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Mortimer Crane

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Toronto’s affordable housing scandal

 

What do you get when you hold housing development back, add millions of dollars in development charges, and layers of red tape to the development process? A housing shortage.

It isn’t rocket science, and yet city planners and politicians keep blaming “greedy” developers for housing affordability issues rather than evaluate their own flawed systems. The truth is that Toronto’s urban planning department has expanded their power and authority and in doing so they have added so much complexity to the project approval process that instead of taking the regulated nine month timeframe, development projects often don’t even get looked at for at least a year, and the entire approval process from start to finish can take between 4 to 6 years.

Toronto is just seeing the beginning of the housing crisis. With such a bloated approval process and no certainty on the costs associated with development, home builders have become wary of building in Toronto.

The fact that the city has more than doubled development charges over the past few years has added huge costs to the underlying price of housing. Take for example the square foot cost of building a condo. Add the cost of the land, construction, development charges the city imposes as well as the cost to borrow money to pay for construction, and developers could reasonably estimate the square foot cost they needed to charge their customers. However, Toronto refuses to standardize development charges to the point where one building might be required to pay much more than another directly beside it.

In other cities like Ottawa the development charges are posted so that every builder knows what they need to budget for in order to develop a project. In Toronto the development charges are not advertized because the city is constantly adding new ones, with the most recent addition in May of a transit development charge that has yet to be specified. Constantly adding fees every few months to development charges doesn’t allow a developer to know what their costs are going into a project, which in turn significantly increases the risk for investors and for home buyers – with many learning the condo they put money down on a year ago is no longer being built. This uncertainty has a cost and all costs get added to the initial price of a home. Yet the city Toronto refuses to come up with published rates for development charges that developers can rely on when costing their projects.

The fact that Toronto’s development approval process has bloated from nine-months to six years is good news for current homeowners as the shortage of housing will see home values increase significantly, but over the long term property taxes will need to increase dramatically to cover the operating cost of a large city and push middle class families out of the city.

There are a few quick fixes the City of Toronto must make in order to encourage housing affordability.

First reduce the amount of red tape involved in the development approval process.

Next stop city planners from pretending to be architects. They should not be deciding the design of a building (or the colour of a wall!) those aspects of design should be handled by educated designers and architects – they belong in the private sector. The job of Toronto’s city planners must be curtailed to encompass safeguarding that buildings meet the building code and the official plan. It’s time to focus on the fact that glass is falling out of buildings because city staff were sidetracked by more prestigious ambitions and not doing their job of safeguarding the public. The less design work city staff do, the more efficient the planning and building departments will be. As things now stand, city staff have grabbed far too much power and our taxes are paying planners to play at being architects and designers. It’s a waste of time and money that is distracting them from doing their job.

The leadership at Toronto planning over the past five years was a grab for power. Now that former chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat has set her sites on bigger ambitions it is time for the city to get planning staff back to focusing on their core job of being wardens over the designs brought to them.

The development cluster-fudge in Toronto

The public would be utterly shocked if they knew the length of time it takes for a building development to get approval from the City of Toronto planning department. The 9-month window that government has designated as the appropriate window of time for project approval never gets met. A report done by the C.D. Howe Institute shows that municipalities ignore this time window. In Toronto developers were forced to take projects to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in order to get city planning to respond to them. Even with the OMB approval, most projects still took between 3 and 4 years to work their way through the planning department.

With the disbandment of the OMB, developers are scratching their heads and wondering who will hold municipal planning accountable to a time frame. No longer can they appeal to the OMB for help. With no accountability the approval process will likely climb to 6 or 7 years.

The provincial government announced the formation of the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) but their power is limited to issues around conformity to local or provincial plans. The goal was to give more power to the local municipalities, but decision makers seem to have ignored the fact that planning departments have ballooned in scope without the extra investment by local governments.

Like any government agency the planning department constantly fights the urge to expand their reach into the public sector, and haven’t had much success in Toronto. The planning department has inflated their authority far beyond the role of ensuring buildings are safe and built to code. Unbeknownst to taxpayers the planning department has taken on the role of architecture and design supervision – a role that belongs in the private sector. Few city planners have a full education in architecture or design and yet they have spread their authority to a point where they can completely change the architectural designs of a building. The amount of time spent by Toronto’s planning department doing work that should be done by the private sector is costing Toronto taxpayers millions of dollars, not just in wages, but in housing costs.

Another problem with this expansion of authority is that when a public servant starts choosing the shade of beige they want for a wall (yes, they do this in Toronto) or imposing the shape, size and design of a building (they think it should match everything else around it) they go beyond the scope of their education or ability and no one can stop them. They literally dumb down architecture in the city and truly magnificent buildings never get built.

In Toronto the process of getting a building development approved is a complete cluster-fudge of repetition, with the plans moving between so many city divisions and external agencies (building, roads, parking, water, heritage, etc.) with each having their own silo of authority.

The problem with this overreach of authority is that it adds time (years) to the building approval process, and time has a direct cost that is added to the cost of housing.

The more time a developer has to put into upfront planning the more expensive the overall cost of a building

As more time gets added the more likely it is that developers will choose not to develop. Add to this the fact that development charges in Toronto have nearly doubled over the past year and the cost of housing dramatically increases. Now add in the fact that property prices in Toronto have skyrocketed and it is easy to see why housing prices have increased so dramatically.  Time is the real culprit. Toronto planning must refine the process a development application goes through, and city planners need to curtail their desire to weigh in on design and architecture (which they are not educated in) and focus on the job of ensuring buildings are safe and built to code.

The bottleneck of development applications at city planning today is increasing and slowing down construction of new homes all across Toronto  Toronto’s new Chief planner, Gregg Lintern, has quite a challenge ahead of him. Not simply because the approval process needs a complete overhaul, but also because there is a “closed-door” culture running rampant at the planning department. It breeds an “us against them” mentality that pits city staff against the city’s development industry. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Lintern is able to change the culture, reach out to stakeholders, and make the changes that will impact housing affordability. If he simply carries on with the status quo and allows even more time to be added to the development approval process, he will push the cost of housing even further out of reach for average families.

Phantom of the Opera, or Phantom of the Eeeek

EEEEEK! That’s all I can say about director Laurence Connor’s version of the Phantom of the Opera, performed at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

The musical is a favourite of mine, touching on the power of music, love, and passion. It mocks the prima donnas and those attracted to the phoniness that exists in the world of opera.

I’ve seen the Phantom of the Opera more then a dozen times, and while I can usually get through a poor singer or muddled dance performance, tonight was painful. This time the dancers and singers were not to blame, it was the choreography and the interpretation of the musical. The production was so shallow it left me feeling as if director Laurence Connor and cheoreographer Scott Ambler had no depth in their understanding of the relationship between a man and a woman. The attraction the character of Christine should have had to genius and teacher the Phantom didn’t exist. Her ability to sing with passion and authenticity when she drops the operatic pretense was gone. Instead, Christine came across more as the prima donna devoid of depth, clinging to her falseness.

The main point of the musical is to show the opposition between the Phantom’s ugly disfigurement and the beauty he and Christine are able to produce together through song.  That beauty is in contrast to the fake quality of the opera singer — a quality the young dancer is supposed to replace with her authentic voice.

Instead, the performance simply substituted one prima donna for another.  The opera never ended and the scenes that required the opera voice to be replaced by an authentic voice filled with passion and beauty never happened. I found myself longing for the first prima donna, because at least she was being authentic to her role.

The only good parts came when the Phantom, played by Chris Mann, had a chance to sing with passion, but having him crawl around on the floor, bum in the air to the audience, destroyed any true feeling he might have garnered.

In the original musical there is a passionate scene when the Phantom takes Christine to his lair for the first time. In the original musical, it is a passionate love scene, but not so in this version. Instead the director has the Phantom put a blindfold on Christine and has the actress stumble around the stage. The blindfold takes away any possibility of passion, turning it into more of a scene of power. The erotic tension and feelings that Christine is supposed to have towards the Phantom are gone, replaced by pin the tail on the donkey. It so obviously misunderstands the strength of her passion and the power she holds over the Phantom, I can only guess that the director has no understanding of women.

The focus of this performance seemed to be on the inner turmoil of the Phantom and the heroic quality of Raoul, but in doing so the director sacrificed the depth of character the original musical gave to Christine. Lost was the mockery of opera life, lost was the struggle to choose between her passion and the need to conform, lost was the passion that drove the Phantom to place his one love on a stage at all cost — even the cost human life. Instead of feeling as if the Phantom was consumed by his passion and the music, I left thinking the guy could sing. No depth, no feeling.

Another disappointing scene was when Christine is supposed to be searching for guidance at her father’s grave. Her true voice free from the operatic nonsense of stage is supposed to shine through, but instead she sang it with the pomp of full operatic style — missing on any chance of authenticity. It didn’t help having the stage hands messing about behind the props, taking away the stillness that the graveyard scene was supposed to have had.

My guess is that the director is enthralled with opera and has no knowledge of the passion, power and beauty that can exist between a man and woman. He seems to mock that power held by women, making the lead female role into a shallow character whose only talent is that she can sing opera.

The performance left me angry. Angry that such talented singers and dancers were made to destroy the message of a musical I adored. Devoid of erotic tension, bereft of a beautiful voice, the Phantom of the Opera was little but a bad play with some good dancers. A love story without love is quite empty, and this performance of the Phantom was just that. My heart goes out to the dancers and actors who lacked the strength of a good director.

 

Mayor Tory has the gonads of a lion!

 

This week the Mayor announced a .5% increase in property tax to be dedicated to a City Building Fund. That amounts to an average of $13 a year for each property owner – or the cost of two large lattes. The levy will be dedicated to a fund for affordable housing and transit.

While .5% isn’t a lot to most residents, in the minds of the mentally below average individuals who once filled the halls of Ford nation, it is an affront worse then the scowling face that greets them each morning in the mirror.

Even with a small .5% levy dedicated to housing and much needed transit imperatives, I expect a few idiots on city council to complain. The roosters from the right will crow that a measly $13/year is too much. They’ll accuse the Mayor of running a “tax and spend” government, but with brains the size of chickens and penis’s to match, these dolts of dumbness don’t understand that their idiotic lack of investment in transit, caused the very gridlock their SUVs sit in today. Their refusal to invest in affordable housing decades ago created a shortage of housing and while this may have increased the value of their suburban homes it has done little to ease the cost of living and left an expense on their children that will take decades to pay down.

There will be lunatics from the left – who will claim the poor can’t afford a .5% levy. They will hope that nobody points out that the poor don’t own property so won’t pay it. These champagne socialists, stingy with their pennies will chide the Mayor more because they don’t want to give up two lattes a year, than out of any true desire to help those less fortunate who desperately need the affordable housing and transit services that this levy is dedicated to building.

Chicken brains and lattes swillers aside this .5% property tax levy is a small drop in the bucket of what is needed to fund the capital projects Toronto requires. From the relief subway line, to revitalizing social housing and repairing the Gardiner, Mayor Tory is taking the first step in creating a dedicated City Building Fund.