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Published on Thursday, April 13, 2017

Builders' favourite consultant disputes supply of buildable land

ANALYSIS: As politicians try to assign blame for the too-hot housing market, a new report disputes amount of developable land remaining

Builders' favourite consultant disputes supply of buildable land
As GTHA house prices continue to rise, it's unclear how much developable land remains
(Ken Nash/Creative Commons)
By John Michael McGrath, TVO

It’s a question that’s consumed provincial and municipal officials across the GTHA: What, exactly, is causing the run-up in housing prices? And nearly every potential answer has political implications.

If the answer is speculators, maybe the solution is a new tax; if it’s developers hoarding land (as alleged by Oakville Mayor Rob Burton), maybe governments should use carrots and sticks to encourage them to build new homes. Ontario has ruled out only one possible answer altogether: the Greenbelt, which was created to curb sprawl in the GTHA because, the Liberals tell us, there’s plenty of land left there to be developed.

A new report suggests they may be wrong — but as with everything in the politics of planning, it’s complicated.

“It’s one of the most common requests we have from developers, asking, ‘Do you know where we can buy a piece of land?’” says Don Given, president of the Markham-based private planning firm Malone Given Parsons and co-author of the report. To suggest there’s ample land available, he adds, “is simply not consistent with any of our experience working in development.”

The long and short of the study: there are just 17,000 hectares of vacant land left in the GTHA’s “designated greenfield area,” where homes can be built. That’s far less than the Neptis Foundation’s recent estimate of 45,000 hectares of “unbuilt” land. It’s also much less than the province’s best guess per its Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the policy that governs development across the region. In 2015 the province claimed less than 5 per cent of GTHA and Hamilton lands were “developing.” MGP estimates the proper figure is 57 per cent.

So why the discrepancy? In drawing up their report, MGP excluded protected areas such as wetlands and ravines, as well as land intended for business use and — counting for nearly a quarter of the total — residential land that’s already making its way through the planning process.

Subtracting all that, Given found that nearly 95 per cent of the GTHA’s settlement area is already staked out. (Meanwhile, under the impression that there’s plenty of Greenbelt land left, the province is looking to increase its population- and job-density targets — though there may not be enough land remaining for those targets to be sensible.)

The fact that developers already own and have plans for so much land is creating a “land supply bottleneck,” the report says, even though much of that land doesn’t currently have any homes on it.

There’s also some dispute over definitions: What land counts as “undeveloped” when we’re talking about planning policy? Is land “developed” if there’s an approved subdivision planned for it, even though that subdivision won’t be built for years?

Outlooks vary, too. The Neptis Foundation wants to preserve green space, and so naturally advocates denser, transit-oriented development; on the other hand, MGP’s data implicitly supports the views of local leaders like former Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, who’s said (including recently on The Agenda) Ontario’s new intensification targets are simply unrealistic.

Neptis executive director Marcy Burchfield says the contrast between MGP’s findings and her own isn’t as stark as it first appears. She agrees, for example, that applying new density targets to land already in the planning process is difficult. “We’ve really been reporting the gross area of the urban footprint, not just planning for housing,” she says. “MGP’s gross numbers are similar to our own, and as far as land supply to 2031 our conclusions are roughly the same.”

One thing Burchfield and Given can agree on: neither of their datasets supports any claim that the Greenbelt should be opened up to development.

Given instead wants the province to designate the so-called white belt — between the Greenbelt and developable land — for more homebuilding. He also wants the government to encourage more gentle intensification in Toronto neighbourhoods that already have transit and other infrastructure in place.

But the factors slowing down construction on land where it’s already allowed — such as long approval timelines and expensive water and sewer infrastructure — also make white-belt development belt a long-term solution.

“We need some strong intervention by the province in the approvals process, but part of what we need is to be more realistic about the targets we set, and the deadlines,” Given says. “We need to start thinking longer-term.”

Photo courtesy of Ken Nash and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence.

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Author: Mayor Rob Burton

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