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Ontario has a new housing minister. But the Greenbelt is still his problem

Paul Calandra, who was named Ontario’s new minister of municipal affairs and housing on Monday following the abrupt resignation of Steve Clark, is taking over one of the most important seats at Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet table — and the set of challenging policy files that comes with it — amid an ongoing controversy over the Greenbelt land swap.

As the province faces a crippling housing supply and affordability crisis, building more homes and bringing down prices has become priority number one. Calandra will now shoulder much of the responsibility for achieving that goal, which experts say will be a challenge.

Mitch Heimpel, director of campaigns and government relations at public affairs firm Enterprise Canada, said Clark’s unique biography and experience will make him difficult to replace. He served three terms as mayor of Brockville, Ont., starting in 1982, was president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and has been a member of Provincial Parliament representing a riding south of Ottawa since 2010.

“He brought a lot of authority to that role. He brought a lot of impact to cabinet as a voice and as a decision maker,” said Heimpel, who used to work with Clark when he was in opposition.

“He’s got a lot of experience, so filling his shoes is going to be hard.”

Clark introduced flurry of legislative and regulatory changes

Clark, who had held the role since the Progressive Conservatives came to power under Ford in 2018, responded to the challenge with a dizzying set of legislative and regulatory changes.

He set a province-wide housing target, introduced “strong mayor” powers and used ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) to fast-track developments at an unprecedented rate, among countless other initiatives. The defining features of Clark’s tenure have been to make Ontario a more hospitable place for developers looking to build while overhauling the way municipal governments operate in a bid to speed up housing projects.

WATCH | Ontario’s housing minister has resigned, but critics say the Greenbelt controversy far from over: 

Ontario’s housing minister has resigned, but critics say Greenbelt controversy far from over

9 hours ago

Duration 1:54

CBC Toronto’s Ali Chiasson unpacks the reaction to Steve Clark’s resignation, with opposition parties calling for a deeper probe into how the Greenbelt land swaps came to be.

Calandra, who was previously government house leader and minister of long-term care, is replacing Clark at a time when the Ford government is facing intense scrutiny over its decision to open up parts of the Greenbelt to build housing. The decision was made despite the government’s own hand-picked housing affordability task force saying that building homes on protected land isn’t necessary to meet Ontario’s housing needs.

Two independent, legislative watchdogs — in successive reports released just weeks apart last month — found major flaws with the process that led to approximately 2,995 hectares on 15 sites being removed from the Greenbelt last December, prompting both Clark and his chief of staff to resign.

A man walks off a platform, away for a podium.
Steve Clark abruptly resigned a municipal affairs and housing minister on Monday. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Heimpel said Clark’s replacement will need to build on his predecessor’s “legislative legacy,” which includes the passage of several omnibus bills implementing Ontario’s housing strategy and overhauling municipal planning. The shuffled minister will also need to find a way forward on the Greenbelt issue and make progress on the government’s target of building 1.5 million homes by 2031, he said. 

But Calandra will first have to learn the ropes, which Heimpel said could take months as the new minister enters “weeks of briefings” with senior civil servants and begins policy work such as reviewing regulations and new drafts of legislation. The transition could slow down progress on the province’s housing agenda, Heimpel said, with new legislation expected as early as this fall.

“A really good minister can probably get up to speed in six weeks. The average minister is probably something more like three to six months,” he said. 

Housing challenge ‘absolutely massive,’ expert says

The challenge for the new minister is “absolutely massive,” according to Mike Moffatt, a housing policy expert and founding director of the Place Centre at the Smart Prosperity Institute, a policy think tank at the University of Ottawa.

Ontario has never built more than 850,000 homes in a 10-year-period, Moffatt said. The last time the province built as many as 750,000 in any 10-year period was from 1973 to 1982, he said, more than 40 years ago. That means the province needs to beat its own record by more than half a million homes to achieve its 2031 goal. 

There were 99,000 housing starts in 2021 and 96,000 in 2022, according to provincial figures. A housing start refers to “the beginning of construction work on the building where the dwelling unit will be located,” according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Homes under construction.
The Ontario government has set a target of building 1.5 million homes by 2031 in order to address the province’s housing shortage and affordability crisis. (Patrick Morrell/CBC News)

But, according to the budget released in March of this year, only 80,000 new housing starts are expected in 2023 due, in part, to high inflation and interest rates raising the costs of building.

In order for the province to achieve its 1.5 million homes by the 2031 target, Moffatt said Ontario needs to increase the pace of annual starts to 150,000 new housing units.

“We are in the midst of a housing crisis. We do need to move further on this issue,” Moffatt said. “To have somebody new coming in that role who doesn’t necessarily understand the file, they’re going to have to get up to speed and up to speed very quickly.”

Moffatt said he’d like to see the new minister “pivot” by reversing its Greenbelt decision, returning protected status to the lands, and working with municipalities to implement the housing affordability task force’s 55 recommendations.

Role about more than just housing

Beyond the housing issue, Calandra is now in charge of relations between the Ontario government and the province’s 444 municipalities, as well as regional and county-level governments.

On that front, Heimpel said the province is expected to soon announce who it has appointed as “facilitators” to look at whether cities and towns in six regional governments — Durham, Halton, Niagara, Simcoe, Waterloo and York Regions — could become independent.

“They’ve got to legislatively keep improving how we get homes built in the province of Ontario … while also reorganizing regional government for millions of Ontarians,” he said. 

“With the legislature coming back on September 25th [Calandra] is going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time at a very rapid rate because it’s a big job.”

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