Big plans for af­ford­able hous­ing as 905 on edge

York Re­gion has to fig­ure out how in­clu­sion­ary zon­ing can bring bal­ance to the area

Richmond Hill Post - - News - DAVID FLEISCHER

The prov­ince has un­veiled some big plans to cre­ate more af­ford­able hous­ing in our com­mu­ni­ties, but whether they’ll ac­tu­ally work is just as big a ques­tion.

Last month, York Re­gion was among the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties telling On­tario how its in­clu­sion­ary zon­ing (IZ) reg­u­la­tions could be bet­ter. I’ve writ­ten be­fore about how our neigh­bour­hoods, built for young fam­i­lies, are in­creas­ingly be­com­ing ex­clu­sive en­claves and empty nests. The hope is that IZ can bring some bal­ance back.

In­clu­sion­ary zon­ing is a pow­er­ful tool if wielded cor­rectly.

It gives lo­cal gov­ern­ments the abil­ity to re­quire ev­ery new de­vel­op­ment to in­clude a cer­tain per­cent­age of af­ford­able units. (How “af­ford­abil­ity” is de­fined is a whole other can of worms, but it’s at least some­thing more af­ford­able than the mar­ket rate.)

For per­spec­tive, the lo­cal mar­ket has cooled off a bit in re­cent months (thanks, at least partly, to other gov­ern­ment ac­tions), but the av­er­age homes sold in the south end of York Re­gion in Jan­uary 2018 still av­er­aged more than $850,000.

A made-in-On­tario IZ law seemed like a pipe dream even a few years ago; al­though, it’s al­ready com­mon prac­tice in places such as Chicago, San Fran­cisco and Lon­don, Eng­land.

Ev­ery time the prov­ince kicked the idea around, the de­vel­op­ment in­dus­try ral­lied against it. But as hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity be­came head­line news here, it was in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous there was a gap be­tween poli­cies re­quir­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to have more af­ford­able hous­ing and the leg­is­la­tion that could make the prover­bial rub­ber hit the road.

Fi­nally, the prov­ince passed new leg­is­la­tion in late 2016, but it took an­other year be­fore the ac­com­pa­ny­ing reg­u­la­tions were un­veiled for com­ment. As al­ways, the devil is in the de­tails.

York Re­gion has am­bi­tious tar­gets for af­ford­able hous­ing. Ac­cord­ing to its of­fi­cial plan, 25 per cent of all new hous­ing should be “af­ford­able,” and in cen­tres and cor­ri­dors, it rises to 35 per cent. That cre­ates a para­dox since we want more af­ford­able hous­ing in prime lo­ca­tions, along main streets and tran­sit cor­ri­dors such as Yonge Street and High­way 7, but you’re not go­ing to get that by clos­ing your eyes and wish­ing, much less ask­ing de­vel­op­ers to please set aside cheaper units at their most mar­ketable sites.

To date, the tools our mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have for ac­com­plish­ing these lofty and laud­able goals are near non-ex­is­tent.

The best op­tion is Sec­tion 37 of the Plan­ning Act, which al­lows mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to trade ex­tra funds for award­ing de­vel­op­ers ex­tra den­sity on their projects. Those funds can be used for hous­ing, parks, com­mu­nity fa­cil­i­ties (or, ahem, a hockey arena), so hous­ing is just one of a long list of pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The re­sult is that the main way to get “af­ford­able” hous­ing in York Re­gion right now, putting aside the years-long wait on the so­cial hous­ing list (an­other sep­a­rate is­sue) for those par­tic­u­larly in need, is to buy some­thing small.

Given the stakes, York Re­gion’s of­fi­cial com­ments about the IZ reg­u­la­tions ex­pressed a great deal of con­cern.

A lot of the specifics are bor­ing, such as in­side base­ball, but suf­fice it to say the re­gion ex­pects IZ would cost a lot to put in place and ar­gue lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties need more flex­i­bil­ity than Queen’s Park is giv­ing them to ac­tu­ally make it work.

One big stick­ing point is that, if a unit is priced at, say, $400,000 and the “af­ford­able” price is deemed to be $300,000, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity is on the hook for 40 per cent of that dif­fer­ence — prob­a­bly via in­cen­tives, waived fees and such. Most likely, the de­vel­op­ers will ar­gue the rest gets divvied up and merged into the cost of the mar­ket-price units, jack­ing up the cost for ev­ery­one else (even if the fi­nan­cial re­al­i­ties are rather more com­plex).

Al­though New York City has some ar­eas that re­quire up to 30 per cent of new units be af­ford­able — and stay that way in per­pe­tu­ity — On­tario is set­ting a 10 per cent cap, and with a 30-year life­span.

So York Re­gion’s con­cerns that the pro­posed rules won’t ac­tu­ally pro­duce the de­sired goal have some merit. It’s also far from the only mu­nic­i­pal­ity to voice some con­cerns, which is why Min­is­ter of Hous­ing Pe­ter Mil­czyn has made it clear these aren’t the fi­nal reg­u­la­tions.

I know, once you’ve got your house, it’s easy not to con­cern your­self too much about how any fu­ture neigh­bours will join you, but you can only boom so long with­out bust­ing. When there’s no di­ver­sity and no choice, we all stand to lose sooner or later, so let’s hope we can get this right.

Post City Mag­a­zines’ colum­nist David Fleischer is a long­time jour­nal­ist and cur­rently an ur­ban plan­ner liv­ing in York Re­gion.

Min­is­ter of Hous­ing Pe­ter Mil­czyn, MPP, an­nounces new af­ford­able hous­ing mea­sures

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