City Councillors Who Represent The Most Homeowners Tend To Reject Large Housing Projects
UBC Business, Law & Society
For the study, titled “Homeowner Politics and Housing Supply,” the researchers used machine learning to examine 631 housing-related bills from the City of Toronto from 2009 to 2020. They connected that data with local demographics to determine the link between city councillors’ voting behaviours and the share of homeowners in the areas they represent.
After controlling for a host of factors, the connection was clear: for every 10 percentage points the homeowner rate went up, the probability that a councillor would oppose a large housing development went up by 16 per cent.
In areas where the councillor lived, the effect was even more amplified. While councillors do not block small projects in their own ward, they strongly oppose large local buildings. For example, a councillor is three times as likely to oppose a 100-unit development if it is located in their own ward, compared to the same project being proposed elsewhere.
UBC Sauder assistant professor and study co-author Dr. Limin Fang says local representatives tend to cater to the wants of homeowners because they are more likely to be long-time residents and voters. Renters, on the other hand, often support new housing because additional supply can mean more options and lower rents, as well as increased amenities.
“Homeowners can pressure councillors a lot more than renters because the majority of renters are temporary — and renters may eventually become owners, but maybe not in the same neighbourhood,” says Dr. Fang, who previously worked as a planner in the City of Toronto. Owners, however, tend to want lower-income earners kept out.
“In single-family neighbourhoods in places like Toronto, owners say, ‘We don’t want rowhouses, because those people are lower income. They’re poorer than us,’” says says Dr. Fang, who co-authored the study with University of Hawaii assistant professor Dr. Justin Tyndall, and Nathan Stewart, a researcher from the University of Toronto. “If you build a mansion in our neighbourhood, and the house is bigger than all the rest, we welcome you, because we want richer people in the neighbourhood — and if my neighbour has a big, luxurious house, that increases my property value, too.”
The study found that age and ethnic background also played a significant role, with older people of European descent far more likely to oppose denser housing. Meanwhile, the areas with the highest labour force participation — that is, the most people working — had the greatest support for new housing.
The researchers also observed that homeowners in suburban neighbourhoods were more likely to oppose denser housing than those living closer to downtown.
Homeowners are often opposed to densification — also known as intensification — because it can reduce property values while putting pressure on parking and amenities.
Dr. Fang says the study shows that homeowners have an outsized influence on development decisions, and that if municipalities are serious about adding to their housing stock, they will likely need a less citizen-driven, more top-down approach. It’s not that homeowners and councillors are unethical, she explains; it’s the planning process itself that’s flawed.
“Cities use a lot of public consultation, mediation and facilitation to make sure neighbours are happy. But only the people who are opposed to the development show up, and the whole development application process just goes on and on. And much of the time nothing gets built,” says Dr. Fang.
“Homeowners have a vested financial interest in restricting housing supply because the less housing there is, the higher their property values. If you want to get anything built, public consultation is very important — but you can’t let the owners run the show.”