| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Is inclusionary zoning the answer to Toronto's housing problems?

For poverty advocates, last year tumbled into the historical dustbin with a swish of disappointment. The Ontario government's much-anticipated Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy failed to deliver on inclusionary zoning, and disenchantment could be heard from the offices of ACORN to those of the Wellesly Institute -- and likely in other quarters unequipped with press releases and research units.

But the idea still has traction in civil society. It was broached a few times during February's CivicAction Summit. At a recent Toronto poverty symposium, U of T's renowned Professor David Hulchanski gave it top billing in a four-finger action plan that includes rapid transit, tower renewal, and infill development.

"The rules of the game have to change," Hulchanski said, "and developers will buy in as long as the rules are fair."

As it stands, Toronto doesn't have the authority to draw up an inclusionary zoning policy. If it did, the city could require developers to include affordable housing alongside market-rate units in new developments. It could sweeten the deal with fee reductions or density bonuses, in effect allowing developers to build higher than the prescribed zoning when affordable housing is included. Supporters call it a powerful weapon in the fight against systemic discrimination and geographical poverty that they say is increasingly defining the city.

Developers balk at this notion.

"Do you drive up the price of housing for everybody, only on the backs of the buyers and no one else who lives in the community, in order to provide a very limited amount of affordable housing?" asks Ontario Home Builders' Association President Bob Finnigan.

The way he sees it, Section 37 of the Planning Act is a better mechanism. Under that section, citizens can request community benefits from a prospective developer, and those benefits are sometimes some form of affordable housing. The developer can then build higher than zoning permits.

According to the Planning Department, over $6.5 million cash-in-lieu has been secured for affordable housing since 2004, when Section 37 was born. About a third has been collected.

Finnigan also worries that subsidized units could be sold at market rate when the user climbs up a tax bracket. He says they would need to be monitored in the event of an inclusionary policy. But, before he even goes there, he wants a definition of affordable housing. He wants a price proposal.

"If the city and the community in specific areas are asking for affordable housing," Finnigan continues, "then work on it from Section 37. When you're negotiating with the developer, that's where you're going to get your funds. The whole thing about Section 37 was it was designed to let the community have a voice with the council."

But Section 37, says Councillor Adam Vaughan, is patchy at best.

"The trouble with Section 37 is it's negotiated on a case-by-case basis," he says. "The reality is when you have to do that you leave yourself exposed to the will of the market. If you have a developer who is progressive and innovative, you make great strides. If you have somebody who's market driven and disrespectful of the planning objectives of the city, you end up with monolithic suburban style development of the downtown core."

The Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing doesn't agree, and a spokesperson said the government has no plans to revisit the issue. The Planning Act, the Municipal Act, and the Development Charges Act all provide adequate affordable housing mechanisms, according to the ministry. Meanwhile, an NDP-sponsored private member's bill to grant municipalities inclusionary zoning capabilities is locked down in committee, and the party doesn't expect it to return to the legislature before October's election. On a local level, the city's affordable housing committee, chaired by rookie Councillor Ana Bailao, has no plans to address the issue explicitly.

"This is a political problem," says Hulchanski. "Both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party of Ontario get a lot of their money from developers.

"First you have to recognize that most people in the development industry would prefer no regulations at all -- no zoning by-laws and no official plans. Just build what you want. And that's the way it used to be 100 years ago. Then we had a fire code for obvious reasons. And then we had a building code for obvious reasons. And then we had a zoning code to regulate development. No one likes regulations, but, as long as the regulations are fair, we as a society have right to make those regulations."

Despite the pervasive archetype of the free-wheeling, profiteering developer, both Hulchanski and Vaughan think the industry might embrace inclusionary zoning if it's introduced properly. Many American jurisdictions use it, while Montreal and Vancouver have policies reminiscent of the approach.

"We need to be able to reward those developers who bring ingenuity and innovation to the challenge in front of us," says Vaughan. "If we massage the issue with the development industry as a willing partner, we'll find the sweet spots to deliver the objectives we're talking about. If we take the position that state knows best and therefore government will rule on this by decree, we'll be in big trouble."

Take that message to Finnigan, and he remains unmoved. He says governments are better off focusing on secondary suites -- and Ontario has been, in the form of the Strong Communities through Affordable Housing Act -- because new housing stock only represents a fraction of what's needed. In his own way, Hulchanski agrees.

"There's no one solution to anything as big as the housing problem," he says. "There are different problems, like the city becoming more segregated between rich and poor and black and white. The reality is that right now there is only development in what I call city number one, the well-off part of the city. Gentrification is happening there and condos are happening there, and nothing else. To mix it up a little bit, we need inclusionary housing. It's not a panacea, but it's an important part of a solution."

Paul Carlucci is a freelance writer working in the GTA.

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts