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Ontario ministers referring to ‘attainable’ housing but docs show word has no definition

More than a year after Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet ministers began promising to build more “attainable housing,” internal documents show the government hasn’t worked out what the term actually means.

Shortly after taking over as housing minister in September, Paul Calandra was tasked with creating an official meaning for a phrase the government had long been using.

According to documents prepared for Calandra, attainable housing is “a new concept that has been introduced in public communications but not yet codified in any program / policy.”

Calandra’s briefing notes added that “a definition and clear explanation is needed” of how attainable housing would fit “within the changing ‘below-market’ policy space.”

The province says work to define the term is now underway but critics argue it has taken far too long.

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‘“The province is developing an attainable housing program that will make home ownership a reality for more Ontario families,” a spokesperson for Calandra said.

Those consultations have been scheduled for both January and February, with the province asking stakeholders to help them settle on a definition.

“I just can’t believe the government doesn’t have a definition for attainable housing,” Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner told Global News.

“They’ve been in power for six years, we’ve been in a housing crisis that predates this government even getting elected.”

Premier promises attainable housing right after the election

Moments after being re-elected as premier in 2022, Ford told supporters during his victory speech that he promised to say “yes to more attainable housing,” a relatively new term for a government that had previously been focused on affordable housing.

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Whether the premier’s use of “attainable housing” was a slip of the tongue or intentional, the term quickly gained popularity within the Progressive Conservative government and has often been used interchangeably with affordable housing.

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“We’ve put legislation after legislation forward that (NDP Leader Marit Stiles) voted against,” Ford told the legislature in November. “They voted against making sure that we have affordable, attainable housing for people who need it.”

The term became so common that Ontario’s associate minister of housing, Rob Flack, was given a specific mandate on “attainable housing and modular homes,” in the fall of 2023.

Yet, even as a junior cabinet minister was tasked with focusing on attainable housing, the government had no working definition of what the term meant.

Unlike affordable housing, which has an established meaning at the national level — 30 per cent of a household’s pre-tax income — the word “attainable” did not have other policies explaining what it means.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation told Global News the word is not used in its planning or policies.

Homebuilders, cities wait for definition

Coming up with a definition for “attainable housing” is more significant than simply putting a fine point on the premier’s view of housing affordability in Ontario.

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In 2022, the government introduced new rules under Bill 23 that would offer financial breaks or incentives to housing construction projects that fit the “attainable” definition.

Specifically, the province promised both cities and developers that attainable housing projects would be given exemptions on development charges, the fees builders pay to build new homes.

Documents prepared for Calandra say affordable housing was previously used as the “umbrella term” for low-income housing projects. That was changed through Ford government housing laws aimed at creating a spectrum of affordable housing options.

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Without defining the term, however, developers are not able to qualify for financial incentives to build and one critic believes it may be holding them back.

“We don’t know exactly what they’re going to do with the definition of attainable housing but we suspect they’re going to give developers a fee cut in return for building homes that are more affordable,” Jessica Bell, the Ontario NDP’s housing critic, told Global News.

The briefing documents prepared for Calandra appear to agree with Bell’s assessment of the government’s attainable housing plan.

“The definition will inform what an ‘attainable price’ is, which allows for an assessment of program levers required to close the gap between market and attainable prices, feasible housing forms and types, and program implementation costs,” the document state.

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Bell said the time the government has taken to define the word shows they’re “really confused” about how to solve the housing crisis.

“The government has had over 18 months to define attainable housing and they still can’t make up their mind,” she said. “If we have to wait 18 months for a definition, how long are we going to wait until they start building homes people can afford.”

Government begins work to define the term

A spokesperson for Calandra said work to define attainable housing is now well underway.

Consultations over the first two months of the year are part of broader work on an attainable housing program for Ontario.

“The province is using insights and ideas from municipalities and partners in the housing sector to define attainable housing and to inform a modular housing framework that will be used, in part, to build attainable homes,” Calandra’s office said.

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“The definition of attainable homes will apply only to modular home demonstration sites, including surplus provincial lands and surplus lands made available by municipalities, in order to incentivize early development of modular, attainable homes.”

Schreiner, however, said the fact the work isn’t done yet shows the government has failed to address the “urgency of the crisis” in housing.

“They’ve wasted the last two years,” he said.

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