This op-ed was published by the Globe and Mail on January 3, 2017, as Stop blaming the Greenbelt for Toronto’s housing prices.
A number of critics would have us believe that Ontario’s land-use legislation is the top culprit for rising house prices in the Greater Toronto Area – namely the Greenbelt, which protects farmland, and its sister Growth Plan policy, which directs growth outside the Greenbelt. Proponents of this argument claim that these policies restrict land on which to build ground-related houses, thereby driving up prices.
These policies do influence where and what the region builds, shifting housing starts from predominantly car-dependent low-density subdivisions to more multiunit housing. However, to suggest government policy is the primary cause of high housing prices disregards the many bigger factors and paints an unhelpful picture that we are running out of land and bumping up against the Greenbelt – which has been shown to be false.
Recent analysis by RBC reports four factors accounting for between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of price increases in Toronto since 1999: low borrowing rates; higher incomes; higher percentage of incomes used to pay mortgages; and the bank of mom and dad all contributing to strong buying power.
Canadians buying properties that are not their primary homes now represent a quarter of demand in Toronto real estate, opting for safer investments over unreliable stock markets and zero cash returns, and contributing to higher prices.
When considering the supply side, the issue is housing supply not land supply. According to the Neptis Foundation, there is no shortage of land on which to build ground-related houses for decades to come. Rather, housing starts are being delayed due to costs and approvals and other barriers to servicing greenfield land – including building and connecting the infrastructure such as water and sewerage.
Add to this the lack of resale supply as boomers remain in their big houses instead of downsizing, not liberating this substantial supply of single-family homes in more proximate locations for younger generations, including their echo-boomer kids, many of whom ironically still live with them.
But even if every farmer’s field from here to the Canadian Shield were adequately serviced, it’s doubtful we can sprawl our way to affordability. With 100,000 people joining the GTA every year, accommodating them mostly with single-family houses in the frontier would result in greater congestion, longer commutes, more greenhouse gases and it would transform our landscape into car-dependent post-sprawl exurbs.
It would do little to de-bifurcate the GTA’s housing supply, which currently offers home-buyers a choice between a small condo in a high-rise or “drive-to-qualify” for a detached house in the suburban fringe where family-sized houses are more affordable and most new supply is constructed.
What’s needed is missing-middle housing in urban and suburban centres close to transit and good jobs. This includes multiunit homes such as townhouses, stacked flats, mid-rise buildings and laneway housing that are family-friendly yet more affordable than semi- or single-detached houses.
The Greenbelt and Growth Plan are in their final stages of review and revision, a comprehensive expert-driven process that resulted in proposed upgrades to the decade-old legislation, namely new targets to increase intensification and decrease outward low-density development.
As opposition emerges to these proposed changes, skyrocketing GTA home prices provide a convenient narrative to blame provincial land-use policy and garner support to weaken proposed tougher intensification targets.
A strong growth plan is necessary to guide development to our already urbanized footprint where missing-middle housing is needed, but municipalities require more support from the province to make this happen.
Municipalities require resources for rezoning, intensification planning and costly upgrades to infrastructure to accommodate intensification, and to fix the outdated rules and pricing systems that currently subsidize sprawl, so missing-middle density becomes a cost-effective choice for developers and home-buyers alike.
We must plan to house a growing population far into the future while protecting our non-real-estate assets, such as drinking water headlands and food security, especially in the face of climate change.