This Week at Council: Bill 23? No Thanks!

Council wasn’t supposed to meet until December, and then the Provincial government announced the More Homes Built Faster Act, aka: Bill 23, and the rapid pace of change to municipal planning rules demanded an immediate response. So council met this past week to talk about what that response should be, and you will probably agree that it’s pretty definitive. Let’s recap this week’s meeting.

Special Meeting of City Council – November 22

In the first real meeting of the new council term, staff wanted the horseshoe’s feedback about two new pieces of provincial legislation: Bill 109 (More Homes for Everyone Act, 2022) and Bill 23 (More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022). Mayor Cam Guthrie said it was interesting to note that this meeting was happening on National Housing Day.

The staff presentation was over an hour long as several key managers, plus a consultant from Watson & Associates, tackled the difficult job of providing a “high level overview” of all the changes in the two bills. CAO Scott Stewart said the circumstances were “not normal”. Usually staff are asked for provincial consultation on about 18 pieces of legislation in a given year, but Bill 23 re-writes 18 pieces of legislation all on its own.

Before the presentation, Stewart went even further saying that the provincial government’s approach with Bill 23 is “disrespectful to municipalities” and “not the way that they should be doing engagement” to find common ground.

The crux of the situation is that the Province is asking Guelph to grow nearly twice as fast in the next 10 years as they were originally planning to; Guelph’s latest Official Plan Amendment set the housing growth number at 10,000 units by 2031 and the Government of Ontario wants 18,000. By the way, the Province has still not signed off on the latest OPA approved by council earlier this year.

The potential impacts of Bill 23 on Guelph are grim: Loss of revenue for infrastructure, loss of wetlands (and that could affect stormwater management), loss of heritage buildings, removal of site plan for developments with 10 units or less, affordability being defined only as 80 per cent of market price, less available parkland, less money for parkland, and no real mechanisms to encourage the development of units people might actually be able to afford, or to bring down prices in the housing market.

Gary Scanlan, the associate director of Watson and Associates Economists, compared the situation to the 90s when the provincial government under Mike Harris started downloading onto municipalities. He also said there’s no guarantee that the legislation will create more housing, especially if a build is marked for areas of the city that need servicing, like the Clair-Maltby area. Those are all upfront costs for cities, and Scanlon warned that this could result in the delay or reduction of City services.

At the conclusion of the presentation, council heard from delegates including many familiar faces. Susan Watson suggested that council should threaten to put a moratorium on all new development if the Ontario government follows through on passing Bill 23, but staff later said that such a move could open up the City to litigation, and it might just mean that the Ontario Land Tribunal would end up imposing decisions on Guelph.

One notable delegate was Ryan Scott, the senior vice-president of development and finance at local developer Fusion Homes. Scott expressed ambivalence about whether or not Bill 23 will result in more and cheaper homes, but in any event, he said Guelph should be deciding on how best to build Guelph. He also said that Bill 23 doesn’t address the pressures of labour and supply chains and admitted that there’s no provision for developers to pass on the savings in development charges and other fees to homebuyers.

After a lunch break, council dug into their own questions and reactions to Bills 109 and 23. What’s the potential impact on ratepayers with all these changes? The bills will create about a two per cent loss in revenue, but the truth is staff are still not sure. Some land protected by the GRCA counts as Guelph parkland, will this mean Guelph will lose park space? That depends, but the answer is likely yes. What about the impact on water? With all the growth being pushed forward, there’s some cause for concern.

Councillor Christine Billings ripped the proverbial band-aid off by saying that council should completely reject Bill 23 and demand that it be rescinded. Also, Billings suggested that all 444 of Ontario’s municipalities should team up for universal rejection of the bill. Stewart appreciated her hustle but said that saying a flat “No” was not going to be well-received at the Province and noted the herding cats quality of getting all of Ontario’s towns and cities to work together.

Ultimately, council did offer a rebuke of Bill 23. Councillor Cathy Downer proposed an amendment to change one of the staff recommendations to eliminate a request for more consultation time and replace it with a line that says city council “opposes Bill 23 in its current form.” The motion passed unanimously without much debate.

Council continued with questions, which covered concerns about the increased workload for staff as they now have to re-write master plans, the possibility of longer planning meeting as council has to answer applications more quickly, and whether there was any provision to encourage accessible builds or to stop investors from buying houses like junk bonds (the answer to those last two points is no). In other news, staff revealed that this won’t be the last word on changes to housing and planning. Their sources are saying that more legislation will be coming in the spring.

Stewart tried to offer some reassurance that council and staff could “get creative” in trying to get around some of the implications in the bill, while Councillor Rodrigo Goller suggested that one of the comments submitted to the Province should be a request for more safeguards to ensure that developers are indeed using these tools to create more affordable housing, even if it’s just the relative minor, provincially-approved definition of the term.

In summation, the councillors agreed that this legislation undermines local democracy, does not guarantee the creation of more (real) affordable housing, and will end up cost municipalities more in the long run. The new councillors expressed personal frustration that they’re dealing with this huge bill, and its serious implications, just weeks after being elected. Guthrie wrapped up the meeting saying that the ideal solution was for all parties – from the Province, to cities, to developers and aid agencies – to partner together and find solutions together as opposed to fiats issued from the top down.

The eight staff recommendations were passed unanimously as amended.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

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