Opinion Piece on Bill 185 and the PPS

June 3, 2024

The following piece appeared in the Toronto Star on May 25, 2024 in the Opinion Section.

Doug Ford hasn’t learned from the Greenbelt scandal: Ontario’s housing strategy still promotes sprawl and paving over farmland

The Ontario government is about to undo the protections we have for the province’s watersheds, wilderness and farmland. They’re also taking away the public’s ability to speak out — claiming it’s the only way to get affordable housing.

The government is wrong. The consequences of two new housing laws introduced by Premier Doug Ford will remove remaining guardrails to unbridled, costly, and unaffordable low-density sprawl with no guarantee that affordable homes will ever be built.

Ford’s proposed laws run contrary to the advice from his own Housing Task Force as well as the recent Blueprint for More and Better Housing prepared by public and private sector experts.  Both of these reports call for new  housing to be built within cities and communities — not in fields and forests — to save money, combat climate change, and facilitate rental housing in particular.

The proposals also put the province directly at odds with the federal government's recently announced plans to promote new housing within existing cities and communities. For the first time in decades, Ottawa has signaled clearly to Canadians that Ottawa is back in the housing business, committing $8.5 billion in new spending on dozens of programs.

These programs focus on building badly needed rental housing and a recommitment to affordable co-op and non-profit housing, including on publicly owned lands, which typically happens in existing towns and cities.

The province is headed in the opposite direction. Shortly before the federal housing plan was released, Ford’s government introduced Bill 185, which it calls the Cutting Red Tape to Build more Homes Act, along with proposed changes to the Provincial Planning Statement, Ontario’s land use master plan.

If passed, the proposed provincial laws and policies will give greenfield developers a free hand to open up farmland, natural areas and waterways to build expensive single family homes, in new subdivisions. This won’t help the housing crisis. The vast majority of Ontarians cannot afford to buy single family homes in new subdivisions where you need a car to get anywhere.

The Premier’s stated preference to focus on single family units is at odds with the fact that Ontario’s median household income is about $75,000 and that one- and two person households now comprise over half of all households. No surprise that eight out of 10 housing starts in 2023 were multi-residential units — that’s what’s needed.

The proposed provincial laws remove legal requirements that direct growth to existing communities rather than greenspace. They also remove any requirements for even minimum density on farmland approved for housing — so there’s no guarantee that affordable units would be built. And they take away any municipal powers to stop urban expansion onto farmland.

At the same time, the public will lose its voice in the planning process. The proposed legislation removes the ability of any person, landowner, non-government organizations, or upper tier municipality to challenge an urban expansion at the Ontario Land tribunal (OLT).

It’s true that pedantic legal challenges can sometimes slow up planning and housing, but rather than trying to streamline the process, Ford’s proposals simply take away peoples’ rights. And that’s wrong.

Even after being stung by the Greenbelt scandals and while still tainted with the whiff of corruption, the Ford government is moving forward on the removal of Ontario’s farmland and environmental protections with this proposed legislation. It’s also needlessly stripping the rights of elected municipal councillors and ratepayers to participate in the future planning of their communities.

We call upon Queens Park to join with Ottawa to ensure that we build the housing we need in the right places within our existing towns and cities. Shelve Bill 185 and the proposed changes to the Provincial Planning Statement. We need both levels of government rowing in the same direction to solve our housing crisis.

David Crombie is the former Mayor of Toronto and Federal Cabinet Minister. Anne Golden is the former President of the Conference Board of Canada. Both are founders of the Alliance for a Liveable Ontario.