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From killing parking rules to rezoning and taking on NIMBYs, the city has the power to move the dial on housing
Oct. 17, 2022

Chloe Brown is running to be mayor of Toronto. But if that doesn’t happen the 31-year-old policy analyst says she’s not sure she’ll stay.

“I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with my city where I keep telling it what I want and what I need, and it ignores me,” she said.

For many young adults like Brown, clean, safe and affordable housing is high on the list of civic wants and needs. Toronto, she says, is undersupplied and overpriced making the future looking uncertain even for those with good jobs.

Even the GTA homebuilders’ association, in a recent benchmarking study, conceded that Ontario’s super-prescriptive Planning Act and related guidelines such as the growth plan, play a significant role in delays that drive up housing costs.

Municipal politicians and housing experts say the city retains some options independent of the province -- including zoning and technical rule changes -- that could get housing built faster and more affordably.

Developers cite approval delays, excessive project studies and too few staff to handle building applications among city hall’s failures.

Mayor John Tory has vowed to cut red tape and expedite approval times by creating a Development and Growth Division if he is re-elected. But, in a statement from his campaign, Tory says he would have to ask the province to allow Toronto to enact a “use it or lose it” policy to prevent developers from sitting on land that has been approved for development.

“In terms of grand sweeping policies, there are limits or at least checks on city politicians’ power. But, certainly within the cities, there’s much that can be done,” said Matti Siemiatycki, professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto School of Cities.

Toronto could, for example, do a better job of co-ordinating how its various departments such as forestry and transportation co-ordinate with planning on development applications. Of course, some city actions are constrained by budgets -- for instance, the shortage of city planners in Toronto, he said. Others, such as zoning changes, are traditionally unpopular with some residents.

With housing and affordability among the top issues in the Oct. 24 civic election, voters are looking at their city for solutions. Here are some things candidates and housing experts say the city could do:

Change the zoning

More than 70 per cent of Toronto neighbourhoods are subject to what’s called exclusionary zoning. It makes them no-go zones for multi-family housing. Opening up those neighbourhoods to more diverse, affordable housing, including rentals, would be unpopular with some vocal residents.

But it wouldn’t mean wholesale change overnight, said Michael Collins-Williams, CEO of the Hamilton area’s West End Home Builders’ Association. Instead, it would permit slightly higher, gentle density.

“It would allow neighbourhoods to transition over the course of a generation,” he said. “You’re allowing more rental opportunities within existing neighbourhoods and then those neighbourhoods can support better transit or the independent coffee shop on the corner,” said Collins-Williams.

Building more homes in those streets will create more opportunities for public and private developers to create supply, said Brown. She says that would bring down the cost of existing housing by adding competition to the market.

Toronto has already given property owners across the city guidelines to build garden suites, laneway suites and secondary suites.

Mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa wants to go further and permit more units on residential lots. As part of what he calls “a reno revolution,” homeowners would be encouraged to build additional units and, those that choose to tear down their homes could replace them with up to six units per lot. The height would be limited by the character of the street. A street of mostly bungalows, for example, wouldn’t allow building over three storeys. Even if only 10 per cent of homeowners chose to add housing units to their property, it would result in tens of thousands more homes, he said.

Penalosa favours midrise zoning on the city’s transit routes. He envisions avenues featuring street level retail with homes above and building heights determined by the width of the road. Wider roads get taller buildings.

If he wins a third term, Tory says he will expand housing options by permitting “missing middle” housing and allowing mid-range density on major roads and in areas served by transit.

Tackle NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opposition

Penalosa is convinced that his plan would neutralize the classic NIMBY complaints about the loss of neighbourhood character and overcrowding. Residents, he said, would be won over by the potential for additional income and aging in place. Importantly, his new zoning policies would eliminate surprises. Everyone would know the rules and there would be no fear of towers going up on residential street corners, he said

Mayoral candidate Brown said that Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has bestowed strong mayor powers on Toronto to make that position responsible for politically unpopular decisions.

“I’m running to take on that position because I’d rather be the bad guy providing housing than be the good guy and have homeless encampments or have drug overdoses on the street,” she said. “I don’t mind being the bad guy if it means getting help for the most vulnerable.”

But Collins-Williams, a registered planner, thinks “significant provincial intervention” could be required, even beyond the strong mayor powers. Tough decisions have to be made to house the growing region and local politicians have shown they’re not willing.

“They are elected by local constituents who typically are (home) owners that like their neighbourhood just the way it is,” he said. “We need to take the planning out of politics because the local interest is not necessarily in the public interest.”

Siemiatycki thinks neighbourhood dynamics are shifting. For a long time, opposition to development dominated the conversation. People who might benefit from new housing didn’t have a voice because they didn’t live there yet and they didn’t have an advocate.

“What you’re seeing now is people are willing to have these conversations about what it means when people block projects,” he said. “More people are talking about how it’s not just about them, but it’s about their kids and whether the next generation will ever be able to afford to live where they grew up.”

Block parking requirements on new buildings

The city has the right to designate the maximum number of parking spots developers can build into projects, but Collins-Williams says car space should be dictated by the market. It’s part of the equation that determines whether a project is viable.

“At the end of the day, we’re in a housing crisis, not a dude-where’s-my-car crisis. We need to focus on building housing and, if a builder fails to provide an adequate number of parking places, that development is not going to be successful,” he said.

Parking requirements are also at odds with responding to the climate crisis and the transit oriented development that cities and the province are focused on building.

“In 20 years are we going to have condo or rental buildings with empty parking lots that need to be maintained, need to have lights for safety,” said Collins-Williams.

Changing the angle on 45-degree angular planes

Siemiatycki says the city could get more homes built by reconsidering its angular plane requirements for buildings on avenues that abut residential neighbourhoods. The 45-degree angular plane rules mean a lot of tiered, wedding cake-type buildings are a feature of Toronto main streets, he said. They are built wider at the bottom than the top in order to reduce the shadows they cast on nearby homes and public spaces but they often come at the cost of more housing units.

“They have a purpose about sunlight and shadows and views into backyards. The flip side is how many units are being lost and how much value on the project has been lost and how many people are not living there because of these angular plane rules,” he said.

A technical report from a planning studio at Toronto Metropolitan University found that one site on Dundas St. West would lose up to 13 two-bedroom units on a six-storey building and as many as 58 units on a 10-storey building because of the angular plane requirements.