Pellerin: Limits on housing in Ottawa can't just be left to homeowners

Planners aren’t cramming intensification down our throats because they’re evil commies. They're doing so to grow the city without utterly destroying our common habitat.

Before and after composite for 33 Maple Grove Rd. in Kanata. Sources: Randall Denely and MG4 Investments development

There’s a line in Randall Denley’s recent column on the fuss about that modest development proposal in Kanata that really got my attention:

“Selling intensification in existing neighbourhoods is a tough challenge. Few people buy a home, then say, ‘Boy, I hope this street really changes in the future.’ They are unlikely to be swayed by the argument that apartment buildings should be constructed next to their house to protect some unspecified piece of rural land somewhere else.”

True. But why do we think it’s OK for housing to be such a heartless capitalist venture?

Two-thirds of Canadians are homeowners. It may sound like a lot but when you compare with other countries we’re nowhere near the top. Unsurprisingly, the higher the income, the more likely a person is to own a home. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has details in beautifully coloured graphics, if you’re curious. For most homeowners, their house is by far the biggest asset they’ll ever own. So naturally they do everything in their power to protect that investment.

Ottawa’s new Official Plan predicts Ottawa’s population will keep growing. Someone needs to think carefully about how that growth should be managed so nobody pays an unfair price for it. As Denley implies, most existing homeowners don’t particularly want to make a sacrifice in order to protect some bits of green they don’t own, but if we’re all able to gain financial benefits at the expense of nature, we won’t have much nature left in pretty short order.

Hence, recent talk of a “gold belt” around existing boundaries, because evidently the previous attempt at limiting sprawl failed miserably. I don’t have much hope that gold will do it and would recommend immediately cranking up to Diamond or Platinum Belt to increase the odds that some of nature will survive unbuilt.

City planners aren’t cramming intensification down our throats because they’re evil commies. They do so because it’s the only way to allow Ottawa to grow to its full potential without destroying our common habitat or creating massively unfair housing conditions for those of us who cannot or prefer not to become homeowners. In society, property rights have their limits and those cannot smiply be left to owners to enforce.

Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer.

It’s understandable, but it has nasty side effects, the most important being that we inadvertently become selfish and short-sighted. We don’t want change, intensification, bus routes, homeless shelters or safe injection sites anywhere near our backyard. From an individual perspective, it makes sense. But when everyone reacts the same way, what does that do to our ability to offer decent housing and services to those of us who cannot or do not wish to become owners of a single-family home?

To paraphrase Denley, few people buy a house and think: Finally I’ll be able to make life harder for the young, the poor and anyone in a situation of vulnerability. But that’s what happens anyway. And of course as our appetite for more and better housing grows, we destroy thousands of acres of forest, swamp and farmland which were homes to a variety of wildlife that, absent a habitat, die.

And we haven’t talked about traffic yet.

Few homeowners think of themselves as privileged capitalists, but the laws certainly treat them as such, for instance by not taxing the profit they make selling their house.

Housing is a basic need we all have. We should all be free to choose what kind of housing we want and can afford. But that does not give anyone the right to make other people, or the environment, pay for their preferences.

That’s when planning comes in. It’s the only tool we have to protect that which cannot be commodified and used as an investment vehicle. Like public health, human happiness, compassion and protection for the natural environment we all share.

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