Reverse the Ford Tories’ Greenbelt grift!

Calls for public inquiry into corruption, public housing program to build 200,000 low-cost units in Ontario 

PV Ontario Bureau 

When Doug Ford’s Conservative government announced at the end of 2022 that it was removing 7,400 acres of land from Ontario’s Greenbelt protection, it claimed this was a necessary step for addressing the housing crisis. The plan, so the Tories claimed, was to use the freed-up land to build 50,000 homes.

But this was a deceit. As is now clear to all, the government removed the land from the protection in order to deliver massive profits to its developer backers – the question of actually building homes was always a lesser issue. In fact, there was never any evidence that Greenbelt land was even needed to address the housing crisis.

“The government’s real intent is now becoming clear as the ties between the Ontario Conservatives and the developers involved are being uncovered. Some of the land owners are now looking to cash out without building anything,” says Ontario Communist Party leader Drew Garvie. “This corruption, now on full display for everyone to see, highlights the root cause of the housing crisis – the privatization of housing.”

The Communist Party’s Ontario leadership has called for all lands which the government removed from Greenbelt designation to be immediately returned to that protected status, and that there be a public inquiry into how private interests have captured development and land policy.

Furthermore, the Party says that governments take swift and real action to confront the housing crisis, which is deepening and now affects millions of working people in Ontario alone. Such action would include direct government intervention to build 200,000 new units of publicly owned social housing and to extensively upgrade existing units. This building plan would need to be combined with legislation to roll back rents and bring in rent controls for all units in Ontario, to ensure that no one is compelled to pay more than 20 percent of income on housing.

The Ontario Tories have long aimed to open up Greenbelt land for development, with Premier Doug Ford being exposed during the 2018 election campaign for promising to provide developers with access to the protected area. The Greenbelt was created in 2005 as a protected area of 2 million acres of green space, farmland, forests, wetlands and watersheds, surrounding much of the province’s heavily populated Golden Horseshoe region.

Numerous studies have shown that Greenbelt land is not necessary for building housing in the Golden Horseshoe. For example, research by CBC revealed that nearly 120,000 housing units have been approved in Toronto but not built. The Neptis Foundation, an urban research organization, has determined that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area contained some 45,000 acres of (non-Greenbelt) land which was available for development – the foundation says that this amount of land will be sufficient for the region’s housing needs until 2031 or beyond.

And yet, the Conservatives continued to use the housing crisis as the pretext for de-listing land from protection. The real reason, of course, is the enormous profits to be made by corporate developers.

The Auditor General reported last month that of the 7,400 acres of land that the government removed from the Greenbelt, over 90 percent was tied to three developers who have direct access to the Housing Ministry. These land owners stand to see a combined $8.3 billion increase in property value if development restrictions are removed.

Across the province, 83 percent of the people want the government to immediately reverse its decision to open the Greenbelt to development. Environmentalists, farmers and unions are calling for all of the lands to be returned, not just a portion and not through swaps with other land in different areas.

“This scandal is another case of corporate power directly dictating public policy,” says Garvie. “Profiteering developers have accumulated capital and power, but not by building homes based on people’s need – instead, they make huge profits by treating housing as an investment or speculation which results in suburban sprawl, cities made unlivable through high housing prices, and widespread environmental damage.”

While understanding the anger focused on the Tories, Garvie warns that people need to draw more systemic conclusions from this scandal. “We need to look well-beyond Steve Clark and even Doug Ford and the Conservatives, because the roots of this crisis – of which the current scandal is just a symptom – is ultimately corporate power and the commodification of housing.”

In Ontario now, over 700,000 households are in serious need of safe, affordable housing. At the same time, most working people are seeing their living standards eroded by skyrocketing housing costs. As banks and increasingly monopolized housing corporations rake in profits from working people, they work hard to ensure that governments don’t rock their boat. Parties in the provincial legislature have typically promoted policies that talk a lot about affordable housing, but which are really just subsidies or incentives for developers and landlords – they have all either been inadequate or have contributed to the crisis.

Housing is a human right and should be treated like a public utility, provided on the basis of need. We need governments – especially those at the federal and provincial levels – to re-assume a leading role in building and providing housing on a rent-geared-to-income basis. Instead of hoping the private sector builds what people need, and then watching while it doesn’t, working people need to press governments to take direct action through an emergency construction and upgrade plan for publicly owned, social housing units across the province.

As pressure builds, right-wing interests are trying to scapegoat immigrants and international students for the problem. Garvie says it is urgent that people “fight the current reframing of the debate, by both Liberals and Conservatives, into one that blames immigration for the housing crisis.

“The truth of the matter is that housing policy is a class issue – the roots of the crisis are caused by those that profit from it. Confronting the crisis means confronting and struggling against the vested interests which want to maintain power and wealth they derive from the private provision of shelter.”

[Photo: Environmental Defence]

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