How New Technology Can Help Solve the Housing Crisis

The issue

Ontario’s housing market continues to make headline news year after year. From 44% increases in prices over the last five years to lack of available land and everything between, Ontarians have housing on their mind. And for a good reason. Young people are shut out of the market, and we can’t build housing fast enough to accommodate the growth Ontario is experiencing. According to statistics, 198,530 new immigrants moved to the province of Ontario in 2021 alone. We are in desperate need of affordable housing. Leaders at all levels of government are painfully aware of this problem and are working to find solutions. The PC party, led by Rob Ford, recently made the bold promise of building 1.5 million new homes in the next ten years. This ambitious plan will have to come face-to-face with a very complex and often- bottlenecked process. Today, building homes in Ontario is extremely slow and complicated. There are multiple bottlenecks at every stage of the process, from land caught up in red tape to long approval processes and outdated systems. Unclogging the pipeline is critical. So what’s causing the bottlenecks, and how can we speed this up so we can get shovels in the ground faster?

Here’s our take on it.

Lack of available land

The lack of available land is probably the biggest barrier to building more housing. “Ford said that supply is one of the main reasons for the crisis in housing and he wants to focus on finding land on which to build, including vacant and surplus government property.” We are not just talking about the physical lack of land, but also land that is tied up in red tape. There simply isn’t a pipeline in place for available land. To get supply to match demand, land should have been developed years ago.

It’s not just greenfield land as well but infill too. We need to look at creative ways of using land that has already been developed. A great example of this is the recent by-law amendment in Toronto allowing for the construction of garden suites. There are other ways to think about land use aside from sprawl.

The provincial government has a steep road ahead of them if they are to deliver on the big promise of 1.5 million new homes. One avenue is finding unused or surplus lots already in government hands. At the same time, they need to figure out a way to speed up the whole process.

NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard)

If you have ever taken a drive in Ontario, you might have noticed “stop the sprawl” signs plastered over front lawns. Oftentimes it is local resident groups that stop new developments in their tracks. NIMBYs are extremely common in Canada. The term stands for Not In My Back Yard. These resident groups can get highly organized often hiring lawyers, commissioning a planning study, and enlisting their city councilor to stop projects. As one author points out “local governments are often too feeble to overcome opposition to even minor building projects”. This ‘feebleness’ is a symptom of a lack of alignment between the various levels of government when it comes to housing policy and approach.

The residents that form these NIMBYs are often over-focused on the negative impacts of new densification projects because they don’t have good information to go on. We believe that there is a better way to support concerned local residents in this process. By better communicating the need for additional housing and providing detailed 3D visualizations that demonstrate how neighborhoods can be enhanced rather than hindered, we can help mitigate some of these concerns. It’s all about being proactive rather than reactive and not waiting for situations to escalate to “us vs. them”. We need to shift to a solutions-based approach where everyone has a voice at the table while keeping in mind that the goal is to build more homes, not less.

Long approval process

Permits times are exceptionally long in Ontario. The World Bank economy ranking, which includes the ease of dealing with construction, ranked Canada as 57th out of 190 different Nations. The long and complicated building approval process is ripe for reform. Our provincial government has flagged this as a contributing factor in driving house prices up. “You’re dealing with site planning, you’re dealing with permitting, you’re dealing with other agencies like conservation authorities, and there’s a whole bunch of different players involved in ensuring that shovels are in the ground.” As a result of these long-approval times, MZOs (Minister’s Zoning Orders) are becoming heavily used. They have become a necessary tool to speed up the approvals process. Sometimes, they are the only way to push through projects that would otherwise never see the light of day. “The province’s increasing deployment of MZOs is reflective of a systemic problem in the planning approvals process. Often applicants are faced with duplication and outlandish documentation demands.

A recent Bilt report confirms that:

“The number of studies that may be required by municipalities was found to be onerous, with the requirements for an application in many municipalities ranging from 17 to 28 different studies for a single project, depending on the municipality, application type, and location of the development. The required quantity and variety of technical studies, even if valid to ensure that developments are in the public interest, results in significant costs to the applicant both directly in terms of time and expense in retaining necessary experts to complete the required reports and studies, but also the time to allow municipal staff to review and comment on the findings of the various studies.”

The system, quite simply, is inefficient and needs to be modernized. We need to streamline and digitize the development approvals process and get more homes built faster. By reforming this antiquated system, we can speed up the whole process by years. This means more houses are built faster and prices are kept stable.

A way forward

Unclogging the housing bottleneck is a multi-faceted undertaking. If we are to tackle the housing shortage we need to face the fact that the system is broken and in need of reform. The federal government needs to put in place a plan that aligns immigration policies with housing and trickles down all the way to the municipal level. At the same time our outdated systems are in desperate need of digitization.

Paper applications are still the norm in Ontario, and it costs Ontarians. The longer it takes for developers to get the green light for a project the higher the costs are. Those costs end up getting passed on to the consumer.

At Equator, we believe that we can lift part of the burden by innovating the application process from the very start.

People are still going to the municipal offices to pull old drawings, and often they are on paper or mylar. They then have to scan it, open it in CAD software and manually trace it. “I’ve seen people hold up tracing paper to computer screens to get the layer they need for an application,” says Equator founder Rebecca Swabey.

Putting together all the information required just to apply can take months. There are multiple layers involved, from conservation authorities to regional infrastructure like sewers. By using a tool like Equator, developers can quickly (we’re talking minutes) put together an accurate x-ray of the property. They can see where constraints are and where opportunities are. Equator allows them to ‘turn on’ appropriate layers with the click of a mouse. They can then share that information digitally with relevant stakeholders.

By enabling quick access to relevant data and combining that with collaborative tools, we can revolutionize our approvals process functions. Speeding up the process will get people in homes faster. Ontario has to revamp the application process if we are to meet the demand for housing. Innovation is needed across the application process, and we believe the right technology can help solve this issue.

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