Allowing Sprawl on the Greenbelt will only worsen the Housing Affordability Crisis

Recently, some commentators have once again surfaced the myth that the housing affordability crisis facing young people is caused by a lack of available land. They then call on governments to allow lands in the Greenbelt to be "developed" and then claim this will help bring housing costs down. While solving the housing affordability crisis is a worthy endeavour, the prescription (allowing development in the Greenbelt) will make the housing crisis worse and further harm young people. 

First, a fact: there is more than enough land zoned for development within the boundaries of existing towns and cities across the Greater Golden Horseshoe to accommodate all the new housing we need today and to meet future demand. That is what the data shows us. The Province knows this and most municipal leaders know this. In 2009, the Region of Waterloo decided they could accommodate future growth within existing lands. Recently, Hamilton City Council pushed back on  developer demands  to open up farms and forests outside the city boundary and instead voted to build new homes within the existing urban boundary. 

So where does the land scarcity myth come from? We need look no further than to the key players in the development industry. For years, they have used every platform available to claim there is not enough land to build the housing Ontarians need. And then in the next sentence they blame the Greenbelt for the reason there isn’t enough land.

The reason they do this is clear. They have purchased large tracts of land far outside of existing urban boundaries on or near the Greenbelt that are currently zoned for farming or other non-housing uses. This makes them relatively cheap. If they can get these lands rezoned for subdivisions or warehouses it is like winning the lottery, with hundreds of billions of dollars of windfall profits possible.  

Unfortunately if they win, the public loses. Here is why.

To begin with, developers are not required to build affordable housing. Generally, they make more money building larger, more expensive homes than smaller, cheaper homes. So, there is no reason to think developers will sacrifice profits and build affordable housing simply because they’re on the Greenbelt. 

But even if developers built “more affordable” homes, building them in the Greenbelt would drive up the costs, especially in comparison to building in existing urban areas. Municipalities would have to build expensive new roads, sewers and other infrastructure to these new subdivisions and these get added to the price of the homes in development fees. It also means higher property taxes for all homeowners and higher rents for tenants. Because houses in the Greenbelt cannot be affordably serviced with transit, residents would need a car to get from their homes to work, stores and to other places.That means ever-increasing fuel costs (and burning more fossil fuels). 

And then there are the environmental and climate crisis costs. Building on the Greenbelt requires bulldozing over existing natural areas and agricultural lands. Less local food means more dependence on pricey imports increasingly affected by severe weather events.Destroying natural areas means less clean drinking water, less habitat for pollinators that help food production and less flood protection. That means higher costs and risk to life when severe weather events hit and the rivers surrounded by pavement overflow their banks and flood our communities.

In short, opening up the Greenbelt to development helps some developers but harms all of us. It wouldn’t guarantee more affordable housing but would drive up the costs for renters and homeowners and destroy the lands we need to get through the climate crisis.

The Real Solution to Making Housing Affordable

What, then, is the solution to the affordable housing crisis? Just listen to where young people want to live. They want affordable homes where they can walk, take transit and cycle. They want to live close to their jobs, restaurants and entertainment venues and they want streets with a great vibe. In short, they want to live in the cities which they can no longer afford to live in. 

Making housing affordable in our towns and cities requires government action. It means throwing out mid 20th century zoning bylaws that don’t allow secondary housing in residential neighbourhoods and stop Paris-style mainstreet housing being built on our main streets.

It also means taking away the monopoly  developers have in deciding what sort of housing gets built (skyscraper condos and sprawl). Governments should require every new development to include a decent percentage of affordable units. And governments should once again support housing co-ops and other innovative ways to build affordable housing. All of these efforts will save us money and lives compared to building in the Greenbelt.

So let’s listen to what young people want and build affordable housing in our towns and cities. This will keep costs down, save the Greenbelt and prepare us for the climate crisis. 

Franz Hartmann is the Coordinator of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance, a network of 100+ organizations and individuals dedicated to protecting and growing Ontario’s world famous Greenbelt.