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Our leaders once again seem lost in the weeds on housing

From AMO to the cabinet retreat, this week's Market Squared couldn't help but notice that there were no new ideas.
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You know that September’s almost here because politicians have been meeting in the last week. Meeting and making announcements, and maybe setting off some trial balloons for future policy announcements.

What’s been clear from all the meetings this week is that the people we’re depending on to lead us out of a multitude of crises besieging our fair country are working with a broken compass. I’m starting to think that if the Premier of Ontario was a Magic 8 Ball, we’d probably all be better off.

As for the current premier, he kicked off the annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference with an announcement that building homes in the province is now going to be a kind of game show. The new Building Faster Fund will provide up to $1.2 billion over three years for municipalities that meet or exceed the housing targets they pledged to achieve by 2031.

Just to be clear: Municipalities are still waiting for the provincial government to make them “whole”, meaning compensate them for the giant *hole* that Ford punched in municipal budgets with changes approved in Bill 23, so in the meantime they’ve set up a financial incentive to reach their completely arbitrary targets. Also, you have to apply to get it because it’s not some automatic thing.

I hope the Guelph contingent immediately reported to Premier Ford with their hands held out because with 6,000 units in the bank waiting for a shovel in the ground, Guelph has managed to get one-third of the way to our target without breaking a sweat. Again, Ford’s focus is entirely on the idea that the local governments are the bottleneck where housing gets stuck as opposed to any other factor.

The next day, besieged Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark told AMO that this fall, the government will change the Development Charges Act to incorporate income factors in addition to market factors in the definition of affordable housing.

Wait, you mean to tell me that the blanket definition of “affordability” being 80 per cent of market value is not really affordable in the first place?! My monocle just fell into my champagne glass!

Clark also announced a housing forum for this November that will bring together all levels of government, plus industry and non-profit partners to discuss the best ways to achieve housing goals, and that by Sept. 11 he will have appointed regional facilitators in Durham, Halton, Niagara, Waterloo, York and Simcoe County to review those local governance structures for efficiencies.

If you think you’ve accidentally stumbled into a movie you’re already seen before, you’re not alone. This will be the second housing forum that the provincial government has held in as many years, and the second review of regional governance in as many terms. Again, perhaps we’ve run the course on the idea that government is the problem, or maybe it’s Queen’s Park that’s just out of ideas.

Meanwhile in Charlottetown, the federal cabinet met to talk about the issues that will be on the front burner when Parliament Hill is back in session in September, and Housing Minister Sean Fraser made some news by floating the idea that the government should cap visas for international students as a way of reducing the pressure on housing.

"I think that is one of the options that we ought to consider," said the man who was the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship literally a month ago.

First, there’s been a lot of blame recently levelled against new immigrants for the housing crisis. I wouldn’t say it’s malicious when it’s coming from Ford, Clark, or Fraser, but in some dark corners of the internet there are some people who are taking that idea very, very seriously.

Second, the inference that university and college students looking to access a Canadian education and (hopefully) a better standard of life are one of the root causes of our housing crisis drastically outweighs their role in the issue, and it unilaterally dismisses why these institutions are leaning more and more on international students, whose numbers Canada-wide rose by 31 per cent from 2021 to 2022 alone.

Two years before dropping her Greenbelt report, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk revealed that 68 per cent of all tuition fee revenue at Ontario’s 24 colleges came from international students; Northern College alone was taking 92 per cent of all tuition fees from international students. On top of that, tuition was the largest source of revenue for colleges, $2.5 billion versus $1.9 billion from the government.

International students, for lack of a better word, are a cash cow. There are far fewer restrictions on how high and how fast that Ontario universities and colleges can raise tuition fees for international students as opposed to domestic ones. It’s kind of exploitative, but it’s not like any provincial government’s been in a rush to enhance post-secondary funding in the last three decades.

And we need our post-secondary institutions to be in a good financial position because we desperately need to address one of the least talked about aspects of municipal funding: the heads-in-beds levy. This is the set fee that colleges, universities, public hospitals, and correctional institutions pay instead of property taxes, and the levy hasn’t changed from $75 a head since 1987.

The full and honest conversation that we desperately need to have about funding our cities has to include the heads and beds levy, and I can’t imagine that’s a conversation that post-secondary institutions want to have given how their apparent financial health is correlated to how many young people from abroad are coming to school here, where there’s no housing for them.

On the other hand, there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm, which unfortunately seems to be where we are in this process. Maybe if we create the environment for innovation, the solution will walk in my accident. In the meantime, elect Magic 8 Ball in 2026!


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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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