Ontario Election 2022: Liberals’ platform nudges cities to move on housing approvals

Included in the Liberals’ proposals are measures that would provide incentives to local governments for approving more homes and provide more funding to speed up the process.

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The full Ontario Liberal platform released Monday suggests municipal governments need a nudge to approve more homebuilding, with party leader Steven Del Duca saying his party would work “urgently but closely” with cities.

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According to Del Duca, “we are not going to point the finger at our municipal partners” like he believes the Progressive Conservatives have done when it comes to building more homes.

He released the Liberals’ costed election platform during a campaign announcement in Toronto.

Included in the Liberals’ proposals are measures that would provide incentives to local governments for approving more homes and provide more funding to speed up the process.

The Liberals’ platform says building homes “is a fundamental obligation of local governments.”

The Ontario Liberals are taking a page out of their federal counterparts’ most recent budget when it comes to dangling a carrot in front of municipalities, which are always hungry for new revenue streams to reduce their reliance on property taxes.

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The federal budget announced in April offered financial incentives to cities for approving new homes.

Coun. Glen Gower, who co-chairs the Ottawa’s planning committee, said funding could help the city hire more staff and speed up planning processes, but not overnight.

“I think the challenge is, where do all these folks come from, whether it’s new planners to review things or municipal engineers who do the review?” Gower said.

“And once things are reviewed, do you have the pipeline of construction workers in order to build the homes or the pool of qualified workers to be inspectors at a municipal level?”

The Liberals, NDP and PCs are all promising to build 1.5 million homes over 10 years, agreeing with a target recommended by the province’s Housing Affordability Task Force.

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While Del Duca painted the PCs as having a heavy-handed approach with municipalities when it comes to homebuilding, the PCs passed a More Homes for Everyone Act that didn’t pursue some of the deeply impactful measures recommended by the task force and feared by municipalities trying to retain local planning powers.

Still, the Tories’ legislation turned the heat up on municipalities by making them partially refund development application fees if they don’t make decisions by legislated timelines.

Like the federal Liberals, the Ontario Liberals believe municipalities need more money to push through development applications and get residential projects moving. The provincial Liberals would dish out $300 million to municipal governments over five years to increase resources for approving residential developments.

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There are also proposals in the Liberals’ platform that could partially blow up an official plan, like the one that Ottawa’s council approved in 2021.

The Liberals would allow two-storey, three-unit residential developments “as of right”, meaning builders wouldn’t need to get land-use changes from the municipal government.

Del Duca said the policy could be implemented with municipalities so that residents will keep the “nature and flavour” of their communities.

Gower agrees there needs to be more housing in Ottawa and across Ontario, but the City of Ottawa just spent more than two years consulting on a new official plan. A provincial policy that aims to create more homes must be tailored to individual cities, which have different geographies and transportation networks, Gower said.

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“Just to impose a one-size-fits-all across the province, I don’t think that makes a lot of sense. I think it makes far more sense to engage with the public,” Gower said.

Municipalities could unlock another provincial incentive under the Liberals’ plan if the local governments “meet or exceed housing targets in an environmentally sustainable manner.” The Liberals would make more than $1.1 billion available over four years for municipalities to pay for local capital projects, such as public transit, libraries or parks.

Gower said the biggest issue he hears from residents is the lack of infrastructure, like roads, public transit and municipal facilities, that should come with new development.

“If you’re going to tell municipalities to keep growing, how about a bit of funding to help us catch up on some of these big transportation projects that are behind,” Gower said.

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“You can’t just look at housing growth alone. How are you supporting that growth with schools, health care, transportation infrastructure? Municipalities need some help from the province to support the growth that’s happening so we have complete and healthy communities.”

The NDP’s housing platform offers to reform land-use planning rules to encourage homebuilding in “complete communities”.

Where the recent pre-election PC budget talked about striking a working group with municipalities on vacant home taxes, along with finding ways to crack down on land speculation by developers, the Liberals propose moving ahead on both fronts, taxing vacant residential units and slapping a levy on properties that have building approvals but at which construction has not yet started.

Under the Liberals’ plan, the speculation levy would rake in $200 million starting in 2023-2024 with increases of $25 million in each of the subsequent two years.

The Ontario election is on June 2.

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