Adam Zivo: City politicians continue their war to keep house prices high

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Municipal politicians across Canada have spent a generation blocking the construction of new homes, contributing to a catastrophic housing shortage that has made home ownership unaffordable for many Canadians. There has been growing political momentum to disempower municipal politicians so they can stop sabotaging the future of young Canadians – but these politicians are now fighting back, eager to protect the powers they have so irresponsibly abused.

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It is hard to underestimate how serious the housing shortage in Canada is. In January, a Scotiabank report showed that Canada had the the lowest housing stock per capita in the G7, Ontario having the lowest housing stock per capita in Canada. Ontario would need to build 650,000 new homes just to catch up to the national average, not to mention the housing levels seen in the G7. And that’s before taking into account the housing needed to accommodate future population growth.

There are simply too many people bidding on too few homes, driving up prices. Canada needs to build as much housing as possible until prices finally come down from the stratosphere. Unfortunately, onerous municipal regulations often make new shoots illegal or strangle them with bureaucracy.

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Canadian politicians are beginning to recognize this. Conservative leadership candidates Pierre Poilievre and Scott Aitchison advocated strongly for the provision of supercharging housing. Meanwhile, last December the Ford government convened a working group on housing who in February released a report full of bold recommendations for housing reform.

The report advocated overriding municipal decision-makers, forcing them to accept more density in more neighborhoods — particularly soft density (such as townhouses and small apartment buildings) in areas currently dominated by single-family homes.

Predictably, municipal politicians noticed that their powers were under threat and subsequently rallied against the report. Mayors of Aurora and Mississauga denounced the recommendations of the task force, while Association of Municipalities of Ontario released a statement saying the report did not appreciate the unique ideas that local politicians and planning staff have when it comes to densifying their neighborhoods.

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  1. Signage opposing a development project in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Monday, December 6, 2021.

    Adam Zivo: Single-family zoning remains untouchable in Ontario, so house prices will continue to soar

  2. Nothing

    Adam Zivo: Toronto goes to war with province to keep housing prices high

When the Ford government released its housing strategy late last month, it excluded many of the task force’s key recommendations and offered only superficial reforms. Housing advocates I spoke to viewed this as giving in to municipal tantrums.

In an ideal world, municipalities would be right to argue for more local control. In an ideal world, municipal politicians and local planners would truly be in the best position to manage growth. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

Municipal housing supervision has unfortunately been deeply contaminated by NIMBY (“not in my garden”) activism. Fearing change, NIMBY activists reflexively oppose new housing and believe neighborhoods should be treated like fossils. As a result, they are inadvertently turning huge swaths of Canadian municipalities into exclusive clubs—those who didn’t have the privilege of buying a home early are locked out and often exiled to remote suburbs.

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Due to NIMBY-ism, there is little real local democracy in town planning. Instead, NIMBY interest groups dominate community consultations and force municipal politicians and their planning staff to bow down to them.

NIMBYs have an outsized influence on municipal politics because local elections are relatively uninspiring, resulting in low levels of political engagement from voters. When a political arena is quiet, small but loud special interest groups, such as the NIMBYs, become very prominent. Municipal elected officials who want to keep their position know that we have to be light with them.

Although NIMBY-ism has an impact provincial and federal politics, the massive presence of other political interests, combined with the distance between grassroots activists and provincial decision-makers, weakens NIMBY’s voices.

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When politicians invoke the importance of “local control” and “local democracy” in housing, this rhetoric is often hollow. More often than not, this means a Faustian bargain in which city politicians defend wealthy homeowners at the expense of everyone else, so that they protect their political careers while avoiding the consequences of their mismanagement of housing policy.

It’s not often said out loud, especially with the candor I’m using here, but that sentiment is prevalent among many of the housing activists and policymakers I’ve worked with in my coverage of Canadian politics. housing.

With housing reforms favorable to Ford’s bid stalled, city politicians moved on to their next target – the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT). The OLT is a provincial body that developers can appeal to if their applications are rejected by planners. City politicians argue that the BTA undermines local democracy and rubber stamp developments against the wishes of local residents. In fact, it is often an indispensable tool for resuscitating housing projects that have been killed for spurious reasons.

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In an ideal world, Ontario would not need the OLT. However, the BTA is currently needed as municipal politicians often undermine pro-housing reforms.

It is telling that one of the leaders of the campaign to abolish the OLT is Toronto City Councilor Josh Matlow, who has a reputation in the media and among Toronto housing advocates for being a strident NIMBY. Com. Matlow advocates for local democracy, but he is also legendary among housing activists for blocking constituents on social media if they advocate for more housing. I imagine that local democracy is not open to tenants who dare to dream of home ownership.

Matlow’s selective conception of “local democracy” is no exception among his peers. The NIMBYs and their municipal enablers won a political battle this spring by cutting Ford’s pro-procurement program. Let’s hope they don’t win any more battles.

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