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The struggle to work together on housing is real

This week's Market Squared asks how long can we keep approaching housing as a matter of economy, and if that's starting to change
20190313 Doug Ford KA
Premier Doug Ford gestures while speaking during an Ontario PC policy announcement at Challenger Motor Freight Inc. in Cambridge in 2019. Kenneth Armstrong/GuelphToday

I went to FordFest last Friday.

Well, I went to the big protest outside FordFest last Friday. I’ll tell you this, if you manage to organize more than 500 angry people on a Friday evening the first week after the unofficial end of summer you must be do something very right. Or very wrong.

Having never gone inside FordFest, I didn’t hear firsthand this comment from Premier Doug Ford:

“Let me give you a promise. We’re going to make sure that we’re going to donate land. We’re going to work with our municipalities. We’re going to offer a 1,600-square-foot home, with a basement that’s finished that you can rent out or have family there. You’re going to have a backyard with a fence. You’re going to have a paved driveway – under $500,000.”

Wow. That’s a pretty big policy announcement, and FordFest wasn’t the first time I had heard it.

At a press conference the day after Steve Clark’s resignation last week, I though I had heard Ford say something similar, but it was about 40 minutes into the presser, and when you’re a politician under stress that’s usually the point where you start throwing soundbites at the wall to see if you can find an escape hatch.

But then Ford said it twice, which makes it a matter of policy now. The Premier of Ontario is saying that people will be able to get homes that are presently being sold in the Guelph area for between $700,000 and $900,000 for a fraction of that price.

A spokesperson from the premier’s office told the Globe & Mail that we’ll hear more information about this policy “in the coming months” while adding that the focus of making this achievable is “modular homes”, meaning houses essential built in a factory, shipped in pieces and put together on site. I’ve been inside a local modular home and I’ve got to say, not too shabby.

Now, Ford went into silent running mode after FordFest, so no one has had a chance to follow up directly, but there’s still an important question to ask since much of the last year has seen the current Ontario government focus almost exclusively on making it easier to create market housing: Who is Doug Ford talking to and how will they make these $500,000 homes a reality?

It might be easy to write off Ford’s comments as being among his trademark bloviations, but I want there to be reason to hope. One of the biggest barriers to solving the housing crisis is the cynical belief that no one wants to do anything, and that applies doubly to our friends in the development community.

At some point, the enticement of spectacular profit on something fundamental like housing must wane, right?

Developers have become the great villain of the housing crisis, which is easy to understand, but they’re a boogeyman-type villain. They’re a creation of the imagination to varying degrees because most people don’t have any regular interaction with people in the business of real estate development, so it’s easy to believe all the worst things you’ve heard.

In this crisis, we hear all the time from members of the government, on whom responsibility for creating more housing is almost exclusively placed. We hear from the people living in precarious housing because they’re one bad day, or one rent hike, away from losing what housing they have. We hear from the advocates because they’re job is to create awareness and to keep engagement active.

Developers are the black box. They don’t have to explain themselves to the public, and the times where they do have to make a public appeal it’s under the strict rules of engagement in something like a council planning meeting. And while those meetings are public, it’s not a dialogue between the people and the developer; they each address council on their own separate but equal terms.

Those odds times of public engagement also don’t paint our developers well. These are the times when they appeal things like the Official Plan, the Clair-Maltby Secondary Plan or the Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw, plans that took years to complete during which developers and landowners had inordinate access to city staff, or at least more frequent and direct access to staff.

That meanness of developers was on display again at this week’s Heritage Guelph meeting when the lawyer for the company that owns the Kidd Barn and Blair House property in Clair-Maltby asked to pause the heritage designation. She tried to claim ignorance about the heritage status of the property, and when that didn’t work, she put the onus on the city for not being more forceful with her client on protecting cultural heritage.

Developers know they’re in the catbird seat. There’s a desperate need for housing, and they know politicians are desperate to approve more housing. But not just politicians, you can watch the struggle play out at committee of adjustment too when the letter of the law on a minor variance gets in the way of adding even just one more unit to the city’s housing stock.

This is a remarkable power, and like a certain superhero frequently says, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” How are local developers using their responsibility?

One of the recommendations from Collective Results at this week’s special council meeting about housing was to ask local developers to donate land to the cause. It’s just a simple ask with no suggestion of enticements or goals; the city is now a London street urchin asking for another crappy bowl of soap.

Later, the social services administrator for Wellington County said that they’re “at the mercy” of developers’ kindness if there’s any hope to build the needed 4,000 units of rent-geared-to-income housing we’re behind on. That’s housing cheaper than the pitiful “affordable” benchmark of 80 per cent of market value.

So I come back to Doug Ford’s promise of half-a-million dollar homes. I actually hope this is true because it will speak to a shift in thinking that the era of looking at housing as a purely economic matter is over. After all, what good is a house that only an investor can buy? What happens when there’s a city full of people who can’t afford to live there?


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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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