A Withering Assessment of a Multibillion-Dollar Real Estate Windfall

by Joe Holman
A Withering Assessment of a Multibillion-Dollar Real Estate Windfall

When my colleague Norimitsu Onishi wrote about the matter early this year, there was a lot of suspicion, but little firm evidence, of undue development industry influence surrounding the process that led Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier, to open up the Greenbelt around Toronto to housing construction.

This week, a number of blanks were filled by the release of a withering report from the province’s auditor general, which immediately raised a whole new batch of ethical questions.

Norimitsu wrote that after its creation in 2005, the two-million-acre Greenbelt “quickly gained a cultural significance that belies its age: sacred to its fervent supporters, and derided as a rainforest by others who consider it an arbitrary obstacle to growth.”

[Read: ‘It’s Our Central Park’: Uproar Rises Over Location of New Toronto Homes]

Mr. Ford’s position about the Greenbelt’s future has undergone several shifts. When he was running in 2018 to lead the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, a video surfaced of him telling supporters at a fund-raising event that after speaking with developers, he planned to open the area to housing construction if his party took power. After that prompted widespread criticism, Mr. Ford dropped the idea, saying: “The people have spoken — we won’t touch the Greenbelt. Very simple.”

Then late last year, Mr. Ford’s government cited Toronto’s housing shortage and an influx of newcomers from sharply rising immigration to announce that parts of the Greenbelt would indeed lose their untouchable status as part of his previously announced promise to build 1.5 million homes over a decade.

Mr. Ford’s political opponents suggested that his position was less related to the housing shortage than to his close ties to real estate developers. Those concerns multiplied after the Toronto Star and The Narwhal reported that a substantial portion of the 7,400 acres being removed from the Greenbelt belonged to developers who are generous donors to the Progressive Conservatives. And some of those developers had bought the land after Mr. Ford took office, according to the report.

When Mr. Ford moved from municipal to provincial politics, he was immediately favored by developers. After their companies were barred from making political donations during the 2018 election, they became major backers of a group called Ontario Proud that ran an aggressive, largely online campaign attacking Mr. Ford’s opponents.

In her report, Bonnie Lysyk, the auditor general, concluded that the process for picking the land for development was largely directed by the housing minister’s chief of staff. And the report found that process was heavily influenced by two developers who, at a housing conference, handed the political aide envelopes detailing the land they wanted removed from the Greenbelt. The aide then directed a selection process that sidelined the usual reviews by nonpartisan public servants and proper public consultations.

In the end, Ms. Lysyk found, the aide picked 14 of the 15 parcels of land that were removed from the Greenbelt.

“We found that how the land sites were selected was not transparent, fair, objective, or fully informed,” Ms. Lysyk wrote, adding: “What occurred here cannot be described as a standard or defensible process.”

Land owned by those two developers, she concluded, makes up 92 percent of the Greenbelt land now open to development. That change, the audit calculated, raised the land’s value by 8.3 billion Canadian dollars.

Mr. Ford said again on Friday that neither he nor his housing minister knew anything about the aide’s deep involvement in the land selection process. While he acknowledged that the process was flawed, Mr. Ford insisted, contrary to the auditor general’s findings, that “no one had preferential treatment.”

The province’s integrity commissioner is now reviewing how the Greenbelt land was selected. The Ontario Provincial Police announced an investigation months ago, but have offered no substantive information about the inquiry since then.

The premier also swept aside Ms. Lysyk’s conclusion that, developers’ claims to the contrary, opening up more land to development is necessary to alleviate the housing shortage, saying, without elaborating, that the finding is based on outdated information.

Nor is Mr. Ford heeding her call to cancel the Greenbelt development given the questionable section process.

“We need to make sure they build those homes, and that’s a message to the people, “ he said on Friday.

Several potential roadblocks remain to that happening within Mr. Ford’s two-year deadline. The federal government has the power to use the Species At Risk Act to slow or halt some of the development. Ms. Lysyk found that the irregular selection process didn’t examine the feasibility of bringing water and sewer service to the property in question, or how long that would take.

One final thought about the situation from Norimitsu: “The move on the Greenbelt has forced Toronto to confront more than ever the competing forces reshaping it as a metropolis: its ambitions to be a world-class city and the destination of talented immigrants against its goals to be green and curb sprawl, as embodied by the Greenbelt itself.”


  • Robbie Robertson, the Toronto-born chief songwriter and guitarist for the Band, has died at the age of 80. In his sweeping obituary of Mr. Robertson, Jim Farber writes that the music he wrote for the Band “used enigmatic lyrics to evoke a hard and colorful America of yore, a feat coming from someone not born in the United States. “

  • Norimitsu Onishi writes that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “is entering one of the most turbulent chapters of his career after separating from his wife of 18 years, forced to publicly weather the family’s situation, while facing an increasingly skeptical electorate.”

  • Tory Lanez, the musician born in Brampton, Ontario, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for shooting the rapper Megan Thee Stallion during an argument in a case “that polarized the music world, filled gossip pages and generated deeper discussion about violence against Black women,” Douglas Morino and Joe Coscarelli report.

  • Long before the Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” film, the doll was featured in a series of animated movies that retain a loyal following. Kelly Sheridan, the Vancouver actress who was the voice of Barbie in 28 of those films, told Sarah Bahr that “Barbie was flawless,” a character who “could do no wrong.”


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades.


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