Until the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) released a new report showing that a shortage of supply wasn’t, in fact, the culprit in the speculative chaos that has seized the GTA’s housing market, various vested interests (Tories, developers, realtors, etc.) were hammering away at the idea that the province needs to unlock more developable land on the region’s exurban fringes to bring down prices.
The CMHC’s timely piece of market intelligence clears the way for the provincial Liberals to impose some kind of demand-side solution meant to take the energy out of a bubble that, as Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz warned last week, could create a national economic mess if/when it pops. Given all the signals coming out of Queen’s Park, finance minister Charles Sousa’s April 27 budget will contain some kind of anti-speculation tax, likely one aimed at foreign buyers.
But from where I sit, the supply-side/demand-side dualism in this increasingly frantic search for solutions looks like a false dichotomy. The Liberals shouldn’t interpret those new housing start reports as evidence that their GTA land-use and transportation planning policies are in good shape, because they’re not.
Indeed, if Kathleen Wynne & Co. were thinking about something other than the 2018 election, they’d be making long-overdue planning and funding reforms that could head off the next speculative wave, which will invariably begin once the market adjusts to whichever measure they drop into the budget.
As every real estate agent knows, the price spikes have been greatly fueled by the hobbled state of transit development in the GTA, with the most extreme inflation occurring — surprise! surprise! — in the vicinity of subway stops and within the commuter sheds of GO stations.
Yet for reasons that surpass understanding, the Liberals have refused to thoroughly integrate the two gigantic GTA planning exercises — one for the Greater Golden Horseshoe growth plan, the other for Metrolinx’s Big Move (a.k.a. the Regional Transportation Plan) — that have been inching glacially through their respective consultation processes over the past year.
The result is that the province is ignoring opportunities to use those much-touted transit investments to really push GTA municipalities to intensify around new subway, LRT and SmartTrack stops, or in the vicinity of the GO stations now being converted to all-day/two-way 15-minute service (regional express rail).
Those kinds of policies, widely in use in Europe and other jurisdictions that actually practice transit-oriented development, would go a long way towards mitigating the two extremes Toronto’s residential market: over-development in a few key zones (Kings, Yonge/Eglinton) and insane price wars on single-family homes in most other places.
It’s not like any of these insights are state secrets; this is Planning 101.
For several years, Metrolinx has sought to work with regional municipalities on planning studies to intensify around the so-called “mobility hubs” – 51 key GO and subway stations across the GTA that are deemed to have the potential to attract and support far more commercial, office and residential development than they currently have. But Metrolinx, of course, isn’t a regional planning authority, and officials there say that reaction to their friendly overtures from GTA municipalities has been hit and miss. Some are eager; others (including the City of Toronto), not so much.
As an ostensibly independent agency of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, it’s perhaps not surprising that Metrolinx has been told to stay in its lane. But the province’s disinclination to get the maximum bang for the tens of billions it will spend in the next twenty years on transit infrastructure is not only a vast lost opportunity; the failure to actively spur development around these hubs fuels the vicious circle that is driving residential speculation in the GTA. (The notable exception is the highly strategic corridor planning that is accompanying the construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT.)
In a budget that will have lots to say about housing, Sousa has an excellent opportunity to break this absurd bureaucratic logjam between MTO and the ministry of municipal affairs and housing, the two agencies tasked with these planning exercises. He could, for example, move to create clear financial carrots and sticks – e.g., infrastructure grants, or punitive conditions on other sorts of municipal funding – as a means of compelling GTA communities to make the most of the intensification opportunities created by RER in particular. (The 40% intensification targets in the Places to Grow Act aren’t explicitly inked to transit investment, which means new development may be very car dependent.)
Such a move wouldn’t be about adding to the housing supply glut posited by some analysts; it’s about decanting the extreme concentrations of capital that have produced bidding wars, on the one hand, and over-development, on the other.
Instead, Metrolinx’ board, having been told in not so many words, to keep its institutional nose out of local land-use planning, is preparing to spend $1.4 billion to add 24,000 new parking spaces (as well as other access amenities) at its GO stations to accommodate all the new riders projected for the RER era. (That investment will bring the total amount of vehicle parking on GO lots to about 95,000 spaces.)
The agency’s stated goal is to significantly reduce the proportion of so-called “drive-and-park” users of said stations, from the current 62% range to the mid-30s. But it’s difficult to see how that shift will actually happen if the province doesn’t take concurrent steps to push municipalities to meaningfully intensify around all those stations, as Greater Vancouver is doing near its SkyTrain hubs.
The Liberals’ standard defense (besides staunchly protecting the sacrosanct convenience of GO commuters) is that they don’t want to be overly prescriptive with municipalities, which, after all, have their own elected officials and constituencies.
However, we all know the real reason, and the Scarborough subway debacle is but one illustration. If common sense land-use planning policies, rather than self-interested partisan politics, drove transit investment, Queen’s Park would have pulled the plug long ago, opting instead to deploy those billions in ways that produce multiple benefits (intensification along arterials, employment, housing equity).
I’m not under any delusion that Wynne’s Liberals, after years of cynically mismanaging transit spending, will see the light at this late hour. Instead, the government will roll out a few showy tax measures, blame the Bank of Canada and pray that all those lurid over-asking anecdotes will subside by next spring. And for the umpteenth time, they’ll have missed yet another opportunity to do the right thing, as opposed to the expedient thing.