Doug Ford has bungled affordable housing and now Ottawa is rubbing his nose in it

Posted on May 14, 2024 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Politics/Opinion
May 14, 2024.   By Martin Regg Cohn, Political Columnist

First the Greenbelt, then fourplexes, now the premier’s affordable housing flop has come back to bite him, Martin Regg Cohn writes.

If you were rating Doug Ford, you’d have to rank him dead last on housing.

First, his Greenbelt betrayal and reversal. Then his fourplex fiasco (in which the premier told tall tales and scare stories falsely claiming these humble homes might reach eight stories high).

Now, Ford’s affordable housing flop has come back to haunt him — to the tune of $357 million.

A provincial government long fixated on quick fixes and shortcuts has fallen desperately behind the rest of the country in building new subsidized housing. With no hope of catching up or making for lost time, Ontario has been cut off from any further federal funding and rebates.

Federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser has been poking and goading his provincial counterpart, Paul Calandra, since March. These two adversaries have been volleying and lobbing letters back and forth, each iteration increasingly passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive.

“Now is not the time for half measures on housing policy,” Fraser huffed last March. “I don’t think it’s responsible for me to transfer funding for the purpose of homebuilding for homes that are never going to be built.”

Calandra pushed back, saying that Ottawa — where he once served as a Conservative government MP — didn’t appreciate all the good work being done by Ford’s Progressive Conservative government: “Ontario respectfully expects to be treated by the federal government as the true and equal partner.”

But Fraser lectured him that Ontario’s government “seemingly does not recognize the scale of the crisis playing out in the province.”

After a truce lasting just a few weeks, time’s up. The federal government now says it will send funding directly to municipalities, cutting Ontario out of the equation entirely.

“Ontario is lagging far behind its provincial and territorial counterparts when it comes to building more affordable housing units,” Fraser said bluntly in a new riposte earlier this month. “The full amount of this funding which was meant to flow through the province will … be delivered directly by the federal government.”

That means Ontario will lose oversight over who gets how much. That’s a bitter pill for Ford and Calandra to swallow, given how much political pleasure they derive from showing up for photo-ops with oversized cheques delivered to local mayors who meet housing targets set by Queen’s Park.

The premier has always enjoyed playing Santa Claus, bearing gifts and cutting ribbons. Now, Ontario is being cut out of the picture — big-footed by a bigger Santa Claus in Ottawa who will deliver those cheques directly.

Traditionally and constitutionally, municipalities are very much creatures of the province — taken for granted by the Ford government and its predecessors, which have cut city councils down to size or downloaded programs onto them. Now, the premier is getting a taste of how it feels to be overruled, and is fuming about it.

“You can’t have the federal government going into a certain town or certain city and dumping funding and not even discussing with the province — that’s unacceptable,” Ford complained. “We call it jurisdictional creep.”

The dispute centres on how Ontario meets its target of nearly 20,000 rent-assisted social housing units by 2028 in order to gets its share of nearly $6 billion allocated to the provinces. Calandra calls this an end-run that will change nothing, because the money will still flow the same way it used to, just without provincial input.

But Fraser insists Ontario has fallen short and refused to co-operate. “The federal government has made every effort to reach an agreement with Ontario,” he wrote Calandra this month. “I am disappointed that through your rejection of the conditional approval you have decided to forego the federal funding that would reimburse Ontario for investments it makes under our agreement.”

Is the back and forth between these two ministers a personality clash or culture clash? Is this just another political quarrel over who controls the cash flow and who earns the credit?

What’s puzzling about their tempestuous relationship is how sharply it contrasts with the harmony and bonhomie between another pair of federal and provincial cabinet ministers who are also in charge of building things — that would be federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne and his Ontario counterpart, Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli.

This federal-provincial tag team eschews formal correspondence in favour of frequent texting and joint appearances at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, often flanked by their political bosses, the premier and the prime minister. All are all smiles at all times.

Why can the two levels of government come together to build subsidized factories, but not subsidized housing? Don’t read too much into the tone of the correspondence, the smiles on politicians faces, and the about-faces by the Ford government on the Greenbelt.

Ultimately, the friction over funding may have less to do with personalities than priorities. In Ford’s Ontario, unaffordable factories count for more than affordable housing.

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