Greenbelt has little to do with housing shortage

New poll suggests most GTA residents want more green space protected, not less


Tim Gray, Environmental Defence’s executive director

Most of us live where we do because we love our neighbourhoods, and the suburban ideal is so entrenched in our collective imaginations seeing it change can be disorienting.

Although commentators continue to talk of the condo boom in Toronto, for example, things have changed even more around here and in less time, whether you’re looking at the new highrises along Yonge Street in Richmond Hill or the announcement of 50-storey condos in Vaughan.

A decade ago, the big news was the Greenbelt and its legislative life partner, Places to Grow. 

As we all know, they were aimed at curbing urban sprawl and building up instead of out, and gosh darned if that isn’t exactly what’s happening.

But how much of what we’re seeing is because of those changes? The demographic and real estate markets were actually ahead of the curve, as were several municipalities such as Markham. Which is to say, Places to Grow is definitely driving change, but it didn’t create something out of thin air. It takes years to plan a project, and it took years for municipalities to update official plans, so we’re only starting to see the results of post-2006 planning.

Mostly, we think, this is a good thing. But there’s also a counter-narrative, particularly from development industry bodies such as Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), which is that we’re building so many condos now that we won’t have enough single-family homes to serve our growing population. 

Even worse, the legislation means there isn’t enough land open to development, so housing prices are going through the roof.

That’s a lot to untangle. But as I’ve written before, although it may seem logical that restricting land supply drives up demand and thus prices, there is little direct evidence this is because of the Greenbelt. 

Our sustained low interest rates are a far greater factor, and we still have so much undeveloped land outside the Greenbelt that it won’t be a practical restriction on supply for decades, according to the Neptis Foundation.

Environmental Defence released a poll last month that found 73 per cent of GTA residents are all for the province being more aggressive with its growth policies. They’re not concerned we don’t have enough single-family homes, and they’re good with more mid-rise development. 

Are they right?

In York Region, they seem to be. Most of the apartment building in Canada took place in the 1970s, but most of our growth has been since the 1980s. That’s why 64 per cent of York Region homes are detached and only 18 per cent are apartments. In 2011, 11.5 per cent of housing units were rentals; about one-third the national average.

Over the past few years there’s been a sea change, with more multi-unit buildings under construction than detached homes. The building industry, to its credit, has largely responded positively, even though for many it’s changing the way they’ve done business since the Diefenbaker administration.

They’re right that there’s a relative dearth of single-family homes on the market and there are early morning lineups whenever a new subdivision sales centre opens. And they’re right that the well-intentioned changes the province is now proposing — like substantially increasing destiny requirements — should perhaps wait until we’ve analyzed the effects of what’s already in place.

In the fullness of time maybe we won’t have enough single-family homes, but I think we have a ways to go. We have built almost nothing but such homes for about 60 years. A few years going the other way can only serve to create balance and affordability in a region where the average home sells for $1.2 million.

Then you have to take into account that 2020 is not 1950 or even 1990. Millennials are staying closer to urban centres and driving less; families are starting later and they’re smaller. It’s naive to think they’ll have the same housing needs as the so-called nuclear families that drove suburban growth, even if many end up moving to the burbs eventually.

What we’re seeing then is a tension as we live through a paradigm shift and try to wrap our heads around what’s coming.

As with most things in life, the key is balance. Our suburban housing stock certainly needs a big correction, but we also need to be cognizant of how the market and the population are shifting. So if you’re one of those 73 per cent who think it’s worth trying to walk this new path a few more years before sending up red flags, you have a leg or two to stand on.

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Post City Magazines’ columnist David Fleischer is a long-time journalist and currently an urban planner living in York Region.

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