Ford’s housing-affordability summit to be held on Wednesday

After postponing it a month, Premier Doug Ford and his government’s housing minister, Steve Clark, will meet with the mayors of Ontario’s biggest cities on Wednesday to discuss ways to combat the province’s soaring housing costs.

The Ontario government pushed the summit from its original date of Dec. 16 at the last minute as it scrambled to address COVID’s fast-spreading Omicron variant.

“The summit will aim to identify further opportunities for collaboration as the province and municipalities continue to address the housing affordability crisis,” a government press release announcing the summit said in November.

Ford and Clark will be joined in the provincial-municipal conference by members of Ontario’s Big City Mayors, which are the mayors of the 29 municipalities with populations greater than 100,000. Ford publicly invited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take part, but he won’t be attending, according to a spokesperson for the premier’s office. iPolitics asked Housing and Diversity and Inclusion Minister Ahmed Hussen’s spokesperson if he intends to participate in the summit, but did not hear back from her by the time of publication.

Because the Ontario government delayed its summit, it will now align more closely with the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference from Jan. 23 to 25. ROMA and provincial officials will meet during that conference, including to discuss housing affordability.

Ontario has one of the hottest real estate markets in the world, and Toronto’s property and rental prices are among the highest of any city.

Housing affordability has increasingly worsened in Ontario, as well as the rest of Canada, over the last two decades. In that period, what was once characteristically just a problem only for Torontonians and Vancouverites became one facing citizens in many more metropolitan areas, where more than 80 per cent of Canadians now live.

Since 2000, increases in property prices have wildly outpaced those of wages. The average home price in Canada approximately quadrupled from 2000 to 2020, according to data from real estate agencies. Over almost the same period, the average Canadian family’s income only increased 37 per cent, Statistics Canada data shows. The cost of renting in Toronto increased 68 per cent during that time, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation data. Toronto was the sixth-most expensive city to live in the world in 2020, meaning it was more expensive to live there than New York, San Francisco and London, Ryerson University researchers said in a report.

Housing prices were briefly destabilized by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’ve since rebounded to record highs thanks to more than 20 per cent year-over-year increases, according to Canadian Real Estate Association data.

Nowadays, housing affordability is routinely among the issues that Canadians say is most important to them.

A number of factors are to blame for the crisis in Canada and more specifically Ontario, but experts and political parties tend to agree that two main reasons include the widening gap in supply, and the impact of speculative investors.

When the Ford government postponed its housing affordability summit in December, Ontario’s Big City Mayors (OBCM) published a press release highlighting their goals for the conference.

“A successful summit would result in an action plan, that would deliver housing solutions in time to make a difference,” it said.

While talking with iPolitics in December, OBCM chair Jeff Lehman, the mayor of Barrie, explained more about what the mayors’ group is looking for. It’s critical, Lehman said, that all three levels of government work collaboratively to address the crisis, and that they do so in a way that’s data-driven. Measures to address housing affordability must also seek to address associated problems, including homelessness, income inequality and mental health issues, he said.

“Those three things overlap to create a much more severe homelessness crisis in many Ontario cities, including my own,” Lehman said.

Ontario’s opposition parties, which aren’t taking part in the summit, have their own hopes for its outcomes.

Before its originally scheduled date, NDP MPP and Housing Critic Jessica Bell put out a statement identifying “urgent actions” the government should take following it. She said the government should immediately: make it illegal for landlords to raise rents between tenants beyond provincial guidelines; tax people who don’t pay Ontario taxes but own homes in the province that they don’t live in, as well as raise the Non-Resident Speculation Tax from 15 to 20 per cent — and apply it province-wide; change zoning rules to make affordable housing easier to build in Toronto; allow municipalities to shift property taxes to owners of properties worth more than $2 million; and commit to funding 99,000 affordable housing and supportive housing units. The actions are key parts of Ontario’s New Democrats’ housing platform.

“We need action and that means real legislation and funding to create immediate change on the ground,” Bell said in an interview on Monday. She also insisted that a “holistic” approach is needed to solving Ontario’s housing affordability problem, not just one that focuses on increasing supply — which she criticized the Ford government’s actions as being too narrowly focused on.

In a statement sent by email, Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said his party believes increasing supply, and particularly building affordable housing, as well as protecting renters are key to improving housing affordability in Ontario. The Liberals under Del Duca haven’t released their housing platform yet but plan to soon.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement that it would have been productive to invite opposition parties to take part in the summit. His party has already released its housing platform, which would seek to increase supply by focusing on actions including building affordable rental units and supportive housing spaces, making regulatory changes to allow easier development of duplexes, triplexes and secondary suites.

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