge the incumbent mayor, so it’s hard to see a catalyst for change at the local level despite the urgency of building more housing. 

The provincial government represents the whole province, so it is better placed to make decisions that are in the interest of all Ontarians rather than individual municipalities. Given that Premier Ford just won a majority government in an election where every major party ran on meeting the Housing Task Force goal of 1.5 million new homes in the next decade, he has a mandate from Ontarians to ensure that goal is met. That means making the tough zoning decisions that city councils won’t. 

Ontario needs more housing. Particularly in Toronto. Ontario voters have handed Premier Ford a mandate to ensure that 1.5 million new homes are built over the next decade—a goal agreed upon by every major party in Ontario. Doubling the rate of home construction will not be easy. But adopting the Housing Affordability Task Force’s recommendation to allow more zoning flexibility would be a big step toward meeting that goal. 

Karen Restoule: Committing to a more collaborative and ambitious Canada on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Commentary

After learning in greater detail about the experiences of Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in residential schools, and the impacts on them and their families, Canadians have spent the last year revisiting their own thoughts and feelings about this country’s true history and their individual role in advancing reconciliation.Today we reflect on the dark realities that lead to reconciliation https://thehub.ca/2021-09-30/karen-restoule-today-we-reflect-on-the-dark-realities-that-lead-to-reconciliation/ Many people have been left with mixed emotions and a greater motivation to challenge their own long-held beliefs about Indigenous peoples and Canada, as a whole. As a result, there has been hesitation in deciding how to engage with key annual celebrations like National Indigenous Peoples Day and Canada Day. How do we celebrate the positive points of our relationship and reconcile the darker shades of our shared history? 

Today, as we recognize National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21, let’s go beyond celebrating the unique heritage and diverse cultures of Indigenous peoples. Let’s challenge our assumptions and commit to learning about the unique and outstanding contributions of Indigenous peoples in forming the strong foundational fabric of our country and be inspired by the principles of the original Indigenous-European relationships.

There is a commonly held stereotype that Indigenous peoples have always lived in small, secluded communities, never leaving their patch of land for anything. This couldn’t be further from fact. Prior to Indigenous-European contact, Indigenous peoples throughout these lands had expansive and established trade networks that gave way to the movement of goods and the people who moved them. 

As Indigenous leader Manny Jules recounted to a crowd in 2008 in his role as Chief Commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission: “There used to be millions of us. Although there were no population counts, best estimates suggest that there were at least 40 million of us in the Western Hemisphere in 1491. […] Market economies are not foreign to us. We created them ourselves. We traded goods over hundreds of miles. How could corn be used all throughout the Americas before contact, if we did not trade? How could pipestone end up in our territory before contact when it only comes from Pipestone, Minnesota, if we did not trade?”First Nations Trade, Specialization, and Market Institutions: A Historical Survey of First Nation Market Culture https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1372&context=aprci

Following contact, Indigenous Nations continued to have strong trade relations with European explorers as migration progressed. Research reveals that First Nations held all of the elements that are linked to a successful market culture in the periods prior to and immediately following contact, including specializations ranging from furs to wheat, iron to tobacco, and others. 

Extensive trade networks continued to grow throughout the 16th century and over the course of the next 200-plus years as European colonies continued to expand into the New World. The French and the English formed alliances with Indigenous Nations in an effort to secure commercial interests, and these groups pushed through conflict and war. 

Leading legal scholar John Borrows notes in his 2005 article, “Indigenous Legal Traditions in Canada”,Indigenous Legal Traditions in Canada https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1380&context=law_journal_law_policy that diplomacy was also factored into these trade relationships, whereby the legal customs, traditions, and cultural protocols of Indigenous Nations were observed and respected by European explorers and colonies. In the early 1700s, the French entered into Treaties with the Anishinabek of the Great Lakes by using Anishinabek forms, wampum belts, and ceremonies. European fur traders are said to have conducted commercial transactions in accordance with Indigenous traditions as well, by the giving of gifts, the extension of credit, and the standards of trade based on Indigenous legal principles. Marriages between Indigenous women and European men were conducted according to Indigenous legal traditions. The traces left behind by these interactions over hundreds of years following first contact continue to influence Canada’s fabric today, through symbols, historical celebrations, trade routes, harvesting traditions, traditional clothing apparel, and otherwise.

There was a fundamental shift in the mid-1700s when Britain, through the Treaty of Paris of 1763, ended 150-plus years of war.First Nations in Canada https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1307460755710/1536862806124 This was quickly followed up by the issuance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which, among other points in relation to France and Spain, helped Britain to achieve certainty and stability with Indigenous Nations. It laid out specific protocols for all dealings with Indigenous Nations, making the Crown the primary point of contact between Indigenous Nations and all colonies. While the Royal Proclamation of 1763 aimed to control the western expansion of the colonies, it made clear the parameters on land and trade: only the Crown could purchase land from Indigenous Nations and no settlement or trade could be completed without the permission of the Indian Department. 

The impacts of this legal instrument went beyond ending a war and establishing a fiduciary relationship, it extinguished a rich, mutually respectful, and mutually beneficial relationship that could have built off the early successes and led to a foundation for a different kind of country—a stronger, more collaborative, and more prosperous Canada. 

Today, as we celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day, and prepare for Canada Day celebrations next week, let’s consider the power of acknowledging the ugly and shiny parts of our shared history. Let’s be inspired by the successes of the original relationship between Indigenous peoples and Europeans that governed these lands for more than 200 years. Let’s commit to a better future, a Canada that is shaped by our foundational relationship of co-existence, collaboration, ambition, competitiveness, and great innovation.