Toronto must be 'brave' and enact bold new zoning laws to confront housing crisis, advocates say

People in the urban planning and real estate industries say Toronto must introduce significant changes to zoning regulations if it wants to combat the ongoing housing crisis.

Detached houses are all the city allows on more than a third of residential land

Toronto is considering zoning changes to allow a wider variety of buildings, including townhouses, in more areas of the city. (Katherine Holland/CBC)

People in the urban planning and real estate industries say Toronto must introduce significant changes to zoning regulations if it wants to combat the ongoing housing crisis.

The calls come while Toronto's planning department works on a new report that could pave the way for a wider variety of homes and increased density in neighbourhoods across the city.

The study, which was requested by city council in 2019, was to look at "expanding housing options" in parts of the city officially designated as neighbourhoods. The report is scheduled to be released and sent to city councillors in the spring.

However, some skeptics are concerned the changes may fall short of seriously confronting Toronto's housing woes.

"We actually need to be brave," said Naama Blonder, an architect at the firm Smart Density.

"This whole notion of protecting neighbourhoods is something that belongs to the past. This is a conversation that they should have stopped having in the 70s," she said.

Neighbourhood zones account for more than 35 per cent of Toronto's land, but only detached homes are permitted in them. Buildings such as townhouses and low-rise walk-ups are currently only allowed in areas designated as apartment or mixed-use areas.

'Missing middle'

Those housing types are often referred to as the "missing middle," which can refer to any type of home that falls somewhere between large detached houses and small high-rise condos.

Blonder says the construction and zoning rules in areas designated as neighbourhoods must be loosened if Toronto wants to improve access to housing and prepare itself for an expected population boom.

Naama Blonder, an architect and urban planner, says Toronto should emulate cities like Paris, where apartments are more common than detached homes. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

At the moment, she says those restrictions are preventing the city from creating densely populated areas, especially in neighbourhoods with close access to public transit. In those areas, the "missing middle" may need to include apartment buildings up to six storeys, she added.

"It will actually open up more possibilities," said real estate broker Kevin Yu on the prospect of updated zoning rules.

"Instead of going for a condo in a big building, this might be the next step up, that middle ground."

Can city add density while preserving character?

Toronto's chief planner Gregg Lintern says the city is already working on new strategies to increase density, though he also notes the city's desire to preserve the characteristics of its neighbourhoods.

"That's a lot of land and we're looking at ways to see how we can gently increase the housing choice and options in those parts of the city, without changing fundamentally the way those neighbourhoods look and feel," Lintern said in his office at Toronto city hall.

Last weekend, Lintern and his staff at the city planning department went door-knocking in Toronto's east end, where they asked residents how they felt about increased density in their neighbourhoods.

He says the response was generally positive, and that most residents appreciate the city's concerns around affordability and access to housing.

But he acknowledges that bringing on major change may be a difficult sell to some. "I think you're going to get people concerned about the character of their neighbourhood," he said.

Lintern also pointed to recent policy changes such as the permission of more secondary basement suites and laneway housing as evidence that Toronto is already working to improve housing options and affordability in the city.

Toronto chief planner Gregg Lintern wants to preserve the character of the city's neighbourhoods while also introducing more density. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

Toronto has approved the construction of 60 laneway suites, he says. Zoning updates have also allowed homeowners to add around 2,500 secondary suites in neighbourhood zones within the past six years.

"I think you gradually grow the acceptance for neighbourhoods being a place where we can introduce new housing options without changing the way that people fundamentally feel about their neighbourhood," Lintern added.

More options for buyers

Yu, who has recently found a niche selling homes with secondary basement suites, says prospective homeowners would benefit greatly from a larger menu of housing options.

The introduction of more density could also drive down costs and improve vacancy rates in the city's rental market, Yu says.

"I'd probably have a bunch of clients that would be 100 per cent interested because this will actually help them get into homes."