Wynne government delivers another potential blow to housing affordability in Toronto

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, May 26, 2017

The Ontario government has decided to reform the Ontario Municipal Board, a quasi-judicial body that adjudicates land-use planning disputes in Ontario. While this may seem like a minor administrative tweak, it could have big ramifications for housing affordability in Toronto—particularly if it stunts high-rise developments, which seems to be the desired goal of many OMB opponents.

According to some, changing the OMB is a “boon to local democracy.” While that may sound nice, the planned changes will make it easier for small groups of local residents to delay, curtail or prevent needed housing units from being built. For instance, OMB critics were recently outraged by a 35-story condo tower in a dense urban neighbourhood, which the OMB approved. Toronto’s chief planner lamented the approval noting that “because it was a decision of the OMB, it's not something that the municipality can undo."

But while the OMB may not be perfect, Ontario has a growth management plan that aims to curtail sprawl and densify urban areas. Since sprawl is limited, to grow its housing supply, Toronto must build up. One of the key roles of the OMB is to ensure municipalities don’t impede the province’s growth plan. This is crucial, since keeping up with housing demand requires the city to accommodate more density. Otherwise, affordability will continue to decline and people will be forced to commute into the city from further and further away.

Even with the OMB, housing growth in Toronto has been slower than one might have expected. A recent Fraser Institute study estimated how much the housing stock in Toronto and other GTA municipalities would have grown between 2006 and 2011, based on demographic and economic factors, had each muncipality’s housing regulations been in-line with the regional average (which is found in Vaughan). Nearly every census tract in the City of Toronto grew less quickly than the model would have predicted, while many suburbs grew much faster than expected.

Toronto is a global city that people from the rest of Canada and around the world flock to in large numbers. Between 2011 and 2016, Toronto grew by nearly 350,000 people—more than the population of Saskatoon, Kitchener or Windsor. Again, with the Greenbelt limiting outwards growth, Toronto must grow upwards—rapidly—to improve housing affordability. Worsening the “double-squeeze” from constraints on both outward and upward growth will further diminish affordability in Toronto.

Given that the decision has already been made, Torontonians, and those who hope to move to Toronto, will have to hope for the best from the reconfigured OMB. But if the people cheering the decision have their way, there may well be a lot of disappointed prospective Toronto homebuyers and tenants.

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