As Ontario’s newly-minted More Homes Built Faster Act is decried by Indigenous leaders, municipalities, farmers, and health experts alike, elected officials are questioning the “suspicious” link between developer titans buying parcels of protected Greenbelt land and Premier Doug Ford’s push to turn them into housing subdivisions.
Bill 23 received royal assent on Monday, despite municipalities voicing a range of concerns, including a loss of city revenue resulting in higher property taxes or service cuts, and weakening conservation authorities’ mandate for flood prevention and land protection—all without making homes more available or affordable as intended.
At least 13 municipalities, including Toronto, York Region, and Mississauga, passed motions against the housing bill central to Ontario’s plan to build 1.5 million homes in 10 years. Critics also say the legislation has been a rush job from start to finish. It was introduced one day after province-wide municipal elections, timing that “seemed aimed at limiting comment from incoming duly elected officials,” newly-elected Waterloo councillor Royce Bodaly told Kitchener City News.
Waterloo’s outgoing council had previously asked the province to defer its review of the bill until the incoming council had a chance to scrutinize it.
But still it passed, being one move among “a flurry of recent housing changes from the Progressive Conservative government, including plans to open some areas of the protected Greenbelt land to development and allowing the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to pass bylaws with just one-third of council support,” reports CBC News.
City Revenue Disrupted
The new housing act “indicates the transfer of up to C$1 billion a year in costs from private sector developers to property taxpayers without any likelihood of improved housing affordability,” the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) found after a preliminary analysis. “Bill 23, if enacted, would reduce the municipal resources available to service new developments by more than $5.1 billion over the next nine years,” with community housing alone standing to lose some $400 million over that time span.
The projected depletion of city coffers owes in part to “one of the most controversial aspects of the bill,” reports CBC News: the “freezing, reducing, and exempting [of] fees developers pay to build affordable housing, non-profit housing, and inclusionary zoning units.” The Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada said it was “pleased to see that development charges will be waived for all co-op and non-profit developments across the province,” adding that “this change will have a tangible and positive impact on the viability of developing new co-operative homes. But the federation warned the change will affect housing services for those experiencing homelessness, as well as the development of new affordable and co-operative housing, unless the funding is replaced.
AMO also condemned provisions that would see environmental protections reduced to “benefit developers in the short term,” an abdication of stewardship whose “costs to the public and homeowners… cannot be calculated.”
“Members of the Committee and all Members of the Provincial Parliament will need to consider in whose interest they govern,” AMO said. “Bill 23, as drafted, benefits private interests at the expense of public interests—at the expense of property taxpayers and Ontario’s natural environment.”
The financial impacts of Bill 23 are “devastating,” the City of Mississauga declared at a special council meeting November 23. The city predicted it “stands to lose over $800 million in revenue over the next 10 years,” including some $320 million earmarked for “growth-related infrastructure.” Mississauga added that the bill’s proposed 5% cap on inclusionary zoning (IZ) units—an amendment still to be finalized, according to legal experts—”will result in a minimum of 30% fewer affordable units than the city anticipated when it passed its IZ policy earlier this year.”
Civil society coalitions have also pushed back. On November 21, a self-described “rare coalition of farmers, housing advocates, urban planners, environmentalists, labour unions, health care workers, and community groups from across Ontario” released a detailed critique of the Ford government’s “recipe for sprawl.” Signed by more than 125 organizations, including the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Association, the National Farmers Union-Ontario, the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, and almost 100 individuals, the coalition’s “Big Tent” statement echoed the municipalities’ concerns.
The Ford government’s move to “limit the ability of municipalities to require the replacement of rental housing lost through redevelopment projects” undermines any sincere effort to protect affordable housing, the coalition’s said.
It added the proposed 5% IZ cap, plus the restricted, 25-year time period for ensuring the units’ affordability, “would take away the power of municipalities to require higher percentages (10-20%) and longer time periods—often 99 years.”
Wetland Protections Weakened
Chief Kelly LaRocca of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation said the bill would also have detrimental impacts on conservation efforts. “Weakening wetland protections, reducing the power of Conservation Authorities, and meddling with longstanding processes are not needed to build housing,” LaRocca said in a statement issued just before the bill passed. Such moves “simply undermine our democracy and place the environment at risk of permanent damage.”
The Big Tent coalition echoed those concerns, noting that the bill hamstrings conservation authorities—agencies established by the province to develop and deliver local, watershed-based resource management programs—by limiting their remit to natural hazards and flooding. It strips them of their role in watershed planning and management, activities “which are core to climate change mitigation and adaptation, flood protection, biodiversity conservation, and recreation.”
The coalition added that Bill 23 will “freeze conservation authority fees to current rates—an effort to starve CAs of funds, further weakening their ability to effectively function.”
This “attack on conservation authorities’ flood prevention and land protection roles” will “enable wholesale destruction of wetland habitats and conservation lands—and expose us all to an escalating risk of floods and other disasters,” warned Environmental Defence Canada.
The coalition also flagged the bill’s proposal “to abolish 50 years of coordinated regional planning in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe,” the province’s most densely populated and industrialized belt. “Regional planning is meant to prevent ‘patchwork’ sprawl by coordinating infrastructure with growth management planning and the identification of regional agricultural and natural heritage systems.”
“The bill would turn over planning entirely to 89 local municipalities which do not have the resources, expertise, spatial jurisdiction, or control of sewer and water servicing, major roads, and public transit.”
A ‘Swiss Cheese’ Greenbelt
The Big Tent coalition also critiqued the Ford government’s plan, announced November 4, to remove an equivalent of 30 square kilometres from the Ontario Greenbelt and build some 50,000 homes on this formerly protected land.
“There is no need to remove 7,400 acres of valuable farmland and natural areas from Greenbelt protection when 88,000 urban acres across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) are already primed for development,” the coalition said.
The Greenbelt removals will destroy farmland and natural areas and the vital ecological benefits they provide, like food security and climate resilience, the groups added. Ontario will set a “destructive precedent that Greenbelt-protected lands will be sacrificed when land speculators want to develop them, thereby creating an ecologically damaged ‘Swiss cheese’ Greenbelt,” as well as “divert limited construction resources away from building homes where they are needed within existing urban boundaries to building expensive and environmentally damaging sprawl.”
‘Suspicious’ Timing of Land Grabs
The Ford government’s plans for Greenbelt are not yet in the bag, however, thanks to a Toronto Star and Narwhal investigative report which found that eight of the 15 Greenbelt land packets now in line for development were purchased after Ford was elected in 2018. Nine of the developers that stand to gain the most from Ford’s Greenbelt plan have donated “significant sums to the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, totalling more than $572,000 since 2014, the earliest year in Ontario’s political donations database.”
The joint investigation traced a web of influence, with former PC president Peter Van Loan, now a lobbyist for development titan FieldGate Homes, as one case in point.
On the strength of the news investigation, MPP Marit Stiles (NDP, Davenport) called for Ontario’s auditor general to conduct a “value-for-money audit investigating how much wealth would be increased for property owners when their lands are removed from the Greenbelt,” and whether “this wealth transfer is in the public interest,” reports the Star. Stiles also asked the AG to consider “conflicts of interest and sharing of insider information” and “refer any evidence of misconduct to the appropriate authorities.”
In her submission to the AG, Stiles described the timing of recent purchases of Greenbelt land by major PC donors as “suspicious” and identified mega-developers Rice and Silvio De Gasperis by name.
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner filed his own complaint with the provincial integrity commissioner. The Star writes that he is “seeking an opinion on whether Ford and [Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve] Clark breached sections of the Members Integrity Act, or any other parliamentary convention, when making their decision to open up the Greenbelt lands for development.”
Schreiner “also wants an investigation into whether any unregistered lobbying activities took place by or on behalf of landowners who will be able to develop Greenbelt land.”
Ontarians “deserve to know, there’s been so many media reports, raising significant questions that a handful of land speculators are literally going to turn millions into billions,” Schreiner told the Star.
Neither the AG nor the integrity commissioner have yet commented publicly on the case.
Asked by MPP Jessica Bell (NDP, University Rosedale) whether developers were told about the plan to open Greenbelt lands to housing, Clark initially responded that “we’ve got to get shovels in the ground… we need to do bold and transformative measures.” In the legislature Wednesday, Clark “scrambled” to assure opposition MPPs there’d been no insider information shared with land speculator, the Star says. In a letter to AMO, he pledged to make municipalities “whole” if the new law makes it impossible for them to fund housing infrastructure and services, and introduced a third-party audit of selected communities’ reserve funds and development charges.
“It is critical that municipalities are able to fund and contract road, water, sewer, and other housing enabling infrastructure and services that our growing communities need,” he wrote.
Community pushback against Ford’s attempt to break into the Greenbelt continues. The Small Change Fund has launched a fundraising appeal, and Environmental Defence is calling for Ontarians to make their voices heard at the Repeal Bill 23 and Hands off the Greenbelt Days of Action December 3 and 4.