Ontario home builders urge faster approvals, harmonized green building standards

TORONTO — Ontario should speed up new housing approvals, increase skilled trade immigration, and “rein in” municipalities introducing varying green building standards, a residential builders’ group is telling the government.

The province is sifting through a mountain of requests for funding and policy changes as it prepares the budget, and as Premier Doug Ford’s development-eager government looks for ways to boost housing supply, proposals from groups like the Residential Construction Council of Ontario could point to some next steps.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark has made numerous moves in recent years to speed up home construction, including controversial ones to give the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa “strong mayor” powers and allowing development on 15 parcels of protected Greenbelt lands.

He has said the laws and regulatory changes are all in service of the government’s goal of building 1.5 million homes in 10 years.

But it’s a target that current progress suggests may be difficult to reach. In 2022, the first full year of the 10-year period, just over 96,000 new homes were built.

That’s higher than the 86,600 the government projected in the fall economic statement, but still far short of the average 150,000 needed per year to hit 1.5 million.

A spokesperson for Clark noted that the 96,000 new homes is 30 per cent higher than the annual average for the past 20 years.

“Despite major global and national economic challenges, including rising inflation, interest rates and labour costs, in 2022 Ontario saw the second highest number of housing starts since 1988,” Victoria Podbielski wrote in a statement.

“These new starts are proof that our government’s policies are delivering results; it is also a clear sign that more action is needed.”

The residential builders’ association is suggesting a number of ways the government could take more action, including harmonizing construction requirements.

Some municipalities are “mandating their own unique technical building requirements as they see fit” and not conforming with Ontario and national building codes, RESCON wrote in its budget submission.

“While we presume well-intentioned, municipal governments that seek … the implementation of municipal green standards by acting independently ahead of higher-tier governments can in fact elicit unintended consequences, such as increasing the cost, complexity and time it takes to deliver much needed new housing,” the association wrote.

“The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing should bolster their commitment to code harmonization and rein in the fragmented municipal requirements.”

Richard Lyall, RESCON president, said there needs to be clear and transparent rules.

“Yes, let’s make things greener,” he said in an interview. “Yes, let’s move the needle on energy efficiency and all that stuff. And we’ll continue to do that. But, let’s do it in an organized way, and not having these sort of proverbial fits and starts here and there with different municipalities going off in different directions.”

Colin Best, the president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, said municipal governments have to balance development with a broad range of public interests to make communities “environmentally responsible, livable and prosperous.”

“The development industry is calling for changes that benefit the development industry,” Best wrote in a statement.

“The upcoming 2023-24 provincial budget will indicate if the Ontario government is going to put relatively narrow private interests ahead of the many broad public interests that governments are responsible for managing.”

In the fall, many groups including the Canada Green Building Council expressed concern that one of Clark’s housing bills would negatively affect green building standards, overriding municipal ones in Toronto, Ottawa, Brampton and more. The government amended the legislation in response and promised future changes to standardize municipalities’ ability to require certain green standards.

RESCON is also urging the province to expand a Simcoe County pilot project, which is using an electronic development approval and building permit platform to speed up the process. As well, the government should make it easier for immigrants with experience in the skilled trades to come to the province through allocations under the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program.

Almost one quarter of the current construction labour force in the Greater Toronto Area is set to retire by 2030, RESCON said.

The group is not alone in its push for the government to introduce new ways to boost the housing supply. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce also raises it in their budget submission, highlighting it as an economic issue.

“For businesses, the lack of affordable housing options has become a top competitiveness concern, impacting their ability to attract and retain a diverse, talented workforce,” the chamber writes.

Its recommendations include to “optimize existing settlement areas and minimize disruption to natural assets and agricultural lands to help safeguard sustainable growth over the short- and long-term.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2023.

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