‘Strong Mayor’ Powers Won’t Fix Housing

By: Mary Spear

In response to the housing crisis in Ontario, the provincial government has passed a bill aimed at reducing barriers at the city-level to increase the supply of housing. Bill 3, Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act affords mayor’s of Ontario’s largest cities, Ottawa and Toronto respectively, a bevy of new powers. Such powers include the ability to veto city council decisions when they are deemed to interfere with provincial priorities, such as increasing the supply of houses. Opinions on the use of mayoral veto to get housing built are split. Former Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson sees the Bill as “a solution looking for a problem” while Toronto Mayor John Tory, is in favour of Bill 3.

Though housing prices in Ottawa have increased, Toronto is in full-crisis. Toronto is the second least-affordable city in North America, leading to ripple effects across the housing market in Canada as Torontonians seek cheaper alternatives. As such, the decisions that Toronto City Council make on housing have impacts that extend far beyond the city itself, and it is worth exploring how Bill 3 may impact these decisions. The question as to whether Toronto City Council blocks housing development to such an extent that a mayoral veto is necessary, is therefore of national interest.

Toronto City Council Not A Barrier to Housing Development

In Toronto, despite the assumption that individual councillors’ votes block the development of housing, the true culprit is an antiquated zoning classification of “Neighbourhoods”.  A “neighbourhood” is a legal classification that limits the types of residential builds that can be built in any area classified as an established neighbourhood. Most of these neighbourhoods are former suburbs that were established  prior to Toronto’s amalgamation in the early aughts. Consequently, Toronto housing developments and densification have largely been confined to the downtown core and Old Toronto, while “neighbourhoods” continue to be protected from development by old zoning exclusions.

As a result, City Council is severely limited in regards to where more housing can be built, both in terms of densified housing and “missing middle” housing. Even so, there is nothing to indicate that the City Council is blocking policy that allows for housing to be built. On the contrary, the city has introduced and passed multiple bills in 2021-22 to increase the housing supply. In addition to the City of Toronto’s Housing Action Plan,  City Council has already approved the construction of 24,000 homes, expanded building permissions to include garden suites, and started to chip away at resistance to building multi-unit homes in “Neighborhoods”. In truth, the only real instance in which City Council could block a development is if Inclusionary Zoning Policy guidelines are not adhered to by developers. With this in mind, City Council seems to be the least significant barrier to getting new builds approved. In addition to a mayoral veto, the province has imposed sweeping legislation (More Homes, Built Faster Act) that essentially ignores certain zoning exclusions– regardless of what City Council, or even the Mayor, want. Whether this renders the mayoral veto superfluous has yet to be seen, but it certainly is another tool in the Province’s arsenal for building homes at any cost, and with as few barriers-real or perceived- as possible.

Implications of Bill 3: The Greenbelt

Bill 3 therefore does little to address the housing crisis, but it does have potential implications for development- particularly development on the Greenbelt, which Premier Doug Ford has recently suggested opening up to development through land swaps. The Greenbelt is 8,094 km² of ecologically sensitive and preserved land that is jointly-managed by the Provincial Government and the municipalities that the Greenbelt intersects. Premier Ford’s proposed land swaps would essentially redraw the Greenbelt, and open up previously protected land to developers- many of whom have connections to Ford and the PC party. However, it is likely that the province would need the support of municipalities to develop this land, as municipalities typically have control over zoning and granting building permits for land that falls within municipal boundaries.

Bill 3  therefore may provide an avenue for the province to gain explicit support from municipalities in building on previous Greenbelt land. While the More Homes, Built Faster Act could theoretically accomplish this as well, gaining the backing of a municipality’s Mayor to build on ecologically-sensitive land is better optics, and harder to argue against. This would benefit the municipality as well, as cooperation between the province and municipality is almost entirely voluntary on the part of the province. As a result, municipalities must engage in informal channels to get the attention and support of the province when needed. But with Bill 3 and in the case of Toronto, for example, the Mayor could veto any opposition from City Council to building on former Greenbelt land, and in turn, possibly earn the support of the province in other matters.  At the time of writing, Ontario has moved to strengthen strong mayor powers, and Mayors now only need 1/3rd of the vote to push a bylaw thorough, effectively undercutting the power of City Council entirely.

Despite the name, Bill 3 does little to address the housing crisis. The real challenges to the housing crisis lie in the exorbitant cost of living in Toronto and stagnant wages, the lack of affordable units being built across the city and property speculation: not City Council. It’s unclear what the impacts of Bill 3 may be, but the powers it gives to Mayors go far beyond housing, and present a real challenge to the democratic process at the municipal-level.

Mary Spear is a first-year MPP student at the Munk School. Originally from Calgary, Alberta she has a keen interest in green-energy transitions, urban policy, and the many factors that influence social change.

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