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We must solve the housing crisis while also protecting the environment

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It seems everyone is talking about housing these days, and rightfully so.

Ontario’s housing crisis is on full display in big cities and small towns. But why a column about housing to mark Earth Day on Monday? Ontario’s fate and fortune depend on how we meet our housing needs without causing further harm to our wetlands, rivers, and forests, which are natural “infrastructures” vital to our individual and collective health and well-being.

Housing in Ontario is a crisis in motion, with housing stresses climbing up the income ladder beyond lower-income groups to include nurses, students, teachers, paramedics and trades.

Many people are stuck without housing or a type of housing that no longer meets their needs.

Generations of young people cannot leave home as home ownership has become something inherited and not worked toward. The CEO of ArcelorMittal Dofasco stated that for the first time in recent memory, a full-time employee at AMD cannot afford to buy a home in Hamilton.

The kids are not all right.

Many workers and graduates are leaving Ontario, searching for affordable housing elsewhere, threatening to destabilize our provincial economy. The strategy of shifting the problem instead of solving the problem has caught up with us. No affordable bedroom communities remain. And we have become wise to sprawl development for what it is — financially and environmentally unsustainable.

It is fair to say that the Ontario government has been struggling to respond.

Last month’s provincial budget acknowledged that Ontario will not hit its housing targets. Housing has not become more affordable or available.

A dizzying array of rushed housing plans and planning rules have come and gone.

There was the broken promise to protect our Greenbelt, now reversed; a duty to consult with First Nations on land resources has not occurred; a disregard for urban boundaries despite municipal councils saying the extra land wasn’t needed to meet assigned housing targets; and, a very recent announcement that the future of urban boundary disputes now rests in the hands of a provincially-appointed body with new rules making it inaccessible to citizens, but fully available to private land developers.

Conservation authorities have been stripped of their role in protecting our wetlands and creeks from development activity and pollution sources.

In fact, the word “pollution” has been removed from provincial regulations that oversee wetland and watershed protection.

Finally, the single largest driver of municipal tax increases this year and every year hereafter is the result of the province shifting the cost of building sprawl onto the people who can never afford to live on farmers’ fields.

Where, what, and how we build housing will affect whether Ontario is serious about our housing crisis and protecting our natural environment.

Housing must be built within already-serviced urban areas to be financially and environmentally sustainable. Building homes is hard work, and people skilled in this work are in short supply.

Every monster home being constructed on farmland means fewer workers available to build more homes within our urban boundary and the financial reach of more people.

Development cannot occur in floodplains or on our remaining wetlands to avoid flooding. Wetlands must also be preserved and protected to uphold the ecological integrity of our lands and water.

Ontario’s building code must change to ensure that buildings are resilient and can protect the health of existing and future residents.

The province needs to step up and lead to ensure that every city and town delivers diverse housing types so that more people can live closer to where they work and Ontario can stop haemorrhaging talent in search of affordable and suitable housing.

The earth is our collective home. This Earth Day, we must acknowledge that we can and must solve the housing crisis while protecting our natural environment. Ontario remains a wonderful place to discover, and we must do our part to keep it beautiful for our grandchildren while ensuring they can afford to live here.

Opinion letter published in The Hamilton Spectator, April 20, 2024