The enigma of Bill 23

CMHC report on labour capacity constraints raises questions regarding motives behind “More Homes Built Faster Act”

“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” 

These famous words – spoken by Winston Churchill in 1939 to describe the incomprehensible nature of Russian interests – also aptly describe Ontario Bill 23: “The More Homes Built Faster Act (Act)”, enacted in November.  

In fact, when considered in the context of a Canada Mortgage and Housing (CMHC) report titled Labour Capacity Constraints and Supply Across Large Provinces in Canada and released in October (the same month that Bill 23 was tabled), Bill 23 makes little sense within the narrative of increasing the rate of new housing starts. 

Widely condemned by industry professionals, municipal governments, and advocacy groups – the Act has far reaching negative impact upon municipal planning, real estate, infrastructure, heritage conservation, and the environment – while offering no real solution to the “housing-crisis” that was supposedly its raison d’etre. It did however manage the spectacular feat of getting everyone in the province (excepting real estate developers) to agree on something…that the bill was a bad idea. Architects, heritage groups,  Ontario Nature, aboriginal groups, famers, housing rights advocates, environmentalists, municipalities, residents, community organizations, women’s groups, and many more, all published their objections.  

Seemingly impervious, Premier Doug Ford rammed the bill through on October 29th.  

The CMHC report however, shows that the federal government knew in advance that Bill 23 offered no chance of achieving the stated goal of building 1.5 million new homes in Ontario over the next 10 years.  

According to the report, the limiting factor in the rate of new housing starts is actually a prevailing labour shortage across the residential construction sector – not municipal planning, environmental protection, or built-heritage conservation, as Bill 23 suggested. 

The report states unequivocally, “We will not be able to build our way out of the housing supply problem as significant labour capacity constraints exist across most large provinces in Canada. 

It goes on to quantify the problem, “In the best-case scenario, there will only be enough labour capacity to increase the number of starts in all 4 major provinces (Ontario, Québec, B.C. and Alberta) by 30 per cent to 50 per cent from CMHC’s baseline starts forecasts to 2030. Ontario, Québec & BC will have to double the number of starts that they can produce under best-case scenarios to reach our 2030 affordability supply target. Labour capacity problems are most acute in Ontario, the province with the largest population and the highest price pressures.”  

Affordable housing will be hardest hit; “Even if the labour force operates under best-case scenarios, housing starts will fall well below the 2030 affordable targets in all major provinces except Alberta.” It states that project households in Ontario will exceed new housing starts through to 2030, and that the continuing shortage of new housing will “erode affordability” and result in higher prices for home buyers. 

In fact, the report indicates a shortfall of 1.5 million affordable housing supply targets in Ontario (2022 to 2030), based upon best-case scenario housing starts projections. According to CMHC, “While the picture under a best-case scenario shows what the industry stretching looks like, it may come at the cost of construction backlogs, since the time of construction for each structure type has been increasing in most provinces. If the construction industry can improve its capacity in line with a best-case scenario — by attracting and training new workers and reducing construction times (reaching completion stages faster) — then there is scope for significant action to increase housing supply.” 

Labour availability in the residential construction sector is the roadblock…not bureaucratic municipal planning, land availability, inconvenient environmental protection legislation, development charges, or heritage conservation. 

Why then, knowing that there was no hope of meeting affordable housing targets by usurping planning control from municipalities, destroying urban green-spaces, and bull-dozing heritage buildings – because labour is the limiting factor in the number of housing-starts – did the Ford government conceive Bill 23?  

It begs the question, “What was Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) Steve Clark thinking when he tabled this legislation?”  

Did he not read the CMHC report? Did no one at MMAH read it? The availability of affordable housing is a critically serious issue in Ontario, yet the Act does nothing to address that. 

What does CMHC recommend? Firstly, the report places emphasis on more conversions; “It may be costly but converting existing structures into residential units can be a quick way to use the labour capabilities we have. This is especially true for commercial structures that have become vacant because of people working remotely because of the pandemic. However, we need to look at whether these structures are suitable for people to live in and figure out how many buildings could be converted instead of demolished and rebuilt.” 

In addition, CMHC recommends focusing upon increasing the residential construction workforce – through education, incentives, targeted immigration policies, and increased compensation for skilled workers. 

If Ford was really concerned about affordable housing, he would address the real issues.

Ken Grafton is a writer living by the river in Aylmer, Quebec, just downwind from Parliament Hill. He is a freelance contributor for The Hamilton Spectator and The Chicago Tribune. His writing has appeared in many local, national and international newspapers and publications. 


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