Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said that her team’s report into government changes to the Greenbelt raised “serious concerns” about the procedures, which is neutral auditor speak for “Can you believe how badly they effed this up?!”
Belief is irrelevant. We all saw Premier Doug Ford go from promises to leave the Greenbelt alone to opening up the Greenbelt slightly, to saying that the Greenbelt is “a scam.” Why was he so defensive if nothing untoward was happening behind the scenes?
Now to the premier’s credit, he did take responsibility for the shoddy process that resulted in the decision to let a few select developers to get rich(er), and he pledged to enact 14 of the auditor general’s 15 recommendations. The one he won’t endorse? The recommendation to put the kibosh on the fruits from the poisonous tree by cancelling the decision to separate the lands from Greenbelt.
So the rich get richer and everyone else gets the moral victory of knowing that they were right about the deal all along. I would never argue that a moral victory is meaningless, but when someone says that you were right for pointing out that they messed up, but they’re not going to take back the mistake that was the subject of a 95-page AG report, the result is the same.
It’s bad enough when the mistake is easy to fix. If house painters colour your house red instead of green, all it costs is time, but when developers take hundreds of square kilometres of prime farmland, or forest that’s grown over centuries, or wetlands that feed lakes and river systems that span the province, you can’t call a mulligan and put it all back where you found it.
I don’t expect Doug Ford to understand that. He’s very much a creature of the moment, and his leadership during the pandemic was proof of that as lockdowns and other public health measures were often announced just 24 hours before they went into effect.
Doug Ford is also something of a simpleton. I don’t mean that pejoratively because that’s what he was raised to be; making yourself a successful businessman is easy when you inherit a successful company, and running a political dynasty is easy when you inherit the branding and messaging from your more successful sibling. When you’re born on third base, it’s often easy to think you’ve hit a triple.
That’s why Doug Ford’s excuses for the now verified Greenbelt-gate scandal are overly simplistic too.
“What matters to the people of Ontario is making sure that they can afford a home, an attainable home, an affordable home, a regular home, a condo, a rental… That's what people are concerned about,” the premier said when he was asked point blank by CityNews’ Cynthia Mulligan about whether the ends justified the means.
What Doug Ford doesn’t realize, or at least doesn’t seem to realize, is that housing doesn’t reach crisis levels overnight, or because economic activity is on an upswing, or because immigration has been at higher-than-normal levels. The housing crisis began nearly 30 years ago when the federal government, and then the provincial government, got out of housing and downloaded that onto municipalities.
Those city and town councils were then told by the previous Progressive Conservative government that they can’t run deficits without breaking the law, thus starting a decades long trend of forcing those communities to cope with rapid growth and a limited number of revenue tools to pay for it.
And to make matters worse, nothing that Doug Ford and his government has done in the last year is going to create an attainable home, or an affordable home.
They’ve further dwindled the financial resources of municipalities with cuts to fees, and by forcing municipal staff members to re-write rules and practices with the shortest of notices instead of actually working on the problem. Back in June, City of Guelph staff was still waiting for provincial regulations about the implementation of Strong Mayor Powers three days before they were supposed to go into effect.
The Ontario government has also done nothing to support or accelerate the creation of social housing or rent geared to income housing. They haven’t passed any new rent control measures or moved to stop the purchase of housing as junk bonds or short-term rentals. They’ve made pitiful efforts to stymie, not stop, so-called renovictions, and they made marginal investments in the Landlord Tenant Board to address the months-long backlog.
In terms of making it easier to build more housing, the Auditor General vindicated a report from the advocacy group Environmental Defense by affirming that there’s plenty of land in Ontario to build on without ever touching the Greenbelt. Some of that land would be easier to access if the Ontario government made funds available to clean up brownfields in built up areas like Guelph’s IMICo site.
So why remove protections on environmentally sensitive land so that houses can be built on it? Because someone wanted to make some money and Doug Ford, a man who’s only ever known status and privilege, was perfectly okay with that whether he wants to admit or not. He had a cheap excuse ready and waiting…
“We're in a housing crisis and I'm here to tell the people that we're going to continue building homes to make them affordable for people, young families and newcomers to this great province.”
Here’s the part that Doug Ford doesn’t know: Many of the people who can’t afford a house today, couldn’t afford one five years ago. Or 10 years. And they certainly won’t be able to buy one on land that’s conservatively valued at $8 billion.
To put it another way, I have serious concerns about whether Doug Ford knows what it will take to solve the housing crisis.