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How Ontario’s Liberals are worsening Toronto’s housing crunch

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Toronto on Dec. 12, 2016. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Ontario’s Liberals are in the soup. If the pollsters have it right, the party that gave us the eHealth mess, the gas plants mess, the Ornge air ambulance mess, the electricity price fiasco, a half-baked liquor retailing reform and, oh, yes, a doubling of the provincial debt will suffer a richly deserved defeat in the election scheduled for next June.

But in the meantime they are leaving Ontarians two final gifts. Each promises to have lasting impact on Toronto, worsening its already severe housing crunch.

The first is rent control. Last month, Premier Kathleen Wynne extended Ontario’s rent control system to cover buildings constructed after 1991. Judging by the experience of the past and the teachings of most economists, this is bound to throw a wet blanket on the construction of new rental housing just when it is needed most. The failure of judgment would be staggering in any other government. For this one, it is perfectly in character.

The second is the abolition of the Ontario Municipal Board. The Wynne government announced this week that it was replacing the board with a much-less-powerful planning tribunal. This, too, threatens to discourage the construction of badly needed housing by making it easier for pandering local politicians to stand in the way of unpopular building projects.

Together, these measures represent a one-two punch for housing developers.

It comes at the worst possible time. When prices are soaring and more and more residents are struggling to find an affordable place to live, the city badly needs to boost housing supply. Ms. Wynne’s double blow stands to have precisely the opposite effect.

The Ontario Municipal Board was an easy target. For years, the OMB has been a favourite hate object for city councillors and residents associations. They fumed when its appointed members passed judgment on local building projects, sometimes (but not always) approving them over neighbours’ objections. Now they can rejoice. The ogre has been slain by the righteous sword of Saint Kathleen. Under the Wynne reforms, local city councils will have much more power to do as they like. The new tribunal, a much tamer beast, will have to defer to their wishes.

How democratic, you might say. But every government has checks on its power, and should. Lacking the oversight of the OMB, which looked with impartial eyes on development disputes and simply tried to make municipalities follow the rules, city councils have more clearance to be pig-headed and political about every project than happens to ruffle the feathers of the neighbours.

Under the old system, city councillors could sometimes hide behind the OMB when residents came after them with pitchforks over some scandalous 25-storey condo coming to their neck of the woods. I would love to stop it, the councillor could say, but we are bound to lose if the project goes to the OMB. Better strike a compromise with the developer instead.

Killing the OMB leaves councillors exposed on the one hand and empowered on the other. Look for many to act even more like petty potentates, giving a thumbs down to disfavoured projects as the crowd cheers.

The issue in most development disputes is density. Developers want more of it – more floors, more square footage – because that is how they make money. Residents want less, if they want any development at all. Doing away with the OMB tips the balance away from density. It means that “intensification” – filling up the unused or underused spaces of the city – becomes much tougher.

That is bad news for Toronto. Thousands upon thousands of newcomers are coming to live in the city and its region. They need to live somewhere. We can’t keep building subdivisions to house them and superhighways to move them around or we will strangle on sprawl and congestion. We have to make better use of the room we have. To do that, we must make it easier, not harder, to build housing in already built-up parts of town. That means taking a stand against those who shout “not in my backyard.”

It was hard enough to do that with the OMB in the background. Without it, NIMBYism has a new lease on life. Ms. Wynne’s parting gifts to Toronto will keep on giving for years to come.