The Ontario government calls it an incentive that will help speed up new home construction and make housing more affordable across the province.
But Toronto officials say a system of new planning deadlines with attached refunds, outlined in a provincial housing bill on Wednesday, is more penalty than incentive. It could amount to millions of dollars in refunds for cities and will have the “perverse” effect of delaying development by sending more planning applications to the already backlogged Ontario Land Tribunal.
One academic called the plan the latest move by the Ontario Progressive Conservative government to undermine local decision-making, particularly in Toronto.
Toronto’s chief planner Gregg Lintern said he’s still digesting the bill tabled by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark. But the approval requirements set out in the legislation are unrealistic given the complexities of intensification and infrastructure in Canada’s largest city.
“The majority of development in Toronto is approved … because we work with people. That takes some time. It certainly takes more than 60 or 90 days to do it right. Why would we be punished for that — not getting to that approval in 60 or 90 days? The logic escapes me. It is not the way to do planning,” he said.
The More Housing for Everyone Act will force cities to refund developers’ fees if they don’t decide on site plans within 60 days. If they miss that deadline half the fee will be returned to the developer. If the decision goes past 90 days, the developer gets back 75 per cent and, after 120 days, the entire fee is refunded.
For zoning amendments, cities will have 90 days to decide on an application before 50 per cent of the fee is returned; 150 days before 75 per cent gets refunded and, after 210 days, the entire fee is returned.
Toronto received 800 development applications last year bringing in tens of millions of dollars in fees that it says cover the work involved in reviewing those applications. Under the new rules a percentage of those fees could end up being refunded.
Fees range according to the size and complexity of a project. One site plan application cost $210,780 for a 49-storey, 678-unit mixed-use building. The developer of a 67-unit, seven-storey condo paid $62,605.
Zoning bylaw amendment applications also vary. Toronto charged $348,011 for two 14-storey mixed-use buildings with 549 units. A 20-unit townhouse project was charged $59,241. A three-tower complex with 1,412 units was charged $999,366.
Lintern says it’s the first time he’s seen legislation that takes the type of “punitive” approach that is being proposed. He fears city planners will reject good applications that could have been approved with more time. That will send developers to the appeal tribunal and the process will become adversarial instead of collaborative.
“It will have he unintended consequences of creating more red tape, not less,” he said.
What happens in the development process “is ideas come out from the developer, the community, the planners. You make changes, often positive changes and that’s why we get to a majority of applications that we say ‘yes’ to,” said Lintern.
City Councilor Josh Matlow (Toronto-St. Paul’s) called the money-back deadlines “arbitrary” and “disappointingly immature.” Ninety days might be enough to approve cookie-cutter developments outside the city, he said, but in Toronto, “It doesn’t take into account technical issues like sewer capacity or groundwater displacement or wind shear mitigation that engineers need to analyze.
“It doesn’t take into account the fact that the application will be circulated to all the relevant divisions to consider whether it be child care or other benefits that need to be part of the development. It doesn’t consider the fact that these proposals are circulated to partners to consider school capacity, utilities so that you don’t hit a cable or you don’t dig up the same pole twice,” he said.
Clark said the bill “propose smart, targeted policies to address the long, drawn-out delays in the approvals process and get housing built faster.”
A statement from the minister’s office noted that a 2020 study from the Building and Land Development Association (BILD) found approvals in the GTA take nine to 24 months.
“The delays that we see are not normal,” said the statement, which noted the province’s affordable housing task force found Canada ranks 34 out of 35 OECD countries in development approval timelines.
“These delays drive up the cost of new homes: every month of delay costs an average $2,000 per unit of a condo. With some municipalities taking up to two years just to review site plan, this is adding over $100,000 to the price of a home,” according to the minister.
Planners and politicians in other cities said they are still reviewing the legislation.
Mississauga commissioner of planning and building Andrew Whittemore said he had similar concerns about the punitive deadlines and worries they could lead to conditional approvals that create ambiguity for developers and the public. The red-tape reduction system risks transferring the costs from developers to taxpayers, he said.
Whittemore added that sped-up planning comes at a cost in reduced community consultation, community safety and the time it takes to focus on great city-building.
Noting that boosting supply won’t guarantee affordability, he said, “The focus is entirely on municipalities with no obligation on developers to take action to make housing more affordable.”
Luisa Sotomayor, an associate professor in York University’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, said the bill undermines local planning autonomy and won’t enhance affordability.
She said Toronto has increasingly been left to deal with big issues such as immigration, where the decisions are made by federal and provincial authorities and the city’s power to address them is increasingly diminished, which is a bad trend for democracy.
“Everyone blames city and the city has no legal authority to respond to many of the challenges that they have,” she said.
At the same time, said Sotomayor, “We’ve seen a very dangerous discourse on housing affordability being framed from this perspective of supply without looking at what households need and what type of conditions are required to produce healthy neighborhoods and communities.
“No matter how fast the planning department expedites the process, the impact is going to be minimal because there is a mismatch in the market. What the (building) sector wants to sell is luxury townhouses or luxury condos.”
Those don’t meet the needs of young families and first-time buyers.
“Maintaining a healthy supply is very relevant. That supply has to provide a variety of options and has to focus on what the needs are, and when the market is so high there’s no opportunity for middle-class families to enter,” said Sotomayor.
The provincial housing bill was also criticized for failing to take one of the boldest steps recommended by the government’s Housing Affordability Task Force — the elimination of exclusionary zoning that has confined many Toronto neighborhoods to single-family housing. Clark said the task force recommendation remains the government’s road map but some municipalities simply weren’t ready for that step.
Toronto City Councilor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Don Valley East) said he recognizes “the government is in an awkward spot.” It needs to build more homes but if it removes that particular responsibility from local councils down the road it will have “left community neighborhoods at the curb.”
It will show that “neighbourhood decision making doesn’t matter, that building housing is more important than community input,” he said.
Lintern said Toronto has already shown leadership in adding density to those neighborhoods by creating guidelines to build backyard homes and secondary suites, and is now focused on allowing multiplexes.
“We’ve been quite open and honest with people that we need to have a discussion about the Toronto of the future and what our neighborhoods are going to be like, who is going to live there, and will your children be able to live in this city if we don’t expand housing options?”
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