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Ontario developers form group aimed at mitigating housing reform

he new group of 10 real estate developers, which calls itself Building TO Inc., includes some of the city’s biggest developers of condominiums, houses and rental units.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A group of high-powered Toronto real estate developers has banded together to hire lobbyists in an effort to persuade the Liberal government to water down its sweeping reforms to the Ontario Municipal Board, the province's controversial land-use tribunal, and other changes to housing policies.

Kathleen Wynne's government unveiled reforms in May that would dramatically rein in the OMB's extensive powers, replacing it with a new tribunal that would be much more deferential to the wishes of local municipal councils. Critics had long complained the OMB was too quick to side with developers in the disputes it presided over, such as fights in Toronto about how tall condo towers could be.

But the development industry has loudly criticized the changes, warning that NIMBYs – Not in My Back Yard activists – would unfairly dictate municipal council decisions. The result, they predict, will be far fewer new housing units under construction as residents press local councillors to oppose taller towers or denser plans in their neighbourhoods.

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The new group of 10 real estate developers, which calls itself Building TO Inc., includes some of the city's biggest developers of condominiums, houses and rental units. In the past few months, the provincial government has made massive changes in its housing policies. The group's lobbyists are also contacting the federal government.

One of the members of Building TO Inc. is Diamond Corp., led by Stephen Diamond, who was among several developers who met with Ms. Wynne in the days before the OMB reforms were announced last May.

Mr. Diamond said the group has not yet met to formulate its proposals for changes to the reform legislation, but is supposed to gather next week. He said the new group was intended to act on behalf of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), the larger group that already advocates for GTA developers.

"The group is basically an arm of BILD, which was established to co-ordinate submissions to Queen's Park to help ameliorate what we see as damaging to the long-term interests of both present and future residents of the province," Mr. Diamond said.

He said the government needs to make sure that, under the new system, municipalities don't undermine the province's goals to build denser, more transit-friendly communities by shutting down new development to please ratepayers.

"You can't just reform the OMB without reforming the way we do business at the municipal level," Mr. Diamond said.

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Mark Cripps, press secretary to Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro, said Building TO Inc. has not contacted anyone in the ministry. Stakeholders can make submissions on the OMB reform bill, which the government hopes to pass into law next spring, during committee hearings, he said.

"Those opposed to limiting the power of … the OMB, which has for decades favoured developers, has so far been developers," Mr. Cripps said. "So I think they might have preferred the status quo, and we don't agree."

The group is also monitoring a wide-ranging package of housing reforms the government announced in April, including measures to cool the GTA's market and expand rent control, according to information its lobbyists at StrategyCorp submitted to the province's lobbyist registry.

"[The] goal is to ensure that the legislation that affects the building industry and land development association impacts us in a positive manner, or does not present any negative ramifications to the ways that our members conduct their business," the filing says.

Under "lobbying targets," the registration lists several ministers, plus the rest of the province's 107 MPPs.

The team of consultant lobbyists registered in late April, the first one on April 20, the day the government unveiled its Fair Housing Plan and a couple of days after a Globe story about a possible OMB overhaul.

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Last month, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa said he is willing to talk to builders about their concerns with rent control.

"We're having those discussions – we haven't committed to that. … I'm always open-minded, but at this point, our consideration is to temper demand and increase supply to protect consumers," he said on June 13 at a housing summit.

In addition, Building TO Inc.'s lobbyists are also contacting the federal government. According to disclosures to the federal lobbyists' registry, John Duffy, a principal at StrategyCorp, communicated with Robert Asselin, policy and budget director for federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, just a few days after the Ontario government unveiled its housing reforms. The filings indicate the lobbyists are "engaging the federal government on the implications of provincial … interventions into the housing market …"

StrategyCorp referred an interview request to Mr. Diamond.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Sousa said on Monday that the government is committed to making housing more affordable.

"That's why we introduced the Fair Housing Plan. To be clear, the measures announced in the plan are now law," Jessica Martin said in an e-mail.

Video: Foreign buyer tax, expanded rent control in Ontario housing plan (The Canadian Press)
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Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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