Kelly McParland: Desperate Wynne deploys her top bureaucrats to take on housing

I’ve been studying Ontario’s new Fair Housing Plan for several days now in an effort to discern the logic of the 16-point program that aims to bring housing costs under control. The idea itself seems both attractive yet fanciful: I’m not sure any government anywhere has ever been able to “control” prices or make housing “fair.” Cities that have existed centuries longer than Toronto haven’t found the magic formula (or, if they have, they haven’t shared it with Canada’s largest cities). London has existed since before the Roman conquest, and just try to find an affordable home for yourself there — you’d be lucky to bag a room in a multi-bedroom flat, sharing with strangers at exorbitant cost.

My favourite point of the 16 comes towards the end of the list: “Making elevators in Ontario buildings more reliable by establishing timelines for elevator repair in consultation with the sector and the Technical Standards & Safety Authority (TSSA).” It’s a puzzle to me how speedier elevator repair can end the bidding wars for shoebox-sized condominiums, or reduce the astronomical asking price for nondescript houses in distant suburbs of the newly-christened “Greater Golden Horseshoe,” which takes the heavily-populated crescent along the edge of Lake Ontario and pushes it out into the nether regions where city folk used to flee to escape the pressures of city living.

Perhaps the Ontario government thinks that, if elevators worked better, they could erect a few sky-scrapers in Orangeville, out in what used to be horse country before the government decided the horse industry was expendable. That would presumably lessen the concentration of activity in and around the corner of Yonge and Bloor, where there is already a race to construct the most monumental retail/residential tower able to spill new residents onto the overburdened subway system. Perhaps if Premier Kathleen Wynne assigned one of her Sunshine List public servants to wander over from the legislature — it’s just a few blocks — the tower owners would share the name of whoever repairs their elevators, which seem to function just swell.

More perplexing than the elevator issue is one of the key elements of the plan: “Expanding rent control to all private rental units in Ontario.” Wynne was a woman of 21 when Premier Bill Davis introduced rent controls under similar panicked circumstances in 1975, old enough to recall what happened next. New construction dried up, vacancy rates dropped to near zero, low-income families didn’t stand a chance in the clamour for spaces.

Over the next 30 years governments of various stripes — Liberal, NDP, Conservative — fiddled with the formula until finally conceding that the only way to create a greater supply was to allow the market to charge market rates. The more the restrictions were lifted, the better the situation became. If Wynne has somehow forgotten what went on around her as she worked her way up in politics, she could always put in a call to Davis, who fortunately is still with us at age 87. He’d probably be glad to explain.

The Liberals’ apparent failure to study the history of the issue may explain why so many of the other points in their program involve efforts to figure out what’s going on. They will create “a new Housing Supply Team with dedicated provincial employees to identify barriers to specific housing development projects.” They will “work to understand and tackle practices that may be contributing to tax avoidance and excessive speculation.” They will “(establish) a housing advisory group which will meet quarterly to provide the government with ongoing advice about the state of the housing market.” Oh, and they will “(work) with the real estate profession … (to) modernize its rules, strengthen professionalism and improve the home-buying experience.”

The premier might even figure out why, 12 months from the next election, she’s struggling to stay above single digits in the polls

The Ontario legislature in located smack in the middle of the highest-priced real estate in the province, yet its inhabitants appear to find themselves clueless about the causes of the crisis that surrounds them. Indeed, one way to bring down prices and free up land might be for the government to shift its operations out of Toronto — it has no real need to be there — to somewhere beyond the perimeter of bankers, financiers, lobbyists, consultants, party flacks, aides, assistants and other top-income folk that take up its days, out to the Ontario with which it seems so out of touch. Freeing up all that office space, occupied by public employees who, despite their Sunshine List salaries, are forced to endure long daily commutes, would have a salutary impact on rent demands, while the legislative building itself would make a great rest home for convalescents from the many near-by hospitals.

It’s not likely to happen, but a few months spent in Windsor or Peterborough or Sudbury would do a lot to educate Wynne’s team on the mysteries that so obviously perplex it. There would be no need to establish a “housing supply team” or “housing advisory group” to clear the cobwebs from its legislative mind. The premier might even figure out why, 12 months from the next election, she’s struggling to stay above single digits in the polls.

National Post by Kelly McParland

April 26th 2017

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