Housing needs zoning to block our politicians


Toronto, among other Canadian cities, allegedly faces a housing crisis, its downtown streets populated by homeless people who wander among towering condo projects where hundreds of thousands of dwellers look out over a skyline dotted with construction cranes erecting new 300- to 1,200-square-foot rental and condo units to house a growing population of millennials, immigrants and consumers who walk their dogs through city traffic.

Despite the building boom, Toronto and the region known as the Golden Horseshoe, all the way through Hamilton to Niagara and the U.S. border, is said to be home to a looming housing crisis. A similar situation allegedly exists in the Vancouver area. Both cities are now the target of aggressive provincial housing policy initiatives.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s Conservatives have introduced the More Homes Built Faster Act while B.C. Premier David Eby’s New Democrats brought in a new Housing Supply Act.  In Ottawa, the latest auditor general report portrayed the federal government’s current $78.5-billion National Housing Strategy in boondoggle terms as it relates to homelessness. Key agencies, including the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, seem to have no idea whether any of the money flowing out of Ottawa for housing is doing anything to relieve homelessness. Since the social and psychological causes of homelessness have nothing to do with housing policy, that conclusion is no surprise.

In reality, the causes of urban housing problems (real or imagined) are legendarily near impossible to accurately identify, leaving the field open to squadrons of politicians, activists, developers, academics, economists, urban planners, columnists and editorial writers with big ideas on how to reshape urban life from the commanding heights of economic planning.

Among the housing crisis causes frequently cited, most with little or no evidence: foreign buyers, distorting tax policies, speculators, increased immigration, shortages of home listings, low borrowing costs, high borrowing costs, zoning rules, greedy condo rental owners, employment gains, too many millennials, lack of new supply, greenbelt constraints, high numbers of vacant homes, an aging population that won’t sell, and dumb-as-nails buyers who pay $1.5 million for a small condo.

Where should governments begin to solve the perpetual problem of matching supply and demand in an industry that is already infected with scores of distorting interventions and policies? The list of suggested fixing mechanisms is long and uncertain: easier zoning rules, revised mortgage lending rules, more zoning, government incentives for apartment construction, increased densification, less zoning, tighter rent controls, a foreign buyers’ tax, a tax on housing-flippers, a tax on housing hoarders, a tax on landowners to force more home construction.

In Toronto, the situation is roaring out of control amid a political power crisis around a housing crisis that may or may not exist, and if it does exist, the causes may well be the existing housing programs imposed by all levels of government.

On top of a few laudable measures — eliminating land transfer taxes, for example, would help reduce the cost of building new homes — the Ontario government’s commanding heights housing regime includes a move to give Toronto Mayor John Tory more power to bulldoze — politically and in some cases literally — to make way for new housing. Under a new Better Municipal Governance Act, Mayor Tory will be granted the power to get provincially backed housing strategies through council with the support of only one-third of council members.

Under what are called “strong mayor powers” previously granted by the province, Tory also has a veto over council housing decisions that run contrary to the province’s authoritarian housing programs. It’s a power grab sought by Tory himself. According to a media report, Tory asked for the new powers “to make sure we can get more housing built as quickly as possible, to avoid NIMBYism, and to help make sure this new system works as efficiently as possible.”

Making sure command-and-control economic policies work efficiently is a tall order that has rarely if ever succeeded in the past. Maybe it’s time to set a zoning ring around politicians in the housing market.

Speaking of zoning, the overall push for greater density in such urban centres as Toronto has exposed an internal contradiction among housing policy advocates. As a demonstration of the contradiction, we have the editorial pages of Toronto newspapers. Aside from the Star, the Globe and Mail editorial board has called on governments to abandon existing zoning to make way for major condo developments and promote urban density. The Globe believes zoning rules have long prevented adequate housing construction, particularly in those places “where most Canadians want to live.” Removing zoning restrictions “would not be a popular move with some voters,” said the Globe the other day, but it is “the right move.”

Not that Globe editorial writers are opposed to zoning as a matter of principle. A few days earlier, they had no problem attacking the Ontario government for planning to de-zone up to 7,400 Greenbelt acres for housing development in Niagara and around the Greater Toronto Area. In other words, zoning is good when it supports their view of the world — urban density, the 15-minute city, zero cars, protected farmland and greenbelts — but bad when it allows people to have a backyard and some open spaces rather than be holed up in a 750-square-foot unit 25 storeys up in the sky and the only option is to walk the dog through traffic.