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We came. We saw. We pledged. Now what?

This week's Market Squared assures you that if you think that council's housing pledge this week was a work of performance art, it is.
20210120 New housing construction 2 RV
Guelph houses under construction.

This week’s council meeting was all about 'The Pledge'!

Guelph has been double dog dared by the provincial government to build 18,000 new housing units in the next eight years, and if we don’t, there will be consequences. What are those consequences? The answer to that question is so nebulous that there might as well be a shrug emoji in the legislation, and the government minister responsible for it doesn’t have any idea either.

But still, we must sign “The Pledge”! It sounds like a horror movie from the early 2000s staring the guy that played Dawson, some model from a Gap commercial and three people who appeared in at least one Scream movie. It’s about a serial killer attacking a class of freshmen college students trying to join a mysterious fraternity.

But seriously, 'The Pledge' asks you for so little and tells you even less.

Ontario has to build 1.5 million new units by 2031 and Guelph’s share is 18,000. What kind of units? Doesn’t matter. All you have to know is that the province is cutting fees, cutting timetables, cutting regulations, and they’re not giving us any money for social housing, or even promising to cover the short fall caused by all the changes they made.

It’s policy of such childish simplicity that you can’t hardly tell it’s endorsed by man who’s sold stickers for most of his life.

City staff did an excellent job this week of laying out how monumental this task is.

The last Official Plan Amendment, passed not even a year ago, set the goal of building 1,205 units per year till 2031; Bill 23 wants us build 2,000.

The closest we’ve ever gotten to 2,000 units built in one year was 2004 when 1,483 new units of housing were completed. For the last 20 years, on average, Guelph has built just a little over 1,000 new units in a year, and we only ever got over that red line about half the time.

But wait, it’s much worse than you think!

Mike Moffat, senior director of policy and innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute, was the special guest at the meeting and he explained that Ontario has never built more than 850,000 new units in a 10-year period, and we’ve certainly never built more than 750,000 in a 10-year period at any point in the last four decades.

So we’re doomed to fail. Good thing there’s no consequences.

But don’t take my word it, even Josh Kaufman, VP of the Guelph and District Home Builders Association, told council in direct questioning that he’s only confident that the city can make a "significant dent" in the target. How significant? He didn’t say.

One appreciates that Kaufman was willing to walk into the lion’s mouth, especially on a night when a lot of hungry lions were on the prowl, but he also lost a lot of points objecting to a proviso in the Guelph 'Pledge' that stipulated that all parties, including developers, be held equally responsible if we fall short of the goal, which, again, has no announced consequence if it’s not met.

As always, failure’s an orphan.

It’s amazing to me – though it really shouldn’t be – that once again the axe falls on municipalities and only municipalities. I suppose, they’re not only a creature of the province, but they’re a creature of the developer too: As long as we shut up, give them their approvals, and not ask them to make too many changes or pay too many fees, this will all be okay.

I don’t want to be this bitter and cynical about our local builders, I really don’t, but there’s a cognitive dissonance between demanding changes to a pledge that they will have an active role in achieving, and then washing their hands of any responsibility.

Having said that, let me address the Spartacuses out there saying that we should tell the Premier and the Minister of Housing and Municipal Affairs to sit on it. Are you really under the impression that these are people who take rejection well?

Look, to expect that anyone at the ministry, let alone the minister himself, to read Guelph’s five-page addendum to “The Pledge” and take it seriously is to be wilfully naïve. Still, I think Guelph has pushed back harder than anyone might have expected by saying, “Look, we like your ambition, but we can’t do this alone and this is how you have to help us.”

Is it performative? Of course it is! The whole idea of “The Pledge” is a performance. It’s the bare appearance of action because the housing system we’ve created is a complex web of rules and requirements that benefits the people with the most money first. If housing was treated like a human right, our housing system would be a violation.

'The Pledge' will not create any real affordable housing. It will create lots of housing at market value that’s already unaffordable for hundreds of thousands of people, but it will not suddenly create the thousands of houses people can buy or rent without deciding whether or not they can buy meat this month. These are the units we need. Now. Desperately.

Finally, I feel compelled to point out that the 2031 deadline comes after two more provincial elections. Doug Ford and the PCs may very well not be in power by the time 2031 dawns and when we have to look at the nebulous consequences of almost certainly not achieving the goals of 'The Pledge'.

So what was any of this for? [Shrug emoji]


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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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