City may ease shel­ter zon­ing rules

As de­mand for emer­gency hous­ing grows, by­law com­pli­cates search for new lo­ca­tions


As the bit­ter win­ter cold sinks its teeth into Toronto, city staff are con­sid­er­ing changes to zon­ing rules that could ease the com­pli­cated search for sites for badly needed emer­gency shel­ters.

The city’s cur­rent by­law dic­tat­ing where shel­ters can be built says they must be lo­cated on a ma­jor or mi­nor ar­te­rial road — a street with sig­nif­i­cant traf­fic vol­ume — or within a very close dis­tance to those main streets. An­other rule pre­vents new shel­ters from be­ing opened within 250 me­tres of an ex­ist­ing site.

Now, city staff are con­sult­ing the pub­lic on mak­ing changes to those rules, which are ul­ti­mately up to city coun­cil.

“The need is grow­ing, and the City is hav­ing dif­fi­culty finding new shel­ter lo- cations,” city staff wrote as part of a pre­sen­ta­tion made to com­mu­nity mem­bers across Toronto last week.

That pre­sen­ta­tion also asks whether the re­quired prox­im­ity to ar­te­rial roads should be widened or the rule deleted al­to­gether, which would mean shel­ters could be lo­cated on lo­cal roads.

Fi­nal rec­om­men­da­tions and a sum­mary of res­i­dent feed­back is ex­pected to be pre­sented early next year to the city com­mit­tee re­spon­si­ble for plan­ning.

City staff out­lined the bar­ri­ers to finding suit­able shel­ter space in a re­port pub­lished last May. Of 311 prop­er­ties as­sessed for shel­ter use, al­most 20 per cent, or 61 prop­er­ties, were re­jected be­cause they failed to meet zon­ing re­quire­ments, staff re­ported. Of that to­tal, 27 did not meet the rule that they must be 80 me­tres or less from ma­jor roads and seven were re­jected be­cause of the 250-me­tre rule.

An­other 21 prop­er­ties were on what the city iden­ti­fies as “em­ploy­ment in­dus­trial” lands. By­laws state those sites can be home to an­i­mal shel­ters, artist stu­dios, po­lice sta­tions, fire halls, and dry-clean­ing and laun­dry plants — but not emer­gency shel­ters.

Nearly 25 per cent of sites, or 76, were aban­doned be­cause the land­lord wouldn’t sell.

Dean Macaskill, a se­nior vice-pres­i­dent at Len­nard Com­mer­cial Realty who has been work­ing with the city for 20 years, ar­ranged the sale of what is now an as­sess­ment and re­fer­ral cen­tre on Peter St. and has been scout­ing for shel­ters for about three years.

Suc­cesses in­clude what will be­come a women’s shel­ter on Daven­port Rd., one of two new shel­ters slated to open in mid-De­cem­ber, and a ho­tel on Kingston Rd.

Macaskill said the city’s cur­rent process does work against them in some re­spects.

“We are in such a strong real es­tate mar­ket. If a build­ing is empty in most ar­te­rial roads these days, its high­est and best use is prob­a­bly for some kind of res­i­den­tial re­de­vel­op­ment,” he said.

Of­fers can­not ex­ceed the ap­praised value of the build­ing, mak­ing pur­chases tight in a still-hot mar­ket, and the process takes longer than a com­mer­cial sale, he said, but de­spite those re­stric­tions owners do se­ri­ously en­ter­tain of­fers from the city.

The 250-me­tre rule is a big bar­rier and has re­sulted in prop­er­ties be­ing taken off the ta­ble, par­tic­u­larly in the east end, Macaskill said. The block on em­ploy­ment in­dus­trial lands also frus­trates the process, he said.

City staff con­firmed the rules around ar­te­rial roads and the 250-me­tre dis­tance ap­ply not only to emer­gency shel­ters, which in­cludes per­ma­nent shel­ters and mo­tels and ho­tels be­ing used for that pur­pose, but also cold weather respite sites. That in­cludes three dome­like struc­tures the city is plan­ning to erect this year, with the first go­ing up in Jan­uary.

Toronto has been grap­pling with an over­flow­ing emer­gency sys­tem for decades. It has yet to meet a tar­get set by coun­cil that man­dates to­tal shel­ter oc­cu­pancy never rises about 90 per cent to make sure no one is ever turned away.

“It is a hu­man rights is­sue,” said street nurse and ad­vo­cate Cathy Crowe, speak­ing about the need to re­view the cur­rent rules. “We can’t have any road­blocks stop­ping peo­ple from ac­cess­ing shel­ter.”

Last win­ter, Mayor John Tory and coun­cil com­mit­ted to the cre­ation of 1,000 new emer­gency shel­ter beds by 2020, fol­low­ing in­tense pub­lic pres­sure. The bed and shel­ter short­age was made worse by a record-break­ing cold snap and what the city om­buds­man later iden­ti­fied as “se­ri­ous short­com­ings” in an in­take and re­fer­ral sys­tem that re­sulted in peo­ple be­ing told there was no space at city-run, 24-7 cold weather respite sites.

At last count, the over­all emer­gency sys­tem had 7,089 per­ma­nent beds and was at 94 per cent ca­pac­ity — an av­er­age re­duced by space in the 2,724 spots in mo­tels. A fur­ther 802 peo­ple used eight

“We can’t have road­blocks stop­ping peo­ple from ac­cess­ing shel­ter.” CATHY CROWE STREET NURSE

city respite sites and two women-only 24-7 drop-ins.

The Out of the Cold pro­gram, a vol­un­teer-led ini­tia­tive run out of faith cen­tres across the city, shel­tered 99 peo­ple in two lo­ca­tions.

This win­ter sea­son, those pro­grams can ac­cess $500,000 from the city’s re­serve fund to en­sure sites are prop­erly staffed, safe and clean for both guests and vol­un­teers.

The city is also ex­pected to open three tem­po­rary, pre­fab­ri­cated struc­tures that can house about 100 peo­ple each this win­ter, with the first ex­pected to be ready by the end of Jan­uary.

More than 2,400 mo­tel beds added over the past two years have been used pri­mar­ily by refugees and asy­lum seek­ers, ac­cord­ing the city’s 2018 street needs as­sess­ment. The in­for­ma­tion was gath­ered largely by vol­un­teers, who spread out across the city to speak with peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness one night in late April.

It found that refugees and asy­lum claimants rep­re­sented 40 per cent of peo­ple counted as us­ing emer­gency shel­ters.

In­clud­ing drop-ins and respite sites, that group ac­counted for 30 per cent of use, of 8,182 peo­ple counted. An­other 533 peo­ple were out­side, or sleep­ing rough.


Dean Macaskill says the task of lo­cat­ing emer­gency shel­ters would be made much eas­ier if the city would change rules that, among other things, for­bid shel­ters from be­ing within 250 me­tres of each other.

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