More on Red Hill

This is an article published by CATCH News, a Hamilton citizen online newsletter. Red Hill Expressway has been a controversial local issue for decades. It illustrates how local citizens understand the consequences of projects like these far better than the traffic engineers.

Bill Freeman

CATCH News – July 17, 2017

Red Hill and Trump

The Red Hill Parkway was born in controversy and continues that history, most recently focused on the large numbers of crashes on the valley expressway and the even greater numbers of trucks. All of this appears to be connected and may shed some light on current US events.

More than any other Hamilton road, the valley parkway is political, steeped in decades of angry debate between multiple factions long before it was opened ten years ago. The idea for an east end expressway across the escarpment arose in the 1950s, but where to put it generated an epic debate where passion and politics overruled engineering and road construction know-how.

That gave Hamilton an ‘expressway’ that follows a route largely determined thousands of years ago by the landscape-carving effects of the waters of a meandering creek. That meant not only more curves than engineers prefer for major highways, but a lot of ups and downs to move motorists from the valley floor to the intersecting roads serviced by interchanges on top of the steep challenge posed by crossing the escarpment.

Additional politics determined that there are six of those interchanges along an eight kilometre stretch – Dartnall, Greenhill, King, Queenston, Barton and the QEW – with each of the latter five sited barely a kilometre apart. That’s also far more than road engineers recommend and has meant that on-ramps from some interchanges complicate drivers’ attempts to take the subsequent off-ramp.

Media attention has focused on pavement quality and lighting, but the basic layout required to build a road down a creek valley may be much more significant. It certainly is more difficult to change. So is the simple fact that most traffic comes off of either the QEW or the Linc – both with higher posted speeds.

Drivers doing their usual 120 km/hr are presented with what seems to be a continuation of the highway. Not surprisingly they tend to try and maintain their speeds with unfortunate consequences. Changing that ultimately that may require stoplights at either end of the valley and other measures beyond signage.

That’s further complicated by thousands of heavy trucks utilizing Red Hill and the Linc as a shortcut between the QEW and Highway 403, as well as a way to avoid the frequent high winds on the skyway bridges. Some city councillors seem surprised by this activity and have ordered staff to do a count, but it was obvious the trucks would be attracted to a route that’s a full nine kilometres shorter than via the skyway.

Friends of Red Hill Valley, one of the groups that opposed the valley route, not only loudly predicted this short-cutting, they even tried calculating the numbers. Volunteers (the author was one of them and also chaired the group at the time) did a 24-hour count at the Freeman interchange in Burlington and found that 4500 trucks a day were shifting between the QEW and the 403.

In 1950s several locations were possible for a north-south expressway but by the late 1970s when the municipal politicians selected a valley route, other potential options such as Centennial Parkway or Kenilworth Avenue (and later Woodward Avenue) featured established businesses and residences. Thus valley defenders were countered by groups based along those arteries and that intensified the politicization of the decision-making.

The provincial government unsuccessfully tried to broker a compromise 60 km arterial road using at-grade intersections and avoiding much of the creek valley. A federal environmental assessment of the project offered a final chance to flag safety issues but councillors spent over $4 million on court action to stop that from being completed.

So Hamilton got an expressway whose route was determined not by professional road engineers but by dueling citizen groups and the politicians responding to them.  South of the border we’re now seeing many other examples of decisions guided by alleged “common sense” trumping science and expertise.

 

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Participation and Democracy Rising

When I set off to write a non-fiction book, like Democracy Rising, I try to explore the subject as comprehensively as possible, but after the book is written, edited, printed, and in the book stores inevitably I come across material that I wish that I had included.

Sign and white blaze on a tree marking the Bruce Trail

Democracy Rising is a good example. The thesis, or major idea, of the book is that if we are to have a vibrant democracy the people must be engaged, and the most effective way for us to do that is through grassroots organizations that encourage the participation of its members.

The book starts off by describing the limitations of representative democracy and to show how elites have been able to dominate our political institutions for their own benefit. But the important material in the book is the discussion of how ordinary people have transformed our country through organizations such as the progressive movement, trade unions, co-operatives, the environmental movement, and community groups.

It is the participation of citizens in grassroots organizations that has strengthened our democratic practices and the book concludes by showing how we can make them more effective. We will never have an effective democracy until we have a truly participatory democracy.

This was an interesting book to write. I have been a community activist all of my adult life and Democracy Rising gave me the opportunity to write about those experiences and the organizations I have been involved with. Those who have read it have liked it, but the reality is that I did miss some opportunities. Here are some examples I could have included.

  • The Bruce Train is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. It was a group of keen hikers who came up with the idea of a walking trail from Niagara Falls to Tobermory along the Niagara Escarpment. They mapped out the trail, got permission from private landowners to cross their land, wrote brochures and articles describing the trail, set up a governing councils in different regions to look after the trail and advocated protection of the trail with the Ontario Government. It was a massive effort and it was all done by volunteers. Today the Niagara Escarpment is part of Ontario’s Greenbelt Plan. It is a remarkable story of how the participation of people can make a difference and change our political practices.
  • Another example is the growth of land trusts. Community land trusts are private non-profit organizations that acquire and hold land for the benefit of the community. In rural areas often land trusts are set up to protect land from development and hold it in a natural state indefinitely. In cities land trusts are usually set up to make land available for affordable housing. This is a growing movement that is having an impact on many communities across Canada. Again, it is all being done by volunteers.

Those are two dramatic examples of people participating in their communities, but think of the scores of different organizations that exist in Canada. These are some that I am familiar with: Jane’s Walks, food banks, athletic associations, volunteer social service agencies, and so on and so on.

Participation, engagement, the development of grassroots organizations, these are all things that contribute to our democracy because they encourage public participation in meaningful ways on issues of public importance. Social media is a very effective way to develop and promote organizations like that and engage in the discussion of issues.

But before we dismiss books in favour of social media as the tool for organizing and grassroots politics, let me give a last appeal. Writing a non-fiction book is a way to explore a subject or an issue in a comprehensive way. That’s what I tried to do in Democracy Rising. I did miss some things, but then that is inevitable. It is the ideas in the book that will stand the test of time.

Housing, assets, and affordability

The housing market, particularly the affordable part of that market is suddenly going through  major changes. I was skeptical that the efforts by the Ontario Government to cool the market last month would make any difference, but it looks like I was wrong.

I have been hearing various rumours that prices were dropping. Just yesterday a friend, involved in buying, selling and renting property, said that prices in Toronto have dropped at least $100,000 and they may go down even further.

This morning in the Globe there is an article saying that prices have dropped so much that, “the most panicked buyers are trying to back out of deals.” (Carolyn Ireland, June 2, 2017, “Stressful times as real estate compass twirls”) This, along with the uncertainty of the market, could well make new buyers very cautious and that could lead to further drop in prices.

Not everyone, of course, will like the drop in prices. Those who own houses have felt some satisfaction in the rise in their net worth with the inflation of real estate prices, but those who want to get into the market, particularly families with modest incomes will be delighted.

The real problem with housing is around affordability. Those with upper incomes can look after themselves. It is those with middle and low incomes that are caught because they simply cannot afford to get into the market. In a country like Canada, where the major asset of most people is the house they own and live in, being shut out of the market means they lose the opportunity to build financial security.

I am talking about myself here. Home ownership was burned into me by my father when I was young when he told me that the major asset the family owned was the house we live in. That simple explanation stayed with me.

I bought my first house when I was in my late 20s. Over my lifetime I was out of the market for periods but I always scrambled to find ways to put the money together to buy another house. Today, it is the major asset I own with my partner, and I attribute that good fortune to the lesson my father taught me decades ago.

A lot of people lose that opportunity when house prices are high. But there are other options.John Lorinc has an article in the Globe about developers who are building affordable housing for people with modest incomes. (John Lorinc, June 2, 2017, “Developers take a new look at ‘affordable’”) The best known is a developer called Options for Homes which builds affordable condominiums. They take a low down payment and recoup the money when the condo is sold.

The Daniels Group is involved in the redevelopment of Regent Park and Tridel is a partner in the rebuilding of Alexandra Park. As Lorinc explains, other groups are getting involved in the effort to provide affordable housing, and the provincial government will require private developers to set aside units in their buildings for those with modest incomes.

But the pessimist in me continues to worry that this will not be enough. Housing is an essential, a fundamental right, but it is more than that. Those with low incomes will still be not be able to purchase houses and that means they will be unable to accumulate an asset that will see them through hard times.

Housing affordability is inextricably connected to income inequality.

May 30th: An Evening in Toronto with Dimitri Roussopoulos, workshop and book launch

 

6pm Workshop:
The Rise of Cities: Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Other CitiesEdited by Dimitri Roussopoulos
Although the city is the foundation of democracy and citizenship, it is widely misunderstood as a geopolitical space. However, it is playing a growing role in shaping the 21st century whilst at the same time being beset by serious social and ecological crises. The Rise of Cities  explores three major cities of Canada through lengthy overviews of well known authors Shawn Katz, Bill Freeman and Patrick J. Smith as well as a major introduction by the editor: political economist and veteran urban activist Dimitri Roussopoulos.
Black Rose Books 250pp ISBN: 978-1-55164-334-2 (paperback) $19.99; 978-1-55164-335-9 (hardcover)

When: Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Time: 6:00 – 8:00 pm

Where: OISE 252 Bloor St W
Room: 7th floor Peace Lounge (fully accessible)

NO REGISTRATION REQUIRED – ALL WELCOME TO ATTEND

At the meeting Dimitri Roussopoulos will talk about the history of Milton Park Housing Co-operative.

Please join us for an engaging evening on the history of the largest non-profit housing cooperative project in Canada: the Milton-Parc Community in Montreal, presented by community organizer and publisher Dimitri Roussopoulos. His workshop on establishing grassroots housing co-ops will be followed by a public discussion.

In the 1960s, speculators wanted to destroy a downtown Montreal neighbourhood to build ‘the City of the 21st Century’, massive condos, office towers and shopping malls. For over ten years, residents of the Milton-Parc neighbourhood fought back with petitioning, occupying the developers’ offices and squatting. The community eventually won, creating North America’s largest urban land trust thus liberating the buildings and land from the market and abolishing speculation. Today, 21 non-profit housing organizations, of which 15 are cooperatives, collectively own six downtown city blocks, housing 1500 people in this remarkable urban village.

Members from Milton-Parc have presented on their accomplishments around the world, but this will be the first presentation in Canada outside of Quebec!

When: Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Time: 6:00 – 8:00 pm

Where: OISE 252 Bloor St W
Room: 7th floor Peace Lounge (fully accessible)

NO REGISTRATION REQUIRED – ALL WELCOME TO ATTEND

 

 

 

 

Reactions to OMB Reform

The reaction to the Ontario Government’s announcement of its intended reforms to the Ontario Municipal Board were swift and predictable. Leaders of citizen groups and municipal politicians welcomed the news while spokespeople for the development industry condemned it.

High rise condos on Toronto’s Waterfront

This is the news release from the government:  https://news.ontario.ca/mma/en/2016/10/ontario-proposing-changes-to-ontario-municipal-board-to-improve-efficiency-and-accessibility.html

The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ontario-municipal-board-reforms-will-stifle-new-housing-developers/article35004540/

Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2017/05/16/province-plans-to-overhaul-omb-and-give-more-power-to-cities-and-citizens.html

Suburban sprawl in the GTA

Toronto Star editorial: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2017/05/16/planning-changes-go-in-the-right-direction-editorial.html

Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro on Toronto City Hall reaction: https://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2017/05/16/omb-reform-praised-as-bold-boon-to-local-democracy.html

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is that this is to be welcomed because it strengthens citizen involvement in planning and enhances local control. It is a major development in participatory democracy in Ontario.

For too long developers have been able to use their financial ability to get what they want. The expense of OMB appeals has been a financial burden for municipalities. Developers have literally been able to outspend municipalities on legal and planning experts to get what and that means increasing profits.

But the real problem is that a small group of unelected, OMB officials have been able to overrule local politicians. Politicians are not perfect, as everyone knows, but at least they are accountable to the people.

This has led to inappropriate development all over the province, from high rise in downtown Toronto to urban sprawl in the suburbs. The OMB reforms will help to rebalance interests and strengthen citizen control of their communities.

Nationalists and Globalists

Now that the French presidential election is over, and Macron, the pro-EU candidate won convincingly, it is time to look more deeply at what this means for politics, participation and democracy in the developed countries.

In the past electoral politics has been shaped along the left-right axis. Nowhere has this been so clear as it was in France and the United States, but in the recent election in France the candidates for the two major old line parties, Les Republicains and the Socialists, did not even make it into the final run off for president. In the United States Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, advocated policies that many Republicans rejected.

There is a realignment of political parties and priorities that is fundamentally changing politics in the developed world that reflects new concerns. The left-right polarization is fast fading. The new polarization is between nationalists and globalists.

The nationalists, politicians like Donald Trump, Marine le Pen and others, are anti-immigration, oppose free trade, advocate tariffs to protect local businesses and workers, and support a number of reactionary policies like being hard on crime, and the rejection of the liberalization of abortion and same sex laws.

The globalists are liberals. They also are pro-business, advocate free trade, international trade agreements, and low tariffs. In Europe and the U.S., they tend to favour a free movement of people. Diversity is a strong value for them.

Immigration is the area that most clearly demarks the difference between the nationalists and the globalists. In both Europe and the United States a significant percentage of the population sees immigrants as a threat to their jobs and security.

On the issue of immigration, the views of Canadians are quite different than virtually any of the other developed countries. Polling shows that about 80% of the people believe that immigrants are a benefit because they help to create new jobs and promote economic development.  The ideal of ethnic and racial diversity is strongly supported. The majority of Canadians are clearly in the globalists political camp and that is why there is strong support for liberal politicians and political parties.

But much of this new political polarization designed to capitalize on the fears of people to gain votes. The truth is that immigration is an advantage because they bring young workers to rapidly aging countries in Europe, and globalization does bring risks to many workers and rewards to the economic elite.

The real question is how can people shape their government and create the type of country that reflects their views. The only way we can do this is by promoting a participatory democracy and participatory practices so the people can create the type of policies that that reflects their needs and not the demands of the elite.

Where is the culture in the suburbs?

Yesterday I traveled by GO bus to the Town of Uxbridge. I was going to an event at the Blue Heron Bookstore, with other writers, to meet readers and talk about books. The people were interesting and the bookstore, a small independent in the centre of town, had a varied stock of books. That is good news for a book writer like myself. The real interest for me, though, was the trip from downtown Toronto through the outer suburbs.

Townhouses in York Region

The suburbs are familiar territory for me, but the ones I traveled through yesterday were new to me. The GO bus went from Union Station in downtown Toronto, through Markham, communities in York Region and into Durham. We traveled along roads and through places that I had never seen before. Passengers were dropped off and others were picked as we went.

It is not all bad news. The newer suburbs in York Region are much higher density than the housing built prior to 2000. They are following the Ontario government “Places to Grow” policy that mandates intensification. Three story townhouses dominate. Along the main roads are some high-rise apartment buildings of ten to fifteen stories. Much of the new housing that I could see are built in green fields, but the new communities are contiguous with the old towns that have been there for a century or more. That should give them a sense of history and place.

But make no mistake; this is car dependent suburbia. Rarely did I see anyone walking on the streets, or kids playing ball hockey. Cars are everywhere. The parking lots are vast acres of vehicles surrounding industrial plants and enormous shopping malls.

Shopping malls are a true cultural expression of the suburbs. Everyone drives to the mall. They were designed to be the city centers of the suburbs where people could shop for everything from clothes, to appliances, and groceries. But even the shopping is a form of corporate driven consumption. The stores are chains that sell mass-produced products at high prices. The restaurants are McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Tim Hortons.

Malls across North America are in trouble. Thousands of them have closed, and the latest retail sales figures show that the newest threat is online shopping. Sales in the malls are down and that means there will be more closings. So what is going to happen in the suburbs when the malls close because there is nothing to replace them.

All this reflects a lack of authentic culture and that is the most distressing feature of the suburbs. There is culture out there. I saw libraries and the bookstore I visited in Uxbridge, but they are in the older communities not in the new suburban developments. Where is the culture in the new developments?

A prominent feature in the suburbs are banquet halls where people get married, corporate associations host functions, and ethnic groups hold fundraisers. The bus passed a community centre in Markham with a flashing sign standing by the highway advertising for people to join a choir, and judo classes. As we passed the sign flashed an ad for an event sponsored by the Coptic Church. It all felt manufactured by some nameless corporation, not the reflection of the people.

Before the advent of the suburbs, the churches, schools, and town halls were where people gathered in the small towns in these areas.  There were baseball games and county fairs. Amateur theatre groups flourished. There was a viable culture that reflected the needs and interests of the people, but what is happening today?

Recently I saw a Netflicks film set in Uganda. A lot of the action of the movie was around a slum in Kampala. It showed a vibrant street life. People, women mostly, sat around and watched their children and talked to their neighbours. Kids played, danced on the street, and played soccer in the midst of the chaos. I’m sure there were huge problems in the slum, but the impression was that the street action was fun, and ever changing. It was the culture that engaged the people.

William Foote White wrote a book called Street Corner Society that describes the street life of a poor Boston neighbourhood in the 1930s. It was on the street where young, unemployed men hung out. They chased girls, engaged in politics, took part in petty crime, and did odd jobs when they could get the work. White’s description captures the rich social life of these young men and makes it sound fascinating.

I wonder about the street life in the suburbs today. Where do people socialize, meet their friends, flirt with someone who catches their eye? It’s not on the street. Is it in the malls? Some how I doubt it.

Hamilton’s LRT will help to renew the downtown core

The good news that arrived in today’s newspapers was that Hamilton City Council voted to proceed with the LRT project by a vote of 10 to 5.

Downtown Hamilton has a rich heritage just waiting to be redeveloped

There are new provisions put on the project. The spur line that was to go down James Street North to the Waterfront has been cancelled, and Queen’s Park has agreed to study an extension of the 11 kilometer route by another 3 kilometers. It appears that the extension was what made the vote possible.

To me, that makes a lot of sense. The east terminus of the LRT was to be in the Eastgate Mall. It should extend to Stoney Creek. In the west, the end of the line was to be at McMaster University. It will be much better to have it extend to Dundas and help to get people out of their cars.

What is most exciting about the LRT line is that it will play no small part in revitalizing Hamilton’s downtown core. This has long been the dream of those of us who care about the city, but it was handled so badly by those who promoted the Urban Renewal in the 1960s that it hastened the evacuation and deterioration of the downtown to the point where it became virtually derelict.

Today cities across North America are revitalizing their downtowns. People are moving back into urban cores, bringing businesses, jobs, strengthening retail, promoting culture, street life and new vitality.

This has already started along James Street North and South. The new Waterfront will also play a part in bringing life back to the centre of the city. There are magnificent old buildings just waiting to be renovated and repurposed.

But there are still major problems. Downtown Hamilton has an excessive amount of vacant property in the form of acres and acres of underutilized parking lots. The city needs housing in its core, especially affordable housing that can attract young people who are fleeing the high prices of Toronto and the rest of the GTA.

The new LRT line and all day service to the West Harbour GO Station will make a major contribution bringing people, jobs and businesses to the downtown.

This is good news for what used to be called Steeltown.

Bubbles, Programs and Policies

Today, the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business (ROB), to their credit, has a major spread on the Ontario Government’s effort to cool the housing bubble in the Toronto region. (Globe and Mail, ROB, April 22, 2017) Their conclusion is that this is a political fix that will do very little to reduce the price of housing.

It is Barrie McKenna, the ROB feature writer, who says that the government’s response was political, but that is not the point. The rising prices of homes are making it virtually impossible for new buyers to purchase housing, and that is a serious political issue. Governments should respond to this crisis. The real question is, will the new government policy work?

A new building within Regent Park, an old public housing project.

For that we have to turn to another ROB reporter, Janet McFarland, who spent her time over the last couple of days talking to realtors who have first hand knowledge about buyers and sellers. Their opinions are consistent. The policy will have a marginal impact at best and maybe no impact at all.

The 15% foreign buyer’s tax is the major policy change designed to take some of the air out of the housing bubble. Realtors selling to foreign buyers told McFarland that the new tax will make very little difference. These buyers are wealthy people trying to get their money into a safe haven such as Canada. The Canadian dollar is low, this country is stable politically, and is seen as an ideal place for a secure investment. One real estate agent told her that the exemptions to the tax will mean that only about 20% of foreign buyers will have to pay the tax and it will not be a disincentive at all for them.

The conclusion of those with first hand knowledge of the industry is that it will not work. There may be some psychological benefit, but that will be marginal and short term. The only thing that might work is some form of tax on speculators who buy property and flip it for a profit. A tax like that would apply to everyone and would be very hard to administer. Governments are reluctant to use such a blunt instrument to deal with such a complicated problem.

We are left, then, with what economists call “market forces” to dampen the housing bubble. McFarland quotes agents who say the high prices are attracting more listings. That increase of supply could help to dampen prices, but as long as demand remains high the tendency will be for house prices to drift upwards.

I am not surprised by any of this. To put the crisis baldly, middle and low income families and individuals have been priced out of the market, and there is very little the government can do about it. I am coming to the conclusion that this is not a housing bubble; the market has established a new price plateau, and it is likely that prices will continue to rise.

If the Ontario Government policy is not going to work, then what should we do? I believe we need a new government led program that will provide decent housing for middle and low income families because they are the ones suffering from the high cost of housing.

This does not mean that the government should build public housing, and create ghettos for the poor, like they did in the past. There is another model of co-op and non-profit housing. In this program, government provides start-up funding to agencies like the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto, churches, unions, community associations, ethnic groups and so on. They then raise a mortgage using a government guarantee, build the housing and manage it over the life of the building.

These types of projects are low risk for the government. It is a form of investment where the pubic recoups its money as the mortgage is paid off. These projects provide good housing and strong communities for hundreds of thousands of people. At the same time a comprehensive housing program such as this will tend to dampen the housing market and stabilize prices. That will benefit first time buyers who want to own their own house or condo.

If we don’t provide a comprehensive housing program that helps middle and low income people get decent housing that meets their needs, we will pay a terrible price. Living standards will deteriorate for a large number of people in our cities and that will bring any number of serious social problems and costs.

Providing good affordable housing is political. It is a legitimate role for government to provide good housing because it is an essential for a decent life. Let’s stop band-aids and get on with a program that will benefit all Canadians.

Will the Wynne Housing Initiative Work?

Finally, the provincial government has acted to cool the overheated housing market in the Toronto region from Niagara to Peterborough and as far north as Lake Simcoe. But will it work?

These are the three important elements of Kathleen Wynne’s plan.

  • A 15% tax on foreign house buyers,
  • Rent control on all rental units capped at a 2.5% increase a year, and
  • A five year $125 million plan to encourage construction of new housing.

We can build sustainable, well designed, affordable housing.

There are some smaller but important elements of the plan that could have an impact on the market. These include providing additional powers to municipalities to tax vacant properties, tax fairness for rental properties, and reviewing real estate industry practices.

Recently Mayor John Tory pointed out that realtors are “aggravating the market mayhem” by tactics like bidding wars, and agents who represent both buyers and sellers. (Toronto Star, April 20, 2017) It is essential that these problems be addressed, but you can be sure that the vested interests in the real estate industry will fight reforms like these.

There are other changes to the development industry that are in the works. In October 2016, the government announced that they would reform the Ontario Municipal Board. OMB appeals have added to the costs and unpredictability of the planning system. We still do not know what the government plans to do with the OMB, but it will be necessary if they are serious about improving the speed of the approvals process and reducing costs.

Taken as a whole, this package of reforms and new programs will have an impact on the housing sector across the Toronto centered region. I confess it is much broader than I predicted. But is it enough? Will it cool the housing market so that prices become more affordable, and encourage new construction of affordable housing? The signs are mixed and only time will tell the story.

The biggest concern of late is the spike in the price of houses and condos. Clearly this is driven by speculation. This is difficult to control and the government has done about the only politically acceptable thing they can do by putting a 15% tax on foreign house buyers. (As I pointed out before, this is easy for Queen’s Park. Foreigners cannot vote in Ontario.)

Last year the B.C. government put a 15% tax on foreign buyers and the average price dropped by about one-fifth. But it appears that Vancouver house prices this spring have bounced back up to near pre-tax levels. Foreign buyers have not had the same impact on prices in the Toronto area. It is likely that the tax will have some effect, but I predict it will not make much of a difference on skyrocketing prices here.

The real criticism that has emerged of the Ontario initiative is around rent control. There have been news accounts of major rent increases in Toronto of 30%. (Globe and Mail, January 27, 2017) A 2.5% rent increase cap will help renters. In my view that is good. It will help keep some rental units affordable.

Others believe the rent cap will discourage developers from building new rental accommodation and in the long run that will increase the problem because there are fewer affordable units available. There have been a number of recent announcements of new construction of rental buildings in Toronto in recent months. Will this provision lead to a halt of construction? We don’t know.

But the problems are even broader than controlling speculation and rents. We have a planning system in Ontario that is helping to push up prices. I call it, “let’s make a deal planning.” (See my book, The New Urban Agenda) Everything is up to negotiation between the developer and the municipality and deals are struck using Section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act. If the developers don’t get their way they appeal to the OMB. There are armies of lawyers in Ontario that do nothing but help developers steer through the system. All this leads to unpredictability and drives up costs.

In virtually every other jurisdiction in North America planning regimes provide predictability. Official plans are drawn up, and zoning is put in place. The developers are forced to follow those rules. No appeals are allowed. That helps to make an orderly system. But not in Ontario. Reform of the OMB will help but what we need is a new planning act.

But there is even a deeper crisis than this. We are not building the type of housing we need at a price that people can afford. The overheated market has led to more housing being built, and more is in the pipeline, but it is expensive. Many people are spending over 50% of their incomes just to put a roof over their heads. The reasons include the things we have been talking about: speculators drive up prices, the OMB, lawyers, the price of land, and developers and real estate agents taking excessive profits. But it is also because we do not have a rational government housing policy. Let’s look at the basics.

By the time a developer buys the land, gets plans drawn up, goes through the approvals process, buys the materials, builds the building, and pays for things like marketing and real estate agents, the unit costs are unaffordable to any but the affluent. Incidentally this is not an apology for the developers. I have spent my time in the trenches fighting them in the past. It is the reality of the development system in Ontario and across North America.

We can solve this problem by increasing the incomes of middle and working class Canadians. I would be in favour of that, but that will not happen easily. The only alternative is to bring down the costs of the housing so that it is affordable.

Affordable housing programs have been a fact of life in Canada, Europe, and even in the United States since the Second World War. The housing crisis in Canada between 1945 and 1950 was much worse than it is today, and it was solved by massive public subsidies. Billions and billions of dollars were spent on subsidized mortgages through CMHC, sewers, water, roads, expressways, and so on.

At that time there was a recognition by government that the free market system could not provide good housing for people at affordable prices, and the government needed to subsidize the market. Those subsidies went to people of all incomes and in all regions of the country. It had a huge effect on Canada and played an important part in raising the living standards that many of us continue to enjoy today.

Perhaps the most enlightened housing program in the developed world happened in Canada with the co-op and non-profit program developed in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. That program put together mixed income, affordable housing for individuals and families, and developed a system of co-operative management that encouraged community. Hundreds of thousands of people still live in those buildings.

The rise of right wing ideologies and governments led to the cancellation of affordable housing programs in Canada. It was the Chretien Liberal government in Ottawa that cancelled the federal housing program in the early 1990s, and the Mike Harris Conservative government ended the program in Ontario in 1995. Today, Canada is the only developed country in the world that does not have an affordable housing program.

As part of the recent Ontario government plans, Kathleen Wynne announced a five year $125 million program to encourage construction of new housing. That is $25 million a year; not enough to built one small multi-unit housing complex.

It is distressing. In 1945 Canadians had just fought a World War, government debt was much higher per-capita than today, and yet they created a housing program that transformed this country and improved the lives of millions of people. What we lack is not only a comprehensive housing policy; we lack the political will to make it happen.

Let’s stop the politics. Let’s build environmentally sustainable housing for families and individuals, and create strong, stable neighbourhoods. The benefits will be enormous.