More power for Ontario municipalities means more responsibility to build housing
The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) is no more. The Ontario government recently announced that the OMB—the tribunal charged with adjudicating land-use planning disputes between local governments, citizens and property developers—will be replaced with a less-powerful body, the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT).
Broadly speaking, the LPAT’s decisions will focus on whether building proposals follow local planning guidelines (a simple yes/no), rather than the OMB’s ability to modify planning decisions after considering factors such as provincial legislation.
At first glance, this change may seem like a minor bureaucratic detail, but eliminating the OMB could significantly affect Ontario’s fastest-growing urban areas. While opponents of the OMB believe this change will empower local councils to make decisions in the best interest of their constituents, others warn that without the check a body such as the OMB places on local councils, they could become excessively deferential to community opposition to development, thus preventing the housing stock from keeping pace with strong housing demand.
This could worsen existing affordability concerns—particularly in Toronto.
Now that OMB opponents on council got what they wanted, it’s up to them to ensure that the potential consequences they were warned about don’t materialize.
It’s important to recognize that Ontario’s largest urban areas—most notably the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area—are in high demand. As workers, students, retirees and immigrants continue to converge on Canada’s biggest city, the need for new homes grows in lockstep. In fact, the combined Toronto, Hamilton and Oshawa Census Metropolitan Areas grew by almost 400,000 inhabitants between 2011 and 2016—the equivalent of two cities the size of Oakville. In short, a lot of housing must be built to satisfy demand.
As such, it now falls more than ever on local governments to ensure the housing supply keeps up—especially when provincial policy restricts the amount of development on the outskirts of the 905. Sometimes that will mean growing upward, even if it means, for instance, that a new apartment building casts shade on an elementary school. These trade-offs exist in urban life, even if they don’t please everyone. Without the OMB as a scapegoat, councillors must now make tough decisions themselves.
In previous OMB cases, cities were often pitted against building projects that certain residents felt were too large or out of place in their neighbourhoods. Indeed, Fraser Institute research (using its periodic land-use surveys) finds that higher levels of local opposition to new homes have a negative impact on growth in the housing supply. There are real risks, therefore, that local planning processes do not designate enough space to accommodate newcomers. And when demand for housing remains strong, but supply is constrained by restrictive planning, prices go up for buyers and renters alike.
This said, one potential advantage of the new rules is that larger housing developments are now more likely to occur where citizens, council members and planning staff prefer the developments to take place (through official planning guidelines). This, in turn, could help accelerate the approvals process, which currently involves homebuilders waiting an average of 18 months across Greater Golden Horseshoe municipalities before obtaining building permits.
So, with this new tribunal come new threats—but also new opportunities. Rather than seizing on these new-fangled powers to oppose housing in Ontario’s most in-demand cities, the LPAT can empower communities to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of homes current and future Ontarians need, on their own terms.
Needless to say, local governments would be wise to choose the latter.