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Has Toronto’s Greenbelt done more harm than good?

Tom Curtis – The Globe and Mail

We are a few weeks away from the tenth anniversary of the Ontario Liberal government’s landmark passing of the Greenbelt Act.

This act enabled the creation of the world’s largest permanent greenbelt, which now protects about 7,200 square kilometres of land surrounding the Greater Toronto Area from urban development – an area larger than Prince Edward Island. The government claims that the Greenbelt supports healthy communities across the greater Golden Horseshoe by curbing urban sprawl and preserving natural heritage. Linda Jeffrey, now mayor of Brampton, explained earlier this year that the Greenbelt “supports our plans for a prosperous and sustainable Ontario” and that it “is one of the greatest contributions our generation has made to the future of Ontario.”

Such strong rhetoric might lead us to assume that the legislation is delivering overwhelmingly and unquestionably positive results. However, the benefits of greenbelt policy are widely questioned. Referring to the 13% of England that is greenbelt-protected, Paul Cheshire, emeritus professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics, writes that “the unstoppable damage [greenbelts] do to societal fairness, housing affordability, the economic efficiency of our cities, even the environment, is devastating.”

Toronto green belt
Consider two facts: 1) the population of the Greater Toronto Area is seeing unprecedented growth; 2) through the implementation of Greenbelt legislation, the supply of land is being severely restricted. Basic supply and demand economics will tell you that if demand increases dramatically and supply is limited then a shortage occurs and prices will rise. In 1991 the population of the GTA was 4.2-million; in 2001 it was 5.1-million, and by 2011 it was estimated to be 6.1-million. The provincial government projects that the area’s population will tip 8.9-million by 2036.

Comment: But land cannot be that restricted. There are still 1,000s and 1,000s of houses being built in the GTA. From Courtice to Pickering (80,000 homes right on top of the “protected” Oak Ridges Moraine), Markham and Newmarket, Brampton and beyond. There is still a TON of room to build houses, trust me.

Meanwhile, Greenbelt legislation has been introduced, premised on controlling the GTA’s urban growth boundaries. This, along with municipally-enforced density and height restrictions, heritage building protections and NIMBYism, impedes any effort to balance the supply of housing stock with demand. The result of this imbalance has been extreme and it is highly visible: hyper-development and Manhattanization of the downtown core, rapid gentrification of neighbourhoods, severe overcrowding of the transit system, and skyrocketing rents and property values.

Comment: That is simply not true. Downtown density is because of price issues, dislike of suburbs, commute aversion, wanting to live downtown, etc. A lot of people simply don’t want a house in the suburbs anymore. And the suburbs are now Oshawa and Brampton, a llooonnggg way from a downtown job. Look at the condos going up in Markham, for instance, density is the new normal.

The Toronto Real Estate Board reports that average property sale prices in Toronto are 68% higher than they were in 2005. The average price of a detached home in the GTA is now $700,000, in the City of Toronto this number is nearer to $900,000. Even condo sales in Toronto are averaging $380,000. Property owners, including many of Canada’s wealthiest, are laughing their collective way to the bank.

Comment: And the average price of a detached home in the 416 proper is $921,000 as of mid-November. Location, location, location. More true than ever these days.

But not everyone is benefiting. As prices skyrocket, first-time buyers are finding it increasingly difficult to access the market (The Bank of Montreal reports that a typical Toronto family now has to spend 42% of family income on mortgage payments for the average bungalow), and huge polarization is forming between the price of single-family homes and condominiums – restricting mobility within the market. Aggressive gentrification is resulting in the poor being pushed out of their neighbourhoods into the less-desirable periphery and, not surprisingly, the demand for affordable housing is huge. The Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association states that in 2013, 91,000 Toronto households were waiting for affordable housing. In addition, wait times for subsidized housing were 8.39 years in Peel, 7.57 years in York, and 6.67 years in the City of Toronto.

Comment: The poor are not pushed out of any area. Unless they sell, they don’t have to leave. And if the area is valuable, they make money. Rents may rise, but they are controlled by the government, and cannot rise more than inflation. Yes, first time buyers might be having trouble, that is why condos are so popular. Cheaper to buy, or to rent while saving to buy. Affordable housing is a problem because the city is simply doing nothin about it. The value of my house has nothing to do with someone’s assisted housing wait time.

The provincial government’s first 10-year review of the Greenbelt Act is now due. However, it seems as though Queen’s Park has already concluded that the Greenbelt has been a unanimous success. In 2008, only 3 years after implementation of the Greenbelt and a full 7 years before its first review, the Liberals released criteria for expanding it. This document outlined the process by which municipalities could add land to the Greenbelt, while also stating that “reductions or deletions to the Greenbelt area will not be considered.” One has to wonder if there is any point in the review at all.

Comment: But there are not a lot of critical voices. Repeal it and the tree-huggers will scream that the government does not care about the environment and wants to pave over all the fields and forests. Keep it and others scream that it is making housing to affordable for poor families. How can anyone win? As I said, look at all the construction in the 905, there is a lot of land with houses being built, there can’t be too large a shortage from what I see with my own eyes.

Regardless, it will be done in consultation of a government-appointed Greenbelt Council, comprised of a hand-picked team of environmentalists and supporters of the Greenbelt. It seems extremely likely that this will be a review focused on the conservation of green space and protection of idyllic private country estates, rather than the broader consequences the legislation has inflicted upon the region and its population to date.

There are many benefits to the provision of open spaces across the Toronto region: preserving natural heritage, supplying recreational space, providing clean air and water systems, and supporting the existence of farmland (although this claim is seriously questioned by some local farmers), to list a few. However, social equity is fundamentally important to our region and a healthy balance of these objectives is crucial. As with any government legislation, we must challenge the idea that Ontario’s Greenbelt is flawless and encourage debate.

Comment: You are putting way too much stock in one thing. You claim more of an effect than there really is. There are many, many factors contributing to our current housing situation. Demographics, preferences, mortgage rates, immigration, density, incomes, age ranges, marriage, kids, etc. The Greenbelt Act is only one small part of the entire picture.

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Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960

Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto real estate agent with Century 21 Regal Realty.
He did not write these articles, he just reproduces them here for people who
are interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.

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Summary
Has Toronto's Greenbelt done more harm than good?
Article Name
Has Toronto's Greenbelt done more harm than good?
Description
Basic supply and demand economics will tell you that if demand increases dramatically and supply is limited then a shortage occurs and prices will rise.

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