As of this week, the mayors in 26 fast-growing municipalities – including Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo – are now empowered with new legislative controls after signing a provincial housing pledge as part of the Province’s target to build 1.5 million homes by 2031.
They join the mayors of the Toronto and Ottawa who were granted with these strong-mayor powers last fall giving them more executive power to – among other things - veto and pass bylaws pertaining to ‘provincial issues’, such as housing, with the support from only one-third of city council.
As well, under Bill 3 (Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act, 2022), the mayors can also propose budgets, appoint senior civil servants, create, and dissolve committees of council, plus bring forward matters for consideration to council if they feel they potentially advance a provincial priority.
“Municipalities are critical partners for our government as we help communities get shovels in the ground faster and work to build more homes,” said Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, in a press release. “By adopting ambitious and absolutely necessary housing pledges, these 26 municipalities have demonstrated they understand the importance of that target, and we are ensuring they have the tools they need to succeed.”
But just how these additional powers will impact Ontario’s housing crisis remains to be seen, according to many political analysts.
“Municipalities in a lot of ways have the least controls over the dynamics of the housing market,” says Wilfrid Laurier University Associate Professor Dr. Laura Pin, who specializes in policy, housing, and municipal politics. “The idea you can solve the housing crisis by interfering with local democracy should feel like a little bit of a red herring.”
She says municipalities are the ones ‘living’ the housing crisis as they look for ways to deal with homelessness and encampments, and believes this new legislation appears to put more of the responsibility on them.
“I really think municipal councils are trying to do everything they can to solve these issues, so the idea that municipalities are not effective decision makers or are not doing enough and that this is going to resolve the housing crisis just don’t make sense to me,” says Dr. Pin.
'Not in my backyard'
However, she does believe strong-mayor powers, as opposed to the ‘weak mayor’ system currently used in most Ontario municipalities which puts the decision-making power on local councils, could have an upside.
“It does force us to have a conversation around those ‘not in my backyard’ concerns that do get raised when we talk about new housing developments, so I think in so far as it might make us more critical of those types of concerns, I think that could be a pro.”
Some also believe giving these mayors the power to reverse council decisions to block housing projects that they believe should have been approved under provincial policy could help avoid lengthy appeals to the Ontario Land Tribunal, the majority of which end up siding with the developer. As well, it’s been noted providing budgetary control to the mayors may help them ensure there’s ample funding and staffing to support housing goals in their cities.
But for Dr. Pin, she wonders about the democratic implications of what these additional powers could mean.
“You’re actually giving the provincial government more of a say in local decisions,” she says, adding Ontarians feel closer to their local government representatives compared to other levels of government. “People are more likely to know their local councillors and likely feel they have a voice. I think they do care about this and are concerned and based on the public talks I’ve given I’ve had a lot of questions about these powers.”
However, the mayors of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo have already publicly stated that having these additional powers will not deter them from governing in their current collective way, relying on the consensus of their council members to make the best decisions for their communities.
“I think people are concerned about taking the decision-making power away from local councils,” says Dr. Pin. “Historically, municipal decision making has always operated with a high degree of consensus.”
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