Most of the blame for Toronto’s housing affordability crisis falls directly on the shoulders of the city planning department. This is where a process of development approval has grown from balanced and thoughtful stewardship to a gigantic power grab. Toronto once had a team of city staff whose job was to carefully check that a building met the building code and conformed to the cities official plan. But today the planning department has expanded their role into the private sector to such a degree that they require highly trained (and very expensive) staff in order to review even the simplest development application.
Government departments tend to be like weeds spreading and growing where they can and the red tape created at city planning has allowed them do control every aspect of development – from the architecture and design to the colour of paint used on a wall.
What is especially concerning is that these planners, lack the education and experience required to instruct the highly educated and trained architects and designers they have authority over. Without education and experience they force these professionals to alter designs, based on little more than their own personal preference.
Take for example the former chief planner for Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat. Armed with a philosophy degree and a planning certificate from a local college, she was able to expand the control of the planning department far beyond their stewardship role as a government body. Planning now micro-manages every aspect of the architecture and design for each and every development that must pass through their office. Their reach has gone far beyond their government mandate and into the private sector – and tax payers are having to cover the cost.
Keesmaat herself was able to dumb down what might have been a world-class design for three condo towers by notable architect Frank Ghery on King Street. She explained that his designs didn’t match the simplistic buildings surrounding it, so she forced the world-renowned architect to dumb -down his designs to fit her severely limited vision. Without thought to her complete lack of education in design or architecture she was able to use her power to force a highly qualified and renowned architect to change his design to a level that she believed looked better. And Toronto lost what could have been a very stunning group of buildings.
But the problem is much bigger than just this power play. Public departments will always expand their size and power if given leeway. Toronto’s city planning department has had little hinderance, and under Jennifer Keesmaat their influence has grown to the level where few politicians can hold them back.
The planning department is continually adding red-tape that developers must adhere to. There is a legally mandated 9-month window that City planning has to review a development proposal, but it now gets completely ignored. And a huge bottleneck of development proposals sits at city hall. Developers are lucky if their file even gets viewed within 2 years and the development process to get through everything required by city hall has grown to a 5 or sometimes 6 year process.
The shortage of housing in Toronto today caused by the red-tape at city hall has also caused housing prices to escalate. But what many people don’t realize is that the shortage today reflects the process that occurred 4 to 5 years ago. That process has dramatically worsened. Home prices will continue to rise and push middle-class families out of the city. Toronto’s planning department must be curtailed and the process of planning streamlined to get housing development back on track.