Could this Liberal-leadership candidate do what Doug Ford won’t on housing?

By John Michael McGrath

As published on

Thursday, August 17, 2023

MP Yasir Naqvi unveiled his housing platform Thursday. One of its promises? To implement the recommendations of the Ford government’s Housing Affordability Task Force

Since the Ontario Liberal Party’s leadership race is happening in 2023, it’s necessarily going to focus a lot on housing policy: the Liberals are desperate to make themselves relevant again to Ontario voters after two devastating election defeats, and the housing crisis in this province must necessarily be centre stage in the contest. On Thursday, Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi — formerly a Liberal MPP at Queen’s Park, and the only declared candidate who previously served in the provincial cabinet — released his housing policy, and his campaign shared it exclusively with TVO Today.

Naqvi’s housing platform has three pillars — or rather, four: on top of his three key priorities, he promises to implement the recommendations of the Ford government’s Housing Affordability Task Force in full. (Politics can be weird: while the Ford government has largely abandoned the recommendations of its own task force, the document arguably now holds more sway with the government’s progressive critics than with the premier’s office.) Naqvi also promises to implement “real” rent control and to invest in housing-enabling infrastructure in communities around the province.

The most notable break with current housing policy in Ontario, however, would be Naqvi’s promise to effectively end municipal development charges and to compensate municipalities for the lost revenues to the tune of $2.5 billion in provincial funding annually.

“The challenge is, we need to get more housing built. But, at the same time, we need to reduce the price of housing, to make affordable home ownership a reality again,” says Naqvi. “By taking responsibility for development charges, you’re actually taking the cost that’s being passed on to consumers, and government can play an important role in reducing prices by that much.”

In some of the highest-cost cities in Ontario, development charges can add more than $100,000 to the cost of a new home, and that’s just the most direct cost they impose. They also influence what types of homes get built: a June analysis by CIBC found that development charges (along with the HST) are a huge financial disincentive to building rental apartments, while condos are less affected. However, they’ve also been a core feature of Ontario’s municipal finances for at least 40 years; initially, the idea was that developers should pay for the infrastructure new homes and residents require. (More cynically, the point was that the province wanted to be able to offload costly infrastructure commitments to people who weren’t in a position to punish elected politicians over it.)

Naqvi acknowledges that it would represent a sea change in how the province funds infrastructure.

“To be honest, we looked at all kinds of ideas, and we came to the realization that something different has to happen,” he says. “I came to the conclusion that tinkering at the margins, doing the same thing in a different way, is not going to result in the outcome we need. It will require a change this big.”

Some of Naqvi’s prior career in cabinet is informing his housing ideas, though not always in obvious ways: he never held the municipal-affairs or housing portfolios. He did, however, handle files that were directly connected to municipal finance and had to contend with the thorny issue of how much small and rural municipalities should have to pay for OPP policing services. Many years ago, I once joked with him about whether the government was going to announce, out of the blue, that it was going to upload all the costs of OPP policing that small and rural municipalities currently pay. It didn’t, in part because of the overwhelming focus on deficit reduction during the Wynne years, but his response to my off-the-cuff joke was to say that it wouldn’t actually cost that much — and he named a dollar figure, telling me that he’d taken the idea seriously enough to have staff look at it.

The point of this digression: he says that a number of the tasks Ontario requires municipalities to carry out simply aren’t handled that well in terms of the local property-tax base and would be more effectively handled through the province’s much larger fiscal powers. Naqvi agreed there’s a common thread that connects his time in cabinet with the ideas he’s proposing today.

“These are the issues that I’ve been thinking about for some time, and this is where experience comes in handy,” Naqvi says. “I’ve looked at these issues really closely, and I take interest in my briefings.”

“There’s far more fiscal power at the provincial level,” he adds. “If you want to get this right, you can use not just your fiscal power but also other policy tools to get the right outcomes.”

Anticipating one obvious line of criticism, Naqvi says that eliminating development charges wouldn’t be a blank cheque for either developers or municipalities: builders would need to show they’re passing savings on to homebuyers, and municipalities would need to meet conditions in order to get their share of the $2.5 billion in provincial funding. He contrasts that with the policies of the current government — from reducing development charges to removing lands from the Greenbelt.

“Doug Ford is paying lip service. He’s just giving away protected lands to his developer buddies without meeting the targets,” Naqvi says. “This actually creates the right set of incentives for homebuyers, municipalities, and homebuilders.” In the aftermath of Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s report last week, Naqvi has also called on the OPP to investigate the Ford government for possible breaches of the Criminal Code.

Naqvi also criticized the Ford government for focusing too much on the largest cities, saying that part of his housing plan would involve investing more in inter-regional transportation infrastructure, such that people wouldn’t necessarily need to find jobs in the biggest and most expensive cities. And he promises to apply rent control across the board on all rental units in the province, in contrast with the current legislation, which has an exemption for buildings completed after November 15, 2018.

Naqvi’s time in the previous Liberal government is one of the most distinctive things about him in the current contest. But that is not, in this race, an unalloyed blessing for him. Many current members of the party want to put the McGuinty and Wynne years behind them — though between rivals like Bonnie Crombie and Nate Erskine-Smith, there’s substantial disagreement about what that means. Nobody can accuse Naqvi of thinking small on the housing file. Whether that’s enough remains to be seen.