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More density in downtown Toronto will cut down on gridlock

In Simcoe County
Dec 1st, 2013

A new report by Pembina/RBC finds Greenbelt and Places to Grow legislation are not to blame for high housing costs

By Christopher Hume Toronto Star

When last we heard, the Pembina Institute and the Royal Bank were reporting that most suburbanites — 70 per cent — had moved to the hinterland because it was the only place they could afford.

“Households are being driven to car-dependent locations,” they said, “mostly because of price rather than neighbourhood preference.”

Even more interesting, we were told, “80% of GTA residents would give up a large house and yard to live in a ‘location-efficient’ neighbourhood that is transit-friendly, walkable and offers shorter commute times.”

That report, released in 2012, has now been followed by a second that looks at why GTA housing prices are so high. The first myth it dispels is one promulgated by the development industry, namely that land is in short supply. Connected to that is the secondary belief that the cause of the land shortage is the provincial Greenbelt and Places to Grow legislation.

“Our study shows there’s plenty of land left,” says Pembina’s Cherise Burda. “In fact, there’s enough land left in settlement areas to accommodate growth and employment well beyond 2031.”

But as Burda also notes, “It’s not the land developers want, but there’s land.”

That’s an important distinction; the development industry has grown enormously rich on sprawl and above all wants to keep doing exactly that. That’s why it so desperately opposes change. Sadly for the industry, however, the province and even some municipalities are demanding an end to sprawl. They want growth to be more economically and environmentally sustainable.

That means developers can’t continue throwing up subdivisions, as they have done for decades, with their brains on hold. Quite simply, the effects have been ruinous and are only getting worse.

As for the legislation that developers love to hate: “There is no evidence,” Pembina says, “that provincial land use policies, including the Greenbelt Plan and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, restrict housing development and contribute to rising home prices. There was no price spike when the legislation was passed. The main reason is federal changes to mortgage rules and low interest rates.”

Indeed, the greenbelt should be expanded and provincial smart-growth requirements enforced. According to a study released last month by the Neptis Foundation, “most municipalities and the province itself are treating the “minimum” targets as maximum requirements. Many municipalities have set targets below the stated “minimum.”

Given how low those targets were in the first place — 40 per cent intensification and 50 people and jobs per hectare on greenfield development — failure to comply is indefensible.

And as yet another recent report, from the University of Ottawa, pointed out, for suburban homeowners with two or more cars there are no savings to be had.

It’s only a matter of time before municipalities dependent upon development fees generated by sprawl hit the fiscal wall. That’s why Brampton now faces a 6.5-per-cent property tax increase.

“We need to create the conditions for the sort of development people really want,” says Burda. “You don’t need towers to create density. Density isn’t just about building highrise dorms for people in their 20s. We need midrise on the avenues,” — Toronto’s main streets — “and elsewhere. Governments need to change the rules to encourage midrise. We have lots of space in downtowns. But we still think we can run the fourth-largest city in North America on low-density housing and cars.”

As the Pembina/RBC report notes, “More location-efficient living would contribute positively to the environment and the economy.”

Sounds obvious, but it’s a lesson we still haven’t learned. “Until we do,” Burda says, “we’ll remain stuck in traffic.”

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