A Withering Assessment of a Multibillion-Dollar Real Estate Windfall

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When my colleague Norimitsu Onishi wrote earlier this year about the controversy surrounding the opening up of the Greenbelt around Toronto to housing construction, there was a lot of suspicion but little concrete evidence of undue influence from the development industry. However, a recent report from the province’s auditor general has shed new light on the matter, raising ethical questions.

The Greenbelt, which covers two million acres, quickly gained cultural significance after its creation in 2005. While fervent supporters view it as sacred, others see it as an arbitrary obstacle to growth. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s stance on the Greenbelt has changed over time. During his campaign in 2018, he expressed his intention to open up the area for housing construction, but faced criticism and later dropped the idea.

However, late last year, Ford’s government decided to remove parts of the Greenbelt’s untouchable status, citing Toronto’s housing shortage and an influx of newcomers due to rising immigration. Critics argued that Ford’s close ties to real estate developers influenced his decision. Reports emerged that a significant portion of the land being removed from the Greenbelt belonged to developers who were generous donors to the Progressive Conservatives. The province’s integrity commissioner is now reviewing the selection process for the Greenbelt land.

The auditor general’s report revealed that the process for choosing the land for development was heavily influenced by two developers. These developers handed envelopes to the housing minister’s chief of staff detailing the land they wanted removed from the Greenbelt at a housing conference. The aide then directed a selection process that bypassed reviews by nonpartisan public servants and public consultations. Ultimately, 14 out of the 15 parcels of land removed from the Greenbelt were picked by the aide.

The report also found that the land owned by these two developers now makes up 92 percent of the Greenbelt land available for development, increasing its value by 8.3 billion Canadian dollars. Ford denied any knowledge of the aide’s involvement and insisted that no one received preferential treatment. However, the auditor general concluded that the selection process was not transparent, fair, objective, or fully informed.

Despite the controversy surrounding the Greenbelt development, Ford is determined to push ahead. He dismissed the auditor general’s recommendation to cancel the development and emphasized the need for more homes to be built.

Roadblocks still remain, including the federal government’s power to halt or slow down development under the Species At Risk Act. The feasibility of providing water and sewer services to the new developments has also not been adequately examined.

The situation surrounding the Greenbelt highlights the conflicting forces shaping Toronto as a metropolis. It pits the city’s ambitions to be a world-class destination against its goals of being green and curbing urban sprawl.

In other news, Robbie Robertson, the Toronto-born chief songwriter and guitarist for the Band, passed away at the age of 80. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing a turbulent chapter of his career following his separation from his wife of 18 years. Musician Tory Lanez has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for shooting rapper Megan Thee Stallion, sparking discussions about violence against Black women. The doll Barbie has had a loyal following through a series of animated movies, with the character being seen as flawless and perfect.

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