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It’s no secret that Ontario is in the midst of a housing crisis — something that’s felt most acutely in its biggest cities.

Price increases over the past decade have crushed the dream of home ownership for many.

Meanwhile, the supply of housing of all kinds isn’t keeping up with the demands of a growing population.

“We need market housing. We need rental housing. We need affordable housing,” said David Amborski, director of the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development at Toronto Metropolitan University.

“We’re behind on all of them.”

While housing is an issue touched by all levels of government in Canada, it’s probably one of the most important issues in the upcoming municipal elections on Oct. 24. Voters have a crucial opportunity to choose leaders who will be responsible for taking action in their cities and towns.

With that in mind, CBC Toronto is breaking down some of the reasons why it’s so difficult to build housing, so voters can decide which candidates’ platforms best respond to the crisis.

First, a word on targets

Premier Doug Ford has adopted a target of building 1.5 million homes in 10 years, a goal recommended by the government-commissioned Housing Affordability Task Force earlier this year.

It’s a monumental task that requires accelerating the current pace of new construction. About 100,000 new housing units and 13,000 rental units were started in 2021, according to the province.

But the official growth plans of many of Ontario’s 444 municipalities are planning for much lower building figures, Mike Moffatt, an economist with the Smart Prosperity Institute at the University of Ottawa, told CBC last month.

In short, municipalities simply aren’t planning for enough housing.

Now, here are some of the other reasons why it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to meet the target.

A challenging market

Developers are facing market conditions that make it challenging to keep up with demand.

A shortage of skilled workers in the construction industry means there were some 82,000 unfilled positions across the country at the end of June, according to Statistics Canada.

At the same time, the price of labour, equipment and building materials like lumber, rebar and reinforced steel, spiked during the pandemic.

Inflated costs and the labour shortage have forced developers to think twice about whether to move forward with or delay existing projects, or take on new ones, just as securing financing becomes more difficult as the central bank raises interest rates.

Government fees in the province’s biggest city are rising, too.

Toronto’s city council recently voted to increase developer fees by 46 per cent over the next two years — a move one industry representative said earlier this summer could lead to cancelled projects.

Restrictive zoning rules

Exclusionary zoning rules make it difficult to add housing by restricting what can be built in certain places.

Toronto’s so-called “yellowbelt” is a good example.

If you look at the city’s land-use map, residential areas are shaded yellow. Huge swathes of these areas — called “neighbourhoods” in the city’s planning language — are zoned strictly for single-detached or semi-detached homes.

Property owners can therefore tear down an old bungalow and replace it with a bigger single-family home, but aren’t allowed to build a duplex, triplex or low-rise apartment building. To do so would require public consultation and an amendment to the zoning bylaw — a lengthy and costly process.

Also, until recently, homeowners couldn’t build more than one unit on a lot.

Mid-rise and high-rise buildings, meanwhile, are mostly only permitted in the red-shaded areas designated as mixed-use.

A screenshot of the City of Toronto’s land use map. The vast majority of land shaded in yellow is zoned for single-family homes only, which makes it difficult to add to existing housing stock, planners say. (City of Toronto Official Plan)

This has resulted in the “missing middle” problem, a term that means Toronto has a lot of low-density neighbourhoods filled with single family homes and high-density ones with tall condo and apartment buildings, but not much in between.

“We have the tall and sprawl of Toronto,” said Sean Galbraith, principal planner of Galbraith & Associates.

“North York is a great example. You’ve got the Yonge Street spine with massive density, and then right next door to it, you have houses in very close proximity to two subway lines. That makes absolutely no sense from a planning perspective.”

The City of Toronto now allows property owners to add garden and laneway suites, and is consulting on changes that would allow multiplexes in areas now zoned for single-family homes. The city’s newly-elected council will vote on that next year.

But the same problem exists in other cities.

In Ottawa, about half of all residential land is zoned for single-detached homes, while single-unit zoning is also prevalent in many suburbs surrounding Toronto, despite their proximity to transit and highways, according to the task force’s February report.

“The housing system as we have it today in Toronto and in most cities across Ontario was designed to prioritize existing homeowners and also to prioritize those who are wealthier,” said Cheryll Case, principal urban planner at CP Planning.

“And what housing types would wealthier households prefer? Single-detached housing.”

Complex, time-consuming approval process

Developers and urban planners alike complain that the way projects are evaluated and approved by Ontario municipalities is too complex and time-consuming.

To begin with, it can take eight to 10 years to go from acquiring undeveloped land to building housing, according to Amborski.

Builders need to obtain multiple approvals — which can take months, if not years — as various government departments conduct reviews and request revisions to meet planning requirements.

Developers are also required to pay for costly studies, hold public meetings to obtain community input and meet design guidelines that regulate everything from how much shadow a building can cast to what materials can be used.

“Despite the good intentions of many people involved in the approvals and home-building process, decades of dysfunction in the system and needless bureaucracy have made it too difficult for housing approvals to keep up with the needs of Ontarians,” the task force wrote.

A 2020 survey of the time it takes to secure development approvals in 23 Canadian cities placed Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa near the back of the pack, with timelines ranging between 20 to 24 months, not including building permits. A follow-up study released in September found approval times for most Greater Toronto Area municipalities have worsened in the years since.

“It’s ridiculous that it [sometimes] takes longer to approve a building than to build it,” said Naama Blonder, an architect and urban planner with the firm Smart Density.

“We need to stop the spin cycle of review after review after review for the same application,” added David Wilkes, president and CEO of BILD, a development industry group.

The Ford government recently passed a law that, in part, takes aim at municipal planning delays, but didn’t include many of the task force’s recommendations, including one on municipal zoning reform. Ontario also recently granted the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa new “strong mayor” powers in a bid to get more housing built.

Political planning and powerful NIMBYs

Municipal councils can still reject housing projects even after their own planning staff recommend approval.

This often happens due to the opposition of neighbours and residents’ associations.

The acronym NIMBY stands for “Not In My Back Yard” and describes a belief among some homeowners in single-family neighbourhoods that building denser communities and more affordable housing is great in theory, but not close to where they live.

The task force report said community pushback, particularly NIMBYism, can drag out and politicize the approval process, push up costs and discourage investment in new housing.

Local councillors have a powerful incentive to back community opposition and vote against developments, the task force argued, because “it’s existing residents who elect them, not future ones.”

Abusing the appeal system

Even after a project obtains approval from a local council, any individual or community group with $400 can appeal it to the Ontario Land Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body that observers say is overburdened and under-resourced.

Mark Richardson, an advocate with Housing Now TO, said affordable housing projects are often targets of such appeals.

“For the cost of a decent dinner out somewhere in the city, you can roadblock an affordable housing project for 18 months, 24 months, however long the appeal process takes,” Richardson said.

“During that time, no building can happen.”

Earlier this year, the tribunal dismissed an appeal launched by a group of Toronto residents’ associations that held up the city’s decision to allow garden suites.

The task force said the ease with which people can appeal planning decisions has resulted in members of the public abusing the process to delay housing projects.


Story by: CBC News