Ontario’s new home building legislation is a threat to democracy, environment, and affordability

Here’s why - and how - we should say no to Bill 23 in the next seven days. 

Introduced the day after Ontario’s municipal elections, Bill 23, the "More Homes, Built Faster Act", has a laudable aim of increasing gentle density within Ontario’s urban centres. By allowing coach houses and granny suites to be built on existing lots, three units can now be developed where only one single family home once stood, allowing intensification within the urban core beyond the coach house regulations currently in place in Ottawa.

This single beneficial provision should not, however, conceal the fact that this complex proposed legislation fundamentally undermines our democratic principles. We reject Bill 23 because it is a threat to democracy, the environment, and affordability and livability for Ontarians, including direct implications here in Ottawa. 

 

Democracy Under Threat 

Firstly, the public consultation period is incredibly short for such an unwieldy Bill, with the deadline for written submissions to Queen’s Park closing on 17 November. There is no option for Ottawans to attend a legislative hearing, as the four days of tabled public hearings are all in the Greater Toronto Area next week. Introducing the Bill for limited consultation in the immediate aftermath of the municipal elections is itself an act of bad faith, ensuring that councils are not running at full capacity, with outgoing councillors busy wrapping up their tenures and new councillors in Ottawa only two days into the job when the deadline for written public submissions ends. 

Secondly, the proposed legislation unilaterally overrides the right of municipalities to make local decisions on land use planning. Where provincial legislation moves to improve environmental protections across the province or to increase affordability might be supportable, but these proposals would override or dismantle hard-fought gains for both environmental protection and affordability for our most vulnerable residents. The range of these local decisions taken away from Ottawa include new ‘green standards’ for buildings, protection against renovictions, the rate of very affordable housing required in developments, collection and spending of development charges, the extent of our urban boundary, and the very look and feel of our neighbourhoods with the removal of site planning review. 

Thirdly, the legislation removes third parties’ (including community associations) right to access the Ontario Land Tribunal. The right to notification on planning proposals is gone, the right to appeal planning decisions is gone, removing important democratic processes. Who will represent our interests now in land use planning? The ultimate effect of this devastating impact on public consultation, will be increased public discontent with all development proposals, especially when considering that there will be insufficient money for infrastructure, loss of protection against renovictions, meaning that there will now always be a fight against intensification because there will not be the necessary funding for infrastructure.  

Finally, Housing Minister Steve Clark introduced the legislation with reference to Ottawa mayor-elect Sutcliffe having undemocratic “strong mayor” powers given by Premier Doug Ford, despite Sutcliffe denouncing these powers to override Ottawa City Council decisions during his election campaign. On every level, Bill 23 puts our democratic principles under threat.

 

Environment Under Threat 

At Ecology Ottawa we have fought long and hard against expanding our urban boundary and by extension urban sprawl. Our new Official Plan was finally approved by City Council at the end of 2021 after submissions from dozens of residents and community associations, many concerned that our Official Plan must be forward looking and protect us from the worst excesses of urban sprawl in the context of the climate emergency in which we are living. On Friday, as part of the Province’s house-building targets set out in Bill 23, they finally approved Ottawa’s Official Plan, with 30 unilateral amendments from Toronto which cannot be appealed, including a further expansion of our urban boundary.

In some areas the boundary expands into Provincially Significant Wetlands (such as Goulbourn), and elsewhere impacts significant wetlands around Findlay Creek, Leitrim, as well as other agricultural lands, wetlands and forested areas. Every time we expand the urban boundary we reduce and restrict the greenspace in rural Ottawa which we need to fight climate change and biodiversity loss. As Doug Ford’s government opens consultations on allowing development on Toronto’s greenbelt, there is no consideration of the fact that allocating expanded rural lands for development means longer commutes for future residents living in those communities, with increased car emissions, wasted construction resources and money building new infrastructure rather than using existing infrastructure in existing neighbourhoods, and increased future transit costs to connect sprawling satellite communities to the downtown core.     

Ontario has benefited from the strength of Conservation Authorities’ watershed planning for decades now. Their meaningful approach to decision-making on planning, based not on political boundaries but instead on the watershed perspective, is the hallmark of their conservation work, protecting ecosystems and habitats on a regional scale rather than on a piecemeal basis. However, through Bill 23, the province is renewing their attack on Conservation Authorities and limiting the role of groups like the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority in land use planning. Municipalities will no longer be able to benefit from the expertise of Conservation Authorities; decision-making on land use planning moves exclusively into the 444 municipalities across Ontario. Bearing in mind that some of these municipalities do not have the resources to staff a planning department, this move is at best nonsensical, and at worst environmentally disastrous.

Bill 23 also introduces significant changes to how wetlands are evaluated and protected. This will leave many of our greenspaces at risk of losing their designation and therefore protection. Conservation Authorities have also been asked to review their landholdings for parcels suitable for development. Conflating the commendable target of increasing affordable housing targets with removing wetland, ecosystem and habitat protection is completely unnecessary and unacceptable. Write to your MPP using this letter from Environmental Defence to express your concern about the impact of Bill 23 on our wetlands. 

As a result of the Bill’s clumsy approach, green building standards enacted by many cities across the province have been effectively quashed. Ottawa’s High Performance Development Standards, introduced earlier this year to help us meet our climate change targets in terms of energy efficiency for new builds, are effectively scrapped by this legislation. In the context of Ottawa’s declared climate emergency, removing green building standards enacted by cities across the province is an environmental catastrophe and must be reinstated if we are to meet our climate targets. 

The province is also cutting in half the amount of park land that developers have to give the city in new developments, meaning just one hectare per 600 units. The province is also imposing strict limits (at 40%) on how much the city can save year-over-year for larger projects, which will make it very difficult to save money for larger amenities like recreation centres or district parks, as well as making it incredibly difficult to buy parkland in the inner city, where land is expensive.

 

Affordability and Livability Under Threat 

Bill 23 has significant impacts on housing for our most vulnerable residents. Firstly, it seeks to limit the city’s ability to create rental replacement by-laws to prevent “renovictions” (when tenants in existing affordable apartments are evicted, buildings are renovated, and then rented again to new tenants at a higher rental rate). This rental replacement protection is essential to ensure that vulnerable tenants are not evicted for profiteering landlords. Secondly, it places a low cap on inclusionary zoning, with only 5% of new developments required to be set aside as affordable housing. Under the proposed legislation, affordable housing will now be able to return to the market after just 25 years, rather than remaining affordable indefinitely. Given Ottawa’s declared housing and homelessness crisis, the 5% rate is far too low and the 25 year cap is far too short. Write to your MPP about the impact of Bill 23 on affordable housing in Ottawa through ACORN’s letter.

Many new developments are exempted under Bill 23 from Development Charges, Parkland and Community Benefits contributions. Under the proposals, Development Charges cannot be levied for those properties where gentle densification occurs, such as adding a granny suite or coach house onto a lot, or for affordable, attainable and inclusionary zoning units, with discounted Development Charges for purpose built rentals. Bearing in mind that “affordable” and “attainable” housing definitions have not yet been released, we cannot yet see the full impact of this loss of City revenue. Councillor Jeff Leiper outlined the essential role that Development Charges play in funding infrastructure in our neighbourhoods. 

As we see it, there are two possible knock-on effects of reducing the Development Charges which municipalities can rely on to fund infrastructure projects. The first is that areas with such housing will have fewer parks, services, community benefits and funds for infrastructure improvements, essentially creating areas of low livability, directly impacting those populations most in need. The second is that the City will have to fund such services through another source, likely to mean significantly higher property tax. The question is why would the province want to pass the cost of development on to existing taxpayers, when a core tenet of modern urban development has been until now that growth pays for growth? At a time when household budgets are increasing, from groceries to fuel and heating costs, to interest rates, this looks to create the very opposite of affordable housing. 

Another important aspect of livability comes from the looks and feel of our neighbourhoods. Bill 23 seeks to repeal the site plan review process in relation to sustainable design, character and scale, limiting municipal site plan control to health and safety impacts for both residential and commercial developments. When taken with the proposed changes to the Heritage Register, and the removal of community input to the Ontario Land Tribunal, the community and the municipality is stripped of all input on the design and character of a neighbourhood, eroding livability in the long term and surely causing a high degree of community opposition to all new development proposals, when new developments will lead to less infrastructure funding for the City and no community/municipal input on neighbourhood development.  

 

Calls to Action 

We should be under no illusions: this legislation is aimed at making a very few developers even higher profits, at the expense of livability and affordability for the vast majority of Ontarians. 

Public hearings are being held in the GTA next week, with written submissions being accepted until Thursday, November 17. Despite the short time frame for public consultation, making a written submission could help to get necessary changes made to this proposed legislation.

We urge you to contact your MPP - especially if they are Progressive Conservative and might sway the vote in Queen’s Park. Write an email, call their office, arrange a visit. Every constituent they hear from on this matter might help stop this. 

Write to your MPP now to STOP Bill 23

Author: Cheryl Randall

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