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.