Last week Doug Ford’s Ontario government introduced legislation that will seek to rapidly increase homebuilding in the province, primarily by peeling back exclusionary zoning. Premier Ford’s bill will allow for up to three units to be built on a single residential lot without any bylaw amendments or municipal permissions. This allows for the building of basement apartments, garden suites, duplexes, and triplexes on a single residential lot. In addition to allowing these units to be built, the legislation also exempts these units from development charges and parkland dedication fees, which significantly increase the cost of building and are ultimately passed on to buyers. In a city like Toronto, this could be a game-changer for calming the housing crisis.
Upwards of 70 per cent of Toronto is zoned exclusively for single-family homes, a restriction that significantly limits building options, which in turn constrains the housing supply. The impact of these zoning rules can’t be overstated. A family in Toronto needs an annual income of $280,000 to purchase a detached home, $214,000 for an attached home, $167,000 for a townhome and $148,000 for a condo. But the median income for a couple in Toronto is only $97,700.
Why zoning reform is needed is simple: artificial limits on what can be built keep the housing stock low, which in turn prevents supply from keeping pace with demand, thus putting upwards pressure on home prices and rents. Because of these zoning rules, Ontario has a terrible record for building new homes. Among G7 countries, Canada ranks dead last in population-adjusted housing units per 1,000 people with 424. Ontario, which has only 398 units per 1,000 people, is a major cause of the problem.
Increasing the housing stock would put downward pressure on prices and foster economic growth. Research on zoning rules in the U.S. has shown that, by freezing workers out of high-rent areas like New York and San Jose where their productivity would be higher, local zoning rules lowered U.S. economic growth by fully 36 per cent between 1964 and 2009. There is no reason to assume similarly exclusionary zoning laws aren’t having the same negative impact in Ontario and across Canada.
The benefits of zoning reform aren’t just theoretical. Reform has made housing more affordable in both the United States and Japan. Minneapolis, which abolished exclusionary zoning before the pandemic, now appears to be bucking the trend of rising U.S. rental prices. Rents for one- and two-bedroom units are actually lower in 2022 than they were in 2019. Some of that presumably can be chalked up to having made it easier to build for increased density.
Before the pandemic Japan was building nearly a million new homes per year because of its relaxed approach to zoning. This approach is largely why average home prices in Japan have stayed relatively flat for nearly a decade. Enabling supply to keep up with demand is the keystone of Japan’s success in creating a stable housing market, one where home ownership is feasible and rental prices are stable. On the rental side, from 2008-2018 rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in Tokyo hovered around $1,000 (U.S.) per month. A two-bedroom apartment in Toronto is now more than double the price of an equivalent unit in Tokyo.
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Now, for some, the thought of smaller Tokyo-style apartments doesn’t seem appealing. But the point here is that with limited government involvement in the building of new homes the market is able to adjust and build in a way that better meets housing demand. And to really demonstrate the power of supply: Japan’s rental prices were stable without the use of rent control, a policy often touted as a means to curb rising rents.
For those who like the suburbs and want them to stay that way, this bill could work to increase density in high-demand areas like Toronto, while easing housing pressure in surrounding areas. Opening up 70 per cent of Toronto to increased density will help curb the trend to suburban sprawl, as people who prefer to live in these high-demand areas will find it easier to do so.
This new bill takes the issue of chronic housing undersupply seriously by saying “Yes, In My Backyard.” Welcome to Team YIMBY, Premier Ford.
David Clement is North American affairs manager with the Consumer Choice Center.