By Ted McIntyre

Defining the future urban boundary recipe will require multiple ingredients

If  you walked into a dinner party with the sole intention of setting the home ablaze in riotous debate, it’s hard to know which subject would prove most incendiary: religion, politics, Covid-19 or urban boundary expansion.

If you live in Hamilton, it’s probably the latter.

Last year, charged with accommo-dating a projected growth of 110,300 households by 2051, Hamilton City planners recommended an urban boundary expansion of 1,340 hectares to help meet the provincial target. The recommendation was guided in part by a growth scenario developed by a consulting team in 2016 that would “manage impacts to the natural heritage system and surrounding agricultural lands while protecting important natural features,” according to the City. It also conformed to the Urban Hamilton Official Plan and the provincial planning framework. 

But with mounting community resistance to expansion to build the necessary supply and type of housing required to meet provincial targets, the debate was essentially distilled into two options: to proceed with expansion or to restrict development to within city limits. Hamilton City Council voted against the expanded boundary option in November 2021.

Following the vote, an Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokesman told Global News that any plan to accommodate population growth through infill and intensification alone was “not feasible,” and that “it will only serve to drive home prices further out of reach for Hamiltonians and exacerbate the housing crisis.”

Hamilton’s Ward 14 Councillor Terry Whitehead went a step further when he told the Hamilton Spectator, “Ignoring supply and demand is like defying gravity.”

“The Province is planning communities and urban growth through the year 2051, assigning growth targets to those areas. Where it becomes controversial is the form of this future housing stock,” notes OHBA President Bob Schickedanz. “A lot of time the decisionmakers perhaps don’t understand what they’re deciding. A no-boundary-expansion position means there’s no housing variety. One size does not fit all. Not everybody wants to live in a condo or apartment.

“Our industry is very supportive of intensification, of building neighbourhoods with schools and hospitals and transit infrastructure—that’s very important,” Schickedanz says. “But it can’t be all of that—just as we say that it can’t be all boundary expansion. Our position is a strong balanced approach of boundary expansion and intensification where it makes sense.”

BY THE NUMBERS 

Michael Collins-Williams, CEO of the West End Home Builders’ Association, provides some sobering statistics—for Hamilton and throughout the province. “We’ve got about 10 million people in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. It’s expected to be 15 million by 2051. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Greater Montreal moving to this region,” Collins-Williams says. “Growth was 600,000 in Ontario in 2010-2015. It accelerated to 1 million from 2015-2020. We hit a record number of immigrants last year. And those numbers are supposed to go up in 2022-2023. And this stat blows my mind: In 2021, Canada grew by over 400,000—more than the U.S., despite them being nine times larger! It was the first time that’s happened since at least before Confederation in 1867. 

“Hamilton’s forecasted growth is 236,000 people over the next 30 years,” Collins-Williams adds. “But, in the middle of a housing crisis, Hamilton City Council essentially voted for an option that directly conflicts with both the advice of professional planning staff and with provincial policy for the region’s Housing Supply Action Supply Plan. 

INTENSIFICATON POSSIBILITIES

“I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in Hamilton for intensification, especially along the LRT, as well as missing middle housing,” Collins-Williams says. “Our concern is that there is a lack of balance. Under the no-boundary-expansion scenario, 75% of all new housing units in Hamilton will be apartments, which we think will cause a displacement of families, especially those with young children, for more affordable communities where they can have a backyard, like Woodstock and Tillsonburg.”

Greater Ottawa HBA Executive Director Jason Burggraaf has already witnessed the trend. “Ottawa is seeing an increase in the number of people moving out to the smaller communities just outside the city border, such as Kemptville, Arnprior or Rockland, seeking that balance of affordability and the type of housing they desire,” Burggraaf notes. “And that’s because there’s a lack of supply across the entire housing continuum right now. In order to accommodate our population growth we need to build ‘up, in and out’—taller buildings around transit stations and a taller city in general, intensifying existing neighbourhoods by building that ‘missing middle,’ and new communities on the urban edges. We need all three of those pipelines in order to provide the required housing supply.”

Lack of housing choice also deters prospective workers from calling your city home, Collins-Williams cautions.

“We need more immigration. Growth is a good problem to have,” he says. “As the baby boomers shift into retirement, they’re putting a greater strain on the healthcare system, so we need more younger people and families in their labour-force years contributing to taxes and paying for services that an aging society will need more of. We also need more skilled trades—not just to build the necessary supply of housing, but transit, hospitals, schools, etc.”

“It’s about striking a balance,” echoes Milton Mayor Gord Krantz. “In the case of Halton, that balance does require urban boundary expansion—not just for homes, but the jobs and industrial development and employment lands, especially for Milton along our 401/407 corridor. Those are critical to us.”

MASTER PLANNING 

That direction might have to come from a provincial-level master plan to avoid potentially politically motivated decision-making at the local level, suggests Peter Graefe, Associate Professor, Political Science at McMaster University. “I think in this moment the City of Hamilton made a politically popular decision. In a way, this was an issue forced upon the city. Even councillors who might have been in favour of extending the urban boundary were put in a position where the public was really mobilized by the extent of the scale involved—and in an election year. Also at play here in Hamilton were pandemic concerns about food security and the desire to maintain farmland.  

“I don’t think it indicates a real fundamental shift in how the economic development branch of the city thinks about how the urban boundary needs to expand in the future,” Graefe believes. “But when it’s in the hands of the city, the degree of freedom is a bit limited. We probably need political solutions out of Queens Park, where the development aspect is tied better to transit development and a more region-wide perspective of getting connected, as well as to policies around things like farmland, so that you have a policy framework and it’s not a small piece-by-piece solution.”

Milton appreciates the potential volatility of such decisions at the local—or at least regional—level. After Halton Council voted to freeze  the region’s urban boundaries in February—a 15-9 decision despite Milton councillors voting 4-1 in favour of expansion—Milton Mayor Gord Krantz appealed to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, contending that the region’s decision would hamstring his city’s ability to create the necessary mix of employment and residential lands, based upon their forecasted growth.

Milton’s case, in particular, reflects the hurdles some jurisdictions will encounter without provincial direction at every level of government. “From day one, Milton followed the Province’s Land Needs Assessment methodology, which is a very comprehensive, step-by-step method, and put forward a plan to our council that was very balanced, with the right uses in the right places,” says the City’s Commissioner of Development Services, Jill Hogan. “What Hamilton and Halton Region Council have done simply does not conform to the provincial Growth Plan. 

“Compared to Burlington and Oakville, Milton is relatively young in terms of its growth trajectory,” Hogan notes. “Burlington and Oakville have received urban boundary expansions in the past and have built out to their limits. They don’t have any more Whitebelt land. Milton does. In terms of our development, we are probably 20 to 30 years behind those other two municipalities. But our population is projected to surpass both by 2051. And that’s a really important part of the story. We are doing a ton of high-rise right now, and a ton of mid-rise and missing middle. But there is also a market for single detached and semi-detached, and we have some Whitebelt land where we can accommodate that housing form. And that doesn’t mean a sea of single and attached homes; they’d be mixed residential communities of all densities.”

“Part of the story that doesn’t get told is that more than 70% (24,000 hectares) of Milton’s total of 34,000 hectares will never be developed,” Hogan maintains. “It’s in the Greenbelt—can’t be touched, rural, natural heritage. So what are we actually talking about when we talk about urban boundary expansion? In Milton we’re talking about only 7% of our actual geography, and basically it runs into the city of Mississauga and along highways 401, 403 and 407.”

“It used to be the old NIMBY syndrome, and now it’s the BANANA syndrome (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone),” Krantz says. “That’s human nature. But the proposal had been supported by staff in each of the four area municipalities. But the majority of regional councillors turned it down. It was strictly politics. It was not good planning.”

BIG PICTURE 

In Hamilton’s case, it’s not even clear which side the majority of residents supported. In a June 2021 mail-out survey (which also allowed email responses), an overwhelming 90.5% said no to expansion. But in a Nanos Research random sample survey conducted after the Hamilton public poll, eight out of 10 residents did not recall receiving the City of Hamilton survey, and only 32% supported growth solely within the city limits. Regardless of the outcome, the decision on how to house a quarter-million people over the next 30 years should not be based upon a populist response to an unscientific residents survey, Collins-Williams suggests.  

“As an industry, we’re looking for federal and provincial government, in a non-partisan way, to be doing more of the big-picture planning,” Collins-Williams says. “When you’re focused on a hyper-local interest, you can begin to lose the threads of the broader public interest and having a coordinated plan where the puzzle pieces all fit together.”

Burggraaf concurs, for multiple reasons. “Ontario has a guideline for how you should forecast population growth,” Burggraaf says. “But the government needs to weigh in earlier on municipal growth projections. Is the forecast reasonable? In Ottawa, the population forecast they accepted directly led to the decision to expand the urban boundary by 1,200 hectares of land. Ottawa set its population projection in the Fall of 2019 at 400,000 people. But in the summer of 2021, the Ontario Ministry of Finance, which also makes population projections, said Ottawa’s forecast for the next 25 years was actually going to be 530,000 people—not the 400,000 that the Official Plan was built upon. So our Official Plan could have a structural housing shortage built in. The Province needs to weigh in earlier in the process in order to prevent something like this from occurring again.” 

Following the numbers is the key to success, Burggraaf explains. “Our initial population forecast of 400,000 people translated into 195,000 homes over the next 25 years,” Burggraaf says. “It’s hard to get your head around how much building that is and where you can accommodate all those people. But once we start focusing on the sheer number needed, I think everyone can then buy into the concept of building housing supply in every way possible. And we can determine what development approval regime and what type of zoning needs to be established to ensure we build those 195,000 homes. If you don’t make the actual housing supply a priority, you’re guaranteeing that you’re not going to build enough homes and that you’ll struggle with housing affordability.”

A better public understanding of those numbers—and that growth within and beyond existing urban boundaries must be accepted to contend with the coming growth—will also be required to avoid similar incidents like Hamilton. “The boundary-expansion option in Hamilton was still moving from the current under-40% intensification rate to an ambitious 60% intensification. That was going to be a challenge to begin with, and we said, ‘We’re on board for that,’” Collins-Williams notes. “But that was framed by the other side as the sprawl option, when it really wasn’t. It was a mix of tall and medium-rise apartments, stacked townhouses and single-family homes to provide a full range of housing options in a way that’s built more compactly than most existing neighbourhoods in Hamilton. The expansion areas would have represented a highly efficient use of land.”  

The door is currently open to provincial appeals, notes Hogan. “The Province just introduced Bill 109. It would give the Minister of Municipal Affairs the ability to refer official plans to the Ontario Land Tribunal. Previously the Tribunal wasn’t involved in any way unless there was an error of law, and there was no appeal mechanism for regional Official Plan reviews. If this gets put into place (scheduled as soon as the end of April), it would take the politics out of it and have these urban boundary expansions weighed on their merits.”

Could there be a post-provincial-election reversal of the Hamilton or Milton decisions? “I expect the Province will tread water until the municipal elections are completed in October,” Krantz predicts. 

WHAT CAN THE INDUSTRY DO? 

Even with more direction from the provincial government, the home building industry can play a part in facilitating the solution, Burggraaf maintains. “We have to propose solutions that are going to work for everyone—the industry, the government and the public,” he says. “You need that three-way outlook for the solutions that you propose. You can come to the table with your concerns and your issues, but also come with ready-made solutions that work for those three different stakeholders.” 

The solution will involve a philoso-phical discussion, suggests McMaster’s Graefe, including “perhaps thinking about different ways of developing higher property tax density within developments, reducing servicing costs of new suburbs and thinking about the replacement of life-cycle costs. But it seems to me that developers will also need to develop a more sophisticated argument about why that development is happening and is in the public interest, and why people should support it.”

Burggraaf is already a step ahead. “What’s really had a beneficial effect here in Ottawa is doing pre-consultations,” he says. “Before you submit your application for your development project, you sit down and have a nice ‘without prejudice’ conversation with city staff, the councillor or their representative, and usually a rep from the community association. Those four groups consider the project together at an extremely early stage, discuss the concept and what the benefits are for that community. It helps to get buy-in. Those pre-consultations have become a very critical part of getting projects approved here in Ottawa. And getting it done in advance prevents delays and frustration later in the approvals process.”

And that entails a variety of development densities inside the urban boundary and beyond, Burggraaf says.  

Which goes to Schickedanz’s point—that satiating the needs of both ambitious growth and market demand will require a balanced diet if Ontario is to continue to grow healthy communities. 

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