Toronto must rethink zoning
If you want to know how wildly controversial the idea of multifamily housing (multiple units in a small building) can be in neighbourhoods accustomed to single family homes just look to Atlanta, Ga.
According to reporter Brentin Mock, writing in Bloomberg CityLab this month, some residents in a mostly white, wealthy northern Atlanta suburb called Buckhead are so put off by “new proposals working their way through city planning channels that would allow for more multi-family housing” they want to secede from the city itself and found a brand new one.
I won’t be surprised if, soon enough, some Torontonians follow their lead. (The Beaches: I’m looking at you.)
This week a report is going before the city’s planning and housing committee called “Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods: Multiplex Study.”
Like most city reports, the title is boring. However, unlike most city reports, the contents are thrilling.
“Broadening the types and sizes of units available in lowrise neighbourhoods makes them more accessible to a diverse range of people and need, leading to a more equitable and inclusive community,” the report reads.
“The intent of this initiative is to support the construction of a range of lowrise housing across the city’s lowrise neighbourhoods … increasing both the variety and type of housing available in these areas.”
It’s early days still — the consultations that stem from the report aren’t set to wrap up until next year — but what the above tells us is that if all goes well it’s possible that Toronto might one day do away with so-called “exclusionary zoning” (i.e., the restrictions that make it impossible to build anything but expensive single-family homes in the majority of Toronto’s neighbourhoods).
Many residents may not know this (I certainly didn’t until recently), but part of the reason you don’t see duplexes and walk-up apartment buildings going up all over town is because “exclusionary zoning” prevents them from being built in about 70 per cent of Toronto’s neighbourhoods. In other words, the city is experiencing a housing crisis partly of its own making.
The good news is that those at its helm are beginning to do something about this.
You may have read recently that Toronto city council voted in favour of “inclusionary zoning,” in this case, a policy that requires some developers who are building near transit hubs to make a certain percentage of the units in their buildings affordable. There is no doubt that this was a positive step toward creating more housing in the city that ordinary people can afford to own or rent without financial help from family.
But putting an end to exclusionary zoning would arguably go a much longer way to helping the housing cause because it would allow multifamily homes to be built across the city on quiet and busy streets alike. If Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, shouldn’t all sorts of houses exist in those neighbourhoods?
After all, why should leafy streets in Scarborough where kids can play street hockey without yelling “car” every 10 seconds be reserved for single family homes, which in this real estate climate are often occupied by people whose kids are grown and gone? Scrap the rules that prohibit multiplexes in most residential neighbourhoods and more people can live in more places.
Of course, not everybody wants more people in more places. The local residents’ associations that organize against pro-housing councillors (again, the Beaches, I’m looking at you) will find a flaw in any new housing proposal.
But scrap exclusionary zoning rules and hopefully you narrow the scope and weight of these complaints. It’s harder for NIMBYs to argue that a four-unit walk-up (as opposed to a 30-storey condo) will eliminate sunlight from their lives forever and swallow the neighbourhood whole. Of course, they will try.
But we can try too. If you’re a young person looking for a place to live in Toronto, the ideas in this report are good for you. If you’re an older person who wants your kids and grandkids to be able to afford a home near yours, the ideas in this report are good for you. If you want to live in a city that younger generations can grow old in without a family inheritance, the ideas in this report are good for you. Make it known.