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We don't solve problems anymore, we have meetings

This week's Market Squared looks at how the problem solvers seem to increasingly have no real solutions.

I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but it seems like we have a housing crisis in Guelph.

I know this comes as a shock.

Of course, it’s not a shock but there was a tone of sudden urgency this week when first the Guelph Chamber of Commerce released an open letter to ask for more action from the City of Guelph on the housing crisis and then Mayor Cam Guthrie proposed an emergency meeting on a social media to, essentially, answer that call.

So what does the City of Guelph have for us now? As posted on the City’s website Thursday, the now scheduled July 11 special meeting of council will propose an Official Plan Amendment to delegate authority to city staff to approve minor zoning bylaw amendments. The exact details will be released with the formal agenda on June 29, but if this is what I think it is I have two thoughts.

Thought #1: This is absolutely not going to result in any real affordable housing in Guelph.

Thought #2: This is exactly what the provincial government has been doing in the last year, overriding the regular order in the name of swiftness and efficiency to get more housing built, but without a substantive investment in not-for-profit housing. This is all going to be housing for the market, which will absolutely not solve any of the real issues with housing in the short-term.

To put it simply, this is the procedural equivalent of magic beans.

First, what is a “minor” amendment? I’ve already seen this question adjudicated at more than a couple of Committee of Adjustment meetings this year, and what’s minor to some is very not-minor to others (see last week’s column).

Ah, yes! It occurs to me that the City of Guelph already has a body meant to dispatch “minor” variances, so the attempt to reduce bureaucratic layers in the name of housing has already created a new one; we now have a level between Committee of Adjustment, which handles “minor” variances, and the council planning meetings that are supposed to handle variances big enough to require a bylaw amendment.

But what’s “minor”, what’s a little less “minor” and what’s “major”? I put these in quotes marks because the appearance of what’s minor and major is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

This leads me to the next concern because I imagine one of the selling points of this plan is that it cuts down on those NIMBY delegations that create lengthy council meetings, but this move isn’t going to get rid of NIMBY, it’s going to radicalize it.

I’ve been to enough planning meetings to know that there’s often someone who’s never been to council before, but had walked past an empty lot three doors down and didn’t like what they read on that big green and white notice of bylaw change sign. Whether they had big concerns, or small concerns, the point is that council had to hear them and take them into account. That’s called democracy.

Now, council is proposing to slam the door in their face. I hope the members of the horseshoe that decide to vote in favour of this motion are prepared to have the favour returned to them in 2026.

Now back to the chamber’s letter, which, leaving aside the fact that it’s co-signed by a number of for-profit home builders, doesn’t address some key points.

First, there’s something like 6,000 units of approved housing in Guelph waiting for a shovel in the ground. We got one-third of the way to the Ontario government’s mandated goal of 18,000 units by 2031 without breaking a sweat and now we just need some contractors and trades people to take the ball down the field.

Second, there are two signatories missing from the chamber letter, and they are the University of Guelph and Conestoga College. Conestoga’s bringing 5,000 more students here in two years, and the ever-increasing enrolment at the U of G is driving our already historically low vacancy rate.

Also, if the chamber wants to wag its finger at someone, it should be the U of G who recently released a strategic plan that didn’t once use the words “homes," “residences” or “dorms”.

And “taking ownership” of the issue and hiring a housing czar sounds like proper proactive measures, but they’re no substitute for going back in time 30 years when this crisis began after the Feds and the Province bailed on housing and making the investments then. Or getting 100,000 new trades people trained. Or remediating toxic land that’s already serviced so that it’s ready to build on.

Lastly, the chamber and co. are demanding that city hall solve an issue created by multiple governments at all levels, the U of G, local developers (many of whom are at the OLT protesting the new zoning bylaw and official plan amendments right now), land speculators, corporate landlords, and people investing in housing like junk bonds.

This used to be everyone’s problem to solve, I think I literally heard the CEO of the chamber say that, but now I guess it’s not. And the city’s solution? Less public input. Great job, everyone. I think we’ve really rounded a corner on this one.

Addendum: As I’m writing this, the Ontario government is announcing that they’re expanding so-called “strong mayor” powers to the other 26 biggest cities in Ontario, including Guelph. I’m looking at the announcement now and Mayor Guthrie is on stage with the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Guthrie needs to immediately outline the following: 1) If he intends to use the powers, 2) Whether he will give advanced notice if he intends to use powers on a particular matter, and 3) The exact circumstances in which he will use the powers.

Guthrie’s tacit embrace of this extraordinarily undemocratic and illiberal policy is concerning to say the least, and he needs to assuage a deeply concerned community that they’re not about to become irrelevant in solving the problems that affect them.


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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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