Ford holds housing summit, promises funding to help municipalities cut red tape

TORONTO — Ontario's largest communities will get new funding to help speed up development approvals, Premier Doug Ford announced as he hosted a housing summit Wednesday, but the municipal leaders he met with say much stronger action is needed.

Ford said his goal for the virtual meeting with big city mayors and regional chairs was to come up with concrete ways to allow more families to buy a home.

"While the solutions may seem obvious, implementing them takes a lot of hard work and determination," he said in his opening remarks.

A new $45-million Streamline Development Approval Fund will help the 39 largest municipalities approve housing applications more quickly, Ford said. As well, the province said it will work with municipalities to develop a data standard for planning and development applications that should speed up the processes.

The housing crisis in Ontario won't be solved overnight, said Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, but removing red tape can help get more homes built faster.

"There is no silver bullet," Clark said after the summit. "Addressing Ontario's housing supply crisis is a long-term strategy that requires long-term commitment, collaboration and co-ordination."

The Progressive Conservative government is expecting a report early this year from a housing affordability task force, which was appointed to look into measures to boost the supply of rental and ownership housing, reduce red tape, and other options to address housing issues.

Clark said changes to zoning rules to allow for more density are among many suggestions under consideration.

"We need housing of all types," he said. "We need missing middle, we need that purpose-built rental, yes, we need single family as well. But we also need that mixture of homes that really reflects local communities."

Jeff Lehman, the mayor of Barrie, Ont., and the chair of the Ontario's Big City Mayors caucus, said the new development approval fund is appreciated, but more action is needed.

"The run-up in prices is so steep and the rise in rent is so high we’re going to need more substantive solutions to solve the problem," he said after the summit. 

"We can always make the processes better or faster, I think, but we’re going to have to be bolder than that if we’re going to make a substantive difference in the actual cost of housing."

Ontario could change tax policy to create incentives to build rental apartments, Lehman said as one example.

But there is a limited amount of time in which this government can take bolder steps. Clark said he hopes he will be able to get one more bill passed before the upcoming spring election, though he notes that there will also be a budget to introduce, debate and pass as well.

Both Clark and Lehman also said labour is proving to be a challenge in building homes, as a lack of people in skilled trades is slowing construction. 

The Ontario Real Estate Association urged the government to consider supports for first-time home buyers and and allowing alternatives to traditional home ownership, such as rent-to-own.

"Increasing housing supply is the only path forward," OREA president David Oikle said in a statement. 

"Demand side measures, like new taxes or bans on foreign buyers are a distraction. Ontario needs to learn from other jurisdictions like New Zealand and take bold action, like ending exclusionary zoning in large cities."

Ontario's Opposition New Democrats say they want to see more rent controls and measures to help people trying to get into the increasingly unaffordable market, as well as stricter rules for speculators.

"we heard no clear concrete measures that is going to make it easier for someone to buy their first home or for a renter, a senior, a single parent to pay the rent," said NDP critic Jessica Bell.

Ford and Clark are set to host a meeting on Sunday with rural, remote and northern municipalities to discuss their specific housing challenges. Clark will also participate in a federal-provincial-territorial meeting Thursday on housing. 

Figures in Ontario's fall economic statement show year-to-date home starts were 16 per cent higher than in the previous year, and rental housing starts were 14 per cent higher.

In the resale market, a frenzy peaked in March 2021 at a record high, before moderating by September. But in that month the average home resale price in Ontario was 31.4 per cent higher than the February 2020 pre-pandemic level.

The government pointed to low interest rates, higher overall disposable incomes, limited resale listings and shifting home preferences to explain the strong demand.

Telling figures illustrating the province's heated housing markets can also be found in the land transfer tax revenue. In 2020-21, Ontario collected about $3.7 billion in revenue from land transfer taxes. In 2021-22, the total was projected to skyrocket to more than $5 billion.

The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board said earlier this month that a record 121,712 homes were sold through its MLS system last year, up 28 per cent compared with 2020 and nearly eight per cent above the previous 2016 high of 113,040.

The average 2021 selling price set a peak of $1.095 million, up about 18 per cent from the high the prior year of $929,636.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2022.

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly said the housing affordability task force will publish its recommendations next year.