On December 6th, the Ontario passed the Promoting Affordable Housing Act, legislation that takes aim at the province’s affordable housing crisis. The Act, which amends seven other public acts including the Planning Act, was introduced this Spring as a legislative commitment to the Province’s recently updated Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy and ahead of the National Housing Strategy, to be released next year.

The Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy, updated this March, commits the province to a $178 million investment over three years to "transform" the housing system, promisings to end chronic homelessness by 2025, and recommends the implementation of inclusionary zoning (IZ) policies.

Passed last week, the Promoting Affordable Housing Act takes its cues from the updated Strategy, formally introducing IZ as a policy mechanism whereby municipalities can require private developers to reserve a portion of units—usually between 10 and 30 per cent—to rent at below market rates.

The GTA, looking west to Mississauga from Toronto, image by Greg Lipinski

Kenneth Hale, the Legal and Advocacy Director for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), told UrbanToronto that the legislation “is something we’ve asked for for a long time, and it’s kind of shame that this huge building boom in Toronto over the past 10 years has passed by without us having [IZ policies.]”

“We could’ve had thousands and thousands of affordable units had we had this legislation,” Hale said.

Hale explained that IZ works to both increase supply of affordable housing units and helps “plan for communities that have a wider range of incomes.” The logic underlying IZ policies, according to Hale, is that “in return for the right to build, [developers] have to provide more social benefits, like affordable housing.”

In the late spring and summer, consultations with municipalities, developers, and community stakeholders revealed strong opposition to the Act’s IZ clauses, which would have prohibited municipalities from benefitting from both IZ policies and Section 37 of the Planning Act.

The City of Toronto submitted an official response in early August opposing the Act, noting that Section 37 is a necessary means by which municipalities “achieve community benefits such as child care, parks, and other infrastructure improvements, where extra height and density is requested through the planning approval process.”

Toronto’s Ward 18 City Councillor Ana Bailão told UrbanToronto in early September that the choice between affordable housing supply and community benefits “is a choice that [municipalities] shouldn’t have to make.”

Laura Gallant, Press Secretary to the Minister of Housing Chris Ballard, told UT that the province “listened and heard from the municipal, development and housing sector that municipal flexibility was needed for using both section 37 and inclusionary zoning at the same time.”

The government updated the Act to include provisions “that respond to what we’ve heard—municipalities can now use section 37 for community benefits and inclusionary zoning concurrently, subject to criteria set out in regulation,” Gallant explained.

Downtown Toronto's growing density, looking north, image by Greg Lipinski

"We were happy to see that the province listened to us on the Section 37 and use of IZ," Bailão told UT in a recent interview. "I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction, it’s giving much needed flexibility to the service managers and recognizing their role and the different needs and different solutions that are needed when you’re dealing with housing," Bailão said.

But for Hale, whether municipalities will effectively implement the policy remains to be seen. “There’s a lot of work to do still in defining what affordable means [...] The legislation doesn’t have a lot of detail in it, and those details will have to be worked out by local official plan amendments and bylaws,” Hale said.

“This will require conscious local effort by each local council to pass these new laws, and not only to pass them, but to actually sit down and negotiate an agreement and stand up for the rights of people who are going to be living in the new affordable housing,” Hale explained. Even if local councils are able to effectively build more affordable units through the IZ policies, Hale argues that it will not be enough to tackle the province’s housing and homelessness crisis.

Bailão explained to UT that since the regulations around IZ haven't been released yet, there's no way of knowing how Toronto's City Council will respond. "It all depends on how prescriptive the regulations are," she said.

IZ policies, according to Bailão, "only translate into [affordable] units when municipalities and the development industry partner." As such, Bailão plans to "continue the conversation" around IZ and hopes to develop a "robust IZ policy" with regulations that capture the city's "different realities." 

The Province's approval of the Promoting Affordable Housing Act, which also include amendments to the Housing Services Act, demonstrates that government believes “the private sector is going to be the answer to all our affordable housing problems,” Hale says. “But we need actual government investment in new social housing units to really make a difference,” he argues.

Changes to the Housing Services Act elaborate a portable housing benefit program, which will permit municipalities and service managers to provide low-income tenants with rent subsidies to secure housing in the private market while allowing municipalities to sell off social housing units, “do not do anything to increase the supply of social housing,” Hale said.

Other provisions include a census of the homeless population. "It’s good to see the province coming to the table on these issues and wanting to understand them [...] the only way we can solve an issue is if we can truly understand it," Bailão said.

But for Hale, “counting people isn’t providing homes for them.”