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Monday, December 5, 2022
Arch-i-text: Doug Ford’s housing act isn’t about affordable homes
Premier Doug Ford makes a stop in NOTL to promote twinning of the Skyway bridge. File

In two columns published in February of this year I wrote a brief analysis of the provincial government’s task force report on affordable housing.

It was my opinion then that, if the recommendations of this report were adopted into legislation, it would almost totally strip away the authority of local governments to manage contextual development and be the most egregious assault on heritage ever seen in Canada.

And further, the proposed skeletonizing of provincial regulations would leave almost total control of future developments in the hands of the real estate development industry.

I wish this week’s column could be an admission I’d been mistaken, but sadly, such is not the case.

Now, the Ford government has introduced its More Homes Built Faster Act, which is everything I feared – and worse.

It is clear that this legislation has much less to do with building affordable housing than it does being a blatant pandering to the building and development sector.

Let’s demonstrate this with one of the bullets the legislation is firing at heritage. The proposed act will double the requirement for heritage designation from the current threshold that a property must qualify by meeting at least one of nine defined criteria, which can generally be grouped within three classifications (physical/design, historic/associative, and contextual).

Clearly this is an action taken to limit the number of heritage designations granted in the future.

However, I suspect this bullet is not principally directed at residential colonial built-heritage. Within the context of the Ontario Heritage Act as amended in 2005-06, cultural heritage landscapes that may be eligible for heritage designation include not only buildings but also bridges, cemeteries, gardens, parks, archeological sites, landscapes, streetscapes, trees and other natural features (with a cultural component), etc.

Consider the fact that many cemeteries which today could be designated under the historic/associative classification would not pass muster under the revised criteria of the new act.

Also note that, not considering private corporation holdings, municipal cemeteries alone comprise over 25,000 acres in Ontario. And, speaking to private cemetery companies, using just one example to illustrate the point, the Mount Pleasant Group holds 1,400 acres of prime GTA real estate.

Much closer to home, another example of the impact of the proposed legislation would render the designation of the Dunington-Grubb landscaping at Randwood a no-go.

Even more outrageous is this act’s total disregard for the contributions made to our shared cultural heritage by Indigenous, Black and other historically marginalized communities.

An Indigenous archeological site may be able to meet the historic/associative criteria (“direct associations with a theme, event, belief, person, activity, organization or institution that is significant to a community”), but unlikely the physical/design (“rare, unique, representative or early example of a style, type, expression, material or construction method”) nor, very likely, contextual requirements (“important in defining, maintaining or supporting the character of an area”).

Similarly, a historic Niagara agricultural Help House would not qualify. Nor would a multitude of other historically important but humble buildings.

Even more puzzling is the proposed act’s limitation on listing properties (placing a property on the local heritage register as “of interest”), forcing the removal of any property that is not designated within two years of being listed.

Understand that listing imposes no restrictions on a property owner except for the requirement to provide 60 days’ notice of intent to demolish.

In my view this is simply a punitive action directed at municipal-level authority and Ontario heritage precepts, lacking any practical purpose. Certainly, it has nothing whatsoever to do with building more affordable homes faster.

And insofar as maintaining the character of our beloved town?

Well, if this act passes, you can forget it.

The act will override municipal policies, zoning or plans that prioritize the preservation of the physical character of neighbourhoods.

It will exempt from site plan approval and public consultation all projects of 10 units or less that conform to the official plan and require only minor variances.

The proposal also would establish provincewide zoning standards for minimum lot sizes, maximum building setbacks, minimum heights, angular planes, shadow rules, front doors, building depth, landscaping, floor space index, heritage view cones and planes.

And, it will restore pre-2006 site plan exclusions (colour, texture and type of materials, window details, etc.) to the Planning Act while reducing or eliminating minimum parking requirements.

So here is the morbidly fascinating thing: nowhere in this legislation (that I have been able to find) is there any limitation on the scope of its reach associated with construction of affordable housing.

It doesn’t matter whether the developer’s intent is to build/sell houses at $500,000 or $5 million, this new playing field will apply. Of course, this legislation is called the More Homes Built Faster Act, not “More Affordable Homes, Built Faster Act.”

The citizens of Ontario handed Ford a mandate in the spring and he is attempting to use that bat for all its worth to benefit one business sector. Mind you, those same citizens got him to stand down in the recent education workers’ confrontation.

Is there the same will in communities across Ontario to oppose this latest draconian move?

Only time will tell if we can make him understand that he is elected to serve the communities and people that make up this province – not a single special interest group. 

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.