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New housing minister doesn't rule out removing more Greenbelt land

During his first press conference in the new role, Paul Calandra promises 'fair and open process'
Paul Calandra, the province's new housing minister, speaks with media at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Sept. 14, 2022.


Editor's note: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

More land could be coming out of the Greenbelt as part of the government's promised review, newly minted Housing Minister Paul Calandra said Wednesday, as he also unveiled a suite of new policies he'll pursue to build 1.5 million homes by 2031. 

The review will "look at the entirety of the Greenbelt," Calandra said during his first press conference in his new job. 

"There may be lands that need to be added to the Greenbelt. There may be some lands that are removed," he said. "But it will be a fair and open process." 

Premier Doug Ford caused some confusion Tuesday when he first announced the review. He promised it would be "complete" and "top to bottom," but also suggested it would hone in on the more than 700 site-specific land-removal requests made during the 2015-17 Greenbelt review.

The upcoming review will consider all lands — not just those previously requested to be removed — in the Greenbelt, Calandra said. 

The protected area is supposed to be reviewed every decade, according to the original legislation. The next reassessment was slated for 2025, but the government sped up the timeline as polls showed the controversy was causing serious problems. 

The government also isn't hitting pause on trying to develop the 14 parcels of land removed from the Greenbelt last fall, Calandra confirmed.  

Those parcels were largely chosen by Ryan Amato, former housing minister Steve Clark's chief of staff. Amato led a "biased" process that gave "preferential treatment" to developers with "direct access" to him, Ontario's auditor general found in an Aug. 9 report.

Clark broke ethics rules for failing to oversee Amato as he carried out the policy, Ontario's integrity commissioner found. Clark resigned from cabinet on Monday, but will stay on as the MPP for Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. 

The Provincial Land and Development Facilitator (PLDF), a government agency, is still negotiating with the 14 landowners to service the lands and ultimately build homes. 

Calandra wants those talks to wrap up by the end of the year when he'll "feed that work into the review of the Greenbelt."

If any of the 14 parcels don't meet the yet-to-be-outlined criteria in the forthcoming review, "they will not proceed," Calandra said. If they do go ahead, he wants shovels in the ground in 2025. 

Calandra's top civil servant will soon present options for how to structure the review. 

The PLDF has eight draft agreements with the landowners as of Aug. 8, according to the integrity commissioner's recent report on the land swap. Calandra pledged to make all agreements public once they're finalized. 

They include one property in each of Clarington, Vaughan, Markham, Hamilton, King and Richmond Hill and two properties in Grimsby.

Calandra also teased a suite of new measures he's considering to speed up home construction in Ontario, and one housing expert doubts they'll be of much use. 

The new housing minister will review how the province uses ministerial zoning orders (MZOs), a tool that can override local planning laws. The PC government has been widely criticized for using MZOs too often and to reward political supporters. 

"I want to be able to restrict the transfer or sale of lands and make this retroactive to 2018" so developers have to actually build once they get an MZO, Calandra said.

"When we issue an MZO it is expected that MZO is used to help us gain ground on building those 1.5 million homes. That's what they are issued for," he said. 

Calandra's also considering a "use it or lose it" policy to force developers to build on already-approved land. 

The government may increase the non-resident speculation tax in the fall economic statement, he said. 

He also floated bolstering consumer protection laws, like higher penalties for builders cancelling purchase agreements.  

Opposition leaders slammed Wednesday's announcement as doubling down on past mistakes. 

"Minister Calandra's review is a waste of Ontarians’ time and money. And worse, it risks opening up the Greenbelt even further," NDP Leader Marit Stiles said in a statement. "We don’t need another review to tell us that we need to build housing inside existing municipal areas — not on prime farmland or vital ecological habitats that lessen the impacts of climate change."

"The only review Ontarians want from this government is one that will get to the bottom of this deceitful $8.3 billion cash-for-your-land-scheme," said Liberal interim leader John Fraser, who called for a parliamentary committee to investigate. 

"The absurdity of this boggles the mind," said Green Leader Mike Schreiner. The review will only lead to more land being taken out of the Greenbelt for development, which isn't needed to build 1.5 million homes and threatens Ontario's agricultural future, he said. 

Mike Moffatt, founding director of the PLACE Centre at the Smart Prosperity Institute, isn't holding out hope the new measures will help ease Ontario's housing woes. 

Municipalities have called for a "use it or lose it" policy for a while, Moffatt said. 

"Their frustration is that developers will go and get an approval from the municipality, which obviously makes a lot of work for the municipality, and then for whatever reason they won't develop," he said. It also prevents another developer from trying to build on the land, Calandra said. 

"There's a strong possibility it makes things worse," Moffatt said. 

If a developer gets an approval, but interest rates change, it could make the project no longer viable, he said. Then, the developer would have to come back for another approval when the financial situation changes, making more work for everyone involved. 

"It's not clear it changes much, or would cause developers to all of a sudden develop projects that didn't make much sense," Moffatt said. "The only thing it might do is cut down on the number of approval requests the developers make of municipalities to get any more homes built."

Moffatt's also cold on speculation penalties. 

"The reason why we have this housing shortage isn't because of non-resident speculators or anything. We just don't have enough housing," he said. 

Governments, including Ontario, have implemented and increased non-resident speculation taxes before and it hasn't made a difference, Moffatt said. 

Calandra was asked about implementing more zoning-related recommendations from the housing affordability task force, like allowing multiplex housing provincewide and significantly increasing density allowances near transit. 

He didn't promise to forge ahead but said "there's more work to be done" and he'll be "undertaking a review of that as well." 

"That actually would be would be transformative," Moffatt said. 

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Aidan Chamandy

About the Author: Aidan Chamandy

Aidan Chamandy specializes in energy and housing. He can usually be found looking for government documents on obscure websites and filing freedom-of-information requests. He hosts and produces podcasts. Reach him anytime at [email protected].
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