When reviewing the OMB, Queen’s Park should not lose sight of housing affordability

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, March 13, 2017

The Ontario government is reviewing the role played by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), an independent tribunal that hears cases relating to land-use policies. While this may seem like a minor bureaucratic tweak, weakening the OMB could potentially erode the supply of new housing units in Toronto, further driving up the cost of living in Canada’s largest city.

The OMB provides an external avenue for citizens or organizations to appeal land-use decisions made at city hall. Queen’s Park also claims that it speeds up what would otherwise be lengthy appeals in the courts. However, critics argue that the OMB undermines the power of local elected officials and planning professionals. They see a distant, unaccountable body making decisions impacting communities they know little about.

Indeed, much of the current debate revolves around OMB decisions that green light large-scale housing developments in lower-density neighbourhoods, permanently altering their character. Preserving the charm of older neighbourhoods can be an attractive idea, but the resulting trade-off can be less housing units in the city—and more in the suburbs.

While opponents of OMB decisions may sometimes have valid concerns, undermining the OMB could well mean less housing gets built. It helps to remember that a single building facing local opposition can represent dozens, if not hundreds, of homes for Torontonians and their families. If limiting OMB influence leads to more projects being thwarted or scaled back by city council, there could be serious implications for housing affordability in the city.

Toronto is growing fast. According to the latest census, the city added more than 116,000 new residents—roughly a city the size of Ajax—between 2011 and 2016. This means a lot of newcomers, all of whom need homes. With rental vacancies razor thin, more housing must be built to accommodate this growth. If not, a growing number of buyers and renters bidding on a dwindling pool of listings will inevitably push prices up.

The supply of housing is already hampered by many factors. Natural barriers such as Lake Ontario or floodplains already hem in urban growth, but so too do government policies. In a study published last summer, Fraser Institute researchers estimate the impact that local homebuilding regulations have on housing stock growth across Canadian cities. Long and uncertain building permit approval timelines, high compliance costs and fees for homebuilders, and community opposition to new homes have all made it more difficult to build in cities like Toronto, and easier to build in suburbs like Brampton. Besides the potential ramifications for urban sprawl and traffic congestion, a more restricted supply, especially where housing is most desired, can erode affordability.

Some argue that the OMB leans too much in favour of allowing developers to build wherever they choose despite any local opposition. In reality, there are inherent trade-offs between retaining certain elements of neighbourhood character and accommodating newcomers. And while the OMB may not be perfect, there can be benefits to having a third-party adjudicate conflicts between existing and potential residents. It might well be true that reforms are warranted, but it’s important to recognize that housing affordability in a growing city cannot co-exist with a fixed housing stock.

Whatever the OMB ends up looking like after the province completes its review, Queen’s Park should not lose sight of the importance of housing supply keeping up with demand. Faced with rising home prices, the last thing Canada’s largest, most dynamic city needs is to exacerbate the problem.

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