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Can a strong mayor beat up the housing crisis? Doubtful

This week's Market Squared struggles with the idea of how "strong mayors" will result in more housing, or more money for housing
20190513 cam guthrie ts 1
GuelphToday file photo

It’s kind of amazing that Premier Doug Ford started his second term as the head of Ontario’s government in the same way he started the first: Futzing with municipal governance at the City of Toronto.

On Wednesday, the provincial government announced the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, which will give so-called “strong mayor” powers to the heads of Toronto and Ottawa as a way to accelerate housing development. Toronto and Ottawa get to be subjects of this experiment because one-third of the growth in Ontario in the next decade will happen within their borders.

The legislation, which sounds more like a promotional slogan (“tastes great, less filling”) than a massive shift in municipal power, will allow mayors in the two cities to hire key members of municipal staff like the CAO, appoint the chairs and vice-chairs of local boards and committees, take responsibility for developing the city’s budget and, most controversially, have a veto over matters of “provincial priority.”

You will note that none of these things are among the recommendations housing advocates have made for years. Things like ending exclusionary zoning and investing more in social and supportive housing.

Let’s be clear, no matter how quickly housing projects are approved using “strong mayor” powers, these councils with the heavy hand of the mayor will still – more likely than not – be approving housing projects for the commercial market. Supply is an issue of course, but is an increased supply likely to have such a depressionary effect on housing prices that the market becomes more affordable? 

I don’t know, I’m not a real estate expert. So let’s focus on municipal governance matters.

For instance, is there really a need for “strong mayor” powers as outlined in this legislation? I’ve been thinking a lot about how these new powers might have changed any of the decisions at our own city council this term, and there’s only one instance that came to mind.

In February 2020, council voted 3-8 against a proposed development at 361 Whitelaw Rd.. At stake were 678 units and Mayor Cam Guthrie was one of the yes votes. In this situation, Guthrie might have vetoed that negative decision, which could only be overturned in a super-majority vote of council, and that would have meant one of the three yes votes would have had to, essentially, change their vote.

It’s worth noting that the Ontario Land Tribunal ended up overturning council’s decision in November 2021 and allowed the development to move forward. Using these new “tools” proposed by the Ontario legislature, Guthrie might have saved two years of hemming and hawing at the OLT, and perhaps, for some people, that’s reason enough to put the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act into action.

On the other hand, this term of council has approved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new units. For every project that ended up at the OLT there were so many others that came out of the planning process with widespread, and occasionally enthusiastic, council endorsement.

Having said that, when you consider that large number of units approved this term, only about 70 of them could be considered social housing. That’s 70 units, not 70 per cent.

Now this is good news. Those three supportive housing projects are going to make a big dent in the by-name list and represent a 100 per cent increase in the amount of supportive housing generated when compared to the previous term of council, and yet, aid agencies are now scrambling to raise $5 million to complete those projects.

For all the things that the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act will do, it will not make money suddenly appear for municipal councils to invest in the kind of housing that’s so desperately needed, the affordable kind.

So what is it for? Mayor Guthrie, like many other Ontario mayors, has said that acquiring “strong mayor” powers will not change the way they work with council, and that is the way it should be.

But Doug Ford remembers a time when his brother was Mayor of Toronto, and Rob found himself unwilling and/or unable to assemble a coalition to support his agenda of gravy elimination and subway development. Like Doug’s move to cut Toronto council in half in 2018, he decided that the problem with municipal governance is the way its constructed and not the Ford agenda or the Ford approach.

Rob Ford never had the powers of a “strong mayor," but he acted like he did, and the result was gridlock in the council chambers. All it will take is a mayor using their new veto to override a decision of the majority, once, and even if that veto ends up being overturned by a super majority, you will see that same gridlock because no one likes it when someone takes their toys and goes home in a fit of pique.

It seems pretty unlikely that making “strong mayors” is going to be a solution to our housing crisis, but it definitely seems like a recipe for disruption, and that’s also not going to help the housing crisis. So far, so good with term #2, Doug.

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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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