The news is still sinking in and has reverberated across the political spectrum, the real estate community, and the environmental movement: Ontario is proposing to build 50,000 homes in the Greenbelt. The decision is another episode in a long saga that started when Doug Ford was recorded in a 2018 campaign speech promising that if elected, his government would open up the Greenbelt to development. Ford won, but avoided the issue in his first term, deflecting the intense criticism he received for the proposal. Having won a second term decisively, Ford has now backtracked. His Housing Minister, Steve Clark, was blunt about this issue last year: “I want to be clear: We will not in any way entertain any proposals that will move lands in the Greenbelt, or open the Greenbelt lands to any kind of development.” But now, the tone has shifted, after a “tough decision,” the government pointed to the “housing crisis“, and blamed the previous government for “inaction” and not taking “bold steps to get housing built.” The government’s proposal will see some 7,400 acres of Greenbelt opened to development, while 9,400 acres of protected space is expanded in other areas as compensation. It’s an effective land swap. The government’s rationale is that some 2 million new residents will settle in Ontario by 2031, and that the need for homes is pressing.
The Greenbelt was created in 2005 by the then Liberal Government of Dalton McGuinty. Greenbelt legislation prevents municipalities from designating “prime agricultural areas” for development. The total size of the Greenbelt is some 2 million acres, to put the proposed scale of the development into perspective. Not only is this land to be opened up to development, but developers will be required to build homes quickly. Construction companies will have to show “significant progress” in showing clarity on their intentions to build by 2023 and start construction by 2025, or else the land will revert back to protected space. The land the government has identified to replace what will be turned into homes will be concentrated in just over a dozen urban river valleys, but specifics are sparse at this point. We want to emphasize that all of this is a proposal. The government has officially floated this to see what the reaction will be and the extent of the flak. The 15 areas the government is proposing to open up are all over the Greater Toronto Area, and specific maps are available on the above link. King Township, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Markham, Ajax, Pickering, Clarington, and the region around Hamilton are all affected. At the same time that the government is now prepared to rip up the precedent set by the Greenbelt, it has also approved some 14,000 hectares of land for urban development across the Greater Golden Horseshoe area.
Peel, York, and Halton Regions have all seen their urban boundaries expanded recently, and Hamilton has also been ordered by the province to expand its urban boundary further than what it had originally planned. Durham Region will also see its area expand. All of these changes will make it easier for municipalities to facilitate the expansion of housing approvals, but ultimately, it will be up to those local governments to get projects approved. Ontario is clearly accomodating a vast increase in the amount of space developers can choose to build on, but work on increasing the number of skilled construction workers available to build these homes has shown much slower progress. The costs of raw materials are high and money is expensive nowadays, so developer margins are under a lot of pressure. A construction company with adequate staff and financing will still have to work to get their permits and a green light from a municipality, and this can be a laborious process. Ontario has moved decisively to affect the supply side of the equation, but there’s a lot more work to be done if the government is going to achieve a target of 1.5 million new homes by 2031.