Welcome to my blog on housing, culture and design in the City of Toronto.
Today I’m going to explore how a lack of housing types, along with restrictive antiquated urban planning policies, contribute to Toronto’s housing crisis.
Have you heard the term “missing middle” being bandied about in the press as of late? Here’s what you need to know.
The ‘missing middle’ refers to both a lack of housing type diversity and the affordability challenges facing middle-income households both in the ownership and rental sectors in Toronto and other urban centres. The lack of adequate supply in Toronto’s housing stock – which has been ongoing for decades – has become extremely detrimental to housing affordability. But, as time has gone by, it’s the government’s failure to properly address the issue that’s exacerbating the situation, making it increasingly challenging – if not impossible – for urban residents to find suitable shelter. Our supply and affordability erosion lies with the city’s development and land use policies that have impeded the creation of suitable dwellings for rent and purchase for this significant segment of the housing market.
I actually talked about this problem in detail in my 2018 Summer Forecast: “Toronto lacks a sufficient supply of housing – in particular product for the middle segment of buyers who are seeking to climb the property ladder to raise their kids for the next ten to twenty years…I think our city Government needs to change our existing zoning, development approvals processes, and permit fees to allow more as-of-right higher density multi-unit low and midrise housing in our existing city neighbourhoods…Toronto lacks urban planning policies that allow for a variety of residential product.” Head to the full post if you’d like a refresher.
Essentially, the problem is twofold: first, the demand for single-family residences in the original City of Toronto is so strong that it’s easy to sell our existing freehold housing stock – no matter the condition – to renovators and end users for prices that exceed the affordability of most middle income residents without any need to change the existing use or zoning and; second, the existing land use policies and development permit fees in place make it costly – or impossible – to proceed with building new housing on those same sites because there is no as-of-right city-approved intensification/densification program which would allow developers to accommodate and profit in serving a larger market who are in need of smaller affordable family-friendly units. Because of this, over the past three decades Toronto has experienced a mid to high density condominium boom containing mostly small 1bed, 1+1bed or 2bed condos that cater predominantly to singles, couples and, over the past decade, young families as end users (due to the lack of options), or investor buyers who rent the suite at market value (check out Here’s What’s Happening With The Toronto Condominium Market – and – Single And Home Hunting In Toronto). Meanwhile, the existing vintage single-family housing stock dating from 1850 onwards (much of which during their lifecycle has, at one time or another, been converted into non-conforming multi-unit dwellings by immigrants – in particular Portugeuse, Italians, Eastern Europeans and the Chinese through the 1920s to 1970s – as a means to offset their housing costs) is now being torn down or substantially renovated into luxury urban infill single-family residences. Here’s one of my posts which documents how flippers are transforming houses often too far gone for any one other than a renovator to acquire and resell in How Toronto Real Estate Near Queen Street – East & West – Is Climbing In Value. For those missing middle property buyers who seek all the benefits of living in an urban environment, the lack of housing options – especially for those with children – are forcing them to either purchase in mid to high rise condos (check out Dear Urbaneer: Should We Raise Our Kid In A Condo? – and – Twenty Reasons Your Kid Will Love Living In A Condo), fixer-uppers in fringes locations, or having to locate in the suburbs.
There is a solution, however, right here under our collective urban noses!
There is merit in repurposing yellowbelt neighbourhood by rethinking the existing zoning. Right now, yellowbelt land throughout Toronto is zoned for single-family housing (with secondary suites providing their front door doesn’t face the street – weird, I know) which is being sold to high-earning professionals, foreign buyers, and purchasers with significant down payments (often from the Bank of Mom and Dad). Rezoning and repurposing this land to accommodate small low-rise dwellings in a scale that is in keeping with the urban fabric of these neighbourhoods could create more affordable homes for lower and middle-income families. But this can only occur if the City were to change our current policies and bylaws surrounding urban land development.
Could this truly be a solution? Absolutely. After all, creative land use has already had success in Toronto, in the repurposing of former industrial lands (called brownfield sites) which has helped alleviate some of the supply problem issues in this housing-hungry city. I recently wrote about this in depth in From Brownfield To Playing Field: A Brief History Of Toronto’s Davenport Village. Davenport Village – located near Davenport and Lansdowne in the central west end – has been revitalized to include lifestyle-enhancing, family-friendly urban amenities, as well as a good mix of housing types with varying price points which serve the ‘missing middle’ homebuyers. For example, I recently sold this 3bed+den 2bath condo townhouse with roof terrace and 2car parking in Davenport Village for $750,000 which, in Toronto, is an affordable family housing type.
I’m going to address this issue – as complex as it is – in two parts. First, I’m going to address how yellowbelt neighbourhoods aren’t serving as the highest and best use for residential development in the original City of Toronto, and how this issue is not limited to Toronto but other North American cities. Then, in Part Two, I’ll discuss some of the proposed and possible solutions, and the process of implementing them.
Source: Gil Meslin: The Yellowbelt MapTO
What Are Yellowbelt Neighbourhoods?
Coined by urban planner Gil Meslin, the term ‘yellowbelt’ takes its name from Toronto’s large ‘single-family dwellings’ zone, and how these areas are designated in yellow in Toronto’s Official Plan. These yellowbelt neighbourhoods are areas designated for low-density single-family residential use, which is land limited to detached, semi-detached or row housing containing less than four suites (in the central core one can find legal non-conforming two and three-unit dwellings in converted single-family houses which have been in existence for decades, and therefore grandfathered as legal by the City), with zoning that prohibits the construction of higher density housing like multi-unit low-rise, mid-rise or high-rise apartments or condominiums. These zoning bylaws exist – apparently – to protect the visual integrity of the streetscapes of individual neighbourhoods, though arguments have been made their real intention is to be exclusionary. This article in Building by Stefan Novakovic called “Zoned Out” is super informative.
We are talking about a significant amount of land, and a large opportunity for redevelopment here. The yellowbelt comprises 1.8 times more space than the land area of all other high-density residential zones in the area. It totals 70 per cent of all the residentially zoned land in Toronto, where prices for a property are generally in excess of $1,000,000 for a detached dwelling. And, as long as this restrictive zoning in yellowbelt neighbourhoods is preserved, exacerbated by the height restrictions in the limited areas that permit mid and high-rise housing, property values are guaranteed to continue their in price appreciation in Toronto because it is constraining supply with policy. And as we well know in a city which has seen significant population growth, when supply is not meeting demand, prices go up.
It’s not just about creating housing inequality by pricing people out of the market; it is excluding the missing middle from easily accessing our city’s most established and venerated urban amenities. These yellowbelt neighbourhoods are rich in their history with reputable schools, recreational spaces, cultural amenities, green spaces, village shoppes and convenient public transportation, all of which improves the quality of life. Without affordable housing options in these areas, the missing middle are being marginalized to less central locations which tend to lack the same quality of services. Meanwhile, a 2017 Ryerson University report found the majority of Toronto’s 140 residential neighbourhoods have had a stagnant or declining population for the past 30 years, because households are having fewer children and residents are choosing to age-in-place rather than sell their homes. This translates into a reduction in use of amenities (like schools, libraries and recreational facilities) which are coveted by families, diminshes community engagement and vitality (fewer residents supporting local retailers, less kids playing road hockey) while restricting the filtering of housing stock necessary to maintain a balanced real estate market. Clearly, this ‘hollowing out’ of once vibrant yellowbelt neighbourhoods demonstrates more is at stake than just homeownership.
However, although these residential neighbourhoods are well-established, much of its vintage housing stock – ranging in age from 60 to 180 years – is reaching a lifespan where it is becoming structurally or operationally compromised.
It’s important to understand many of these shelters – particularly those in working class neighbourhoods – were not constructed using materials with longevity in mind, and that many old-timey building components like knob and tube wiring, lead plumbing, and asbestos are problematic. Furthermore, at the time houses weren’t constructed with insulation, sump pumps or even much in the way of closets, and their chopped up space plans no longer accommodate how many of us prefer to live (consider reading my posts Understanding The Six Essential Layers Of Property – and – On The History – And Popularity – Of The Open Concept Space Plan). As these dwellings surpass their utiltity and comfort, it’s increasingly common to see them torn down and replaced with newly constructed monster homes, many which don’t match the original scale or aesthetic of their neighbourhoods. I shared one extreme example on my site Houseporn.ca, which recounts the recent culture wars between the original Jewish Canadian establishment and the newly-arriving International super-rich in Toronto’s tony Forest Hill neighbourhood which, even though it’s home to some of the city’s most affluent, is also undergoing gentrification. To the shock and dismay of long-time residents, original 1930s mansions are being purchased for $4,000,000, knocked down, and in their place monster mansions looming four floors high are being constructed a metre from the lot line, blocking their neighbour’s gardens of natural light, killing established plantings, and casting all-day shadows across swimming pools. Check out the story in A $15 Million Mansion In Toronto’s Tony Forest Hill.
Lot severance is also happening, where two or more luxury single family homes are being constructed on a lot that formerly housed one. Which has prompted the question: if lot severance is allowed to happen through our urban planning framework, then why can’t there be a policy allowing multi-units to be built on the single lot without severance that could house more people in a similarly-sized building envelope? If this were possible, it would help create housing options for the missing middle and, by increasing the supply, potentially ease affordability.
So if the City truly wants to address the issue of supply and affordability, amending the existing zoning in yellowbelt neighbourhoods to permit more units in a similarly sized footprint as a new single family dwelling would create opportunities to accommodate a variety of household structures. And, in order to preserve the existing neighbourhood setting, the City could implement urban design guidelines that ensure the existing scale, building typology, and visual cohesiveness of our residential streetscapes are retained.
There is an underbelly of resistance burning bright to changing our existing zoning. Here’s a great piece in Spacing Toronto called “How City Hall Is Keeping Needed Change Out Of ‘Stable Neighbourhoods’“, while this Globe and Mail article, by architecture critic Alex Bozikovic, explores how “The Term ‘Neighbourhood Character’ Is A Euphemism For Something Ugly” by suggesting that “the ‘retaining character in neighbourhoods’ argument is really about banning apartments and other high-density housing”. And this article by Donovan Vincent in The Toronto Star – “Toronto’s Two Front Doors Issue Pits Neighbourhood Character Against Renters’ Dignity” dissects the issue of class, status and tenure in how we’ve historically built our urban residential fabric.
The question is, can the City and its stakeholders strike a balance between preserving the ‘character’ of our urban neighbourhoods and the pragmatism required to help solve our housing crisis? Is it possible to create or maintain a harmonious streetscape, while also addressing affordability, and the need for more (diverse) housing? While the recent as-of-right approvals for laneway housing might suggest so, it’s important to recognize not every dwelling in yellowbelt neighbourhoods has laneway access and, well, a laneway dwelling (which basically looks like a cute 2storey outbuilding) might be considered less obtrusive than a new or retrofitted multi-unit property located directly beside your home. It stands to reason many long-time property owners in yellowbelt neighbourhoods may be resistant to a zoning change which permits multi-unit dwellings, not only out of a fear of change, but because they are accustomed to the privacy, quiet and privilege that accompanies low density home ownership.
I mention this out of my own experience as the owner a purpose-built duplex in Riverdale – an established family-friendly neighbourhood of houses dating from the 1910’s located downtown east – where I Navigated The Committee Of Adjustment to secure approvals for a second-floor extension and third-floor addition to enlarge one of the units by 1000 square feet. Despite the fact I, along with two of the three neighbours who protested my application live across the street from a handsome 4 storey Edwardian rental apartment building, at the Committee of Adjustment hearing they suggested I forgo increasing the square footage of my house and instead deconvert my legal duplex into a single family residence. I was both surprised and taken aback by this display of Nimbyism, not only because they lived in residences which had also been enlarged from their original layouts with city approvals, but because they considered deconverting my 1960s purpose-built duplex a more favourable solution!
If the City moved forward to allowing multi-unit dwellings in yellowbelt neighbourhoods, the biggest resistance most long-time residents would have is an issue they’re already dealing with, which are the redevelopment pressures already in play for centrally-located turn-key single family housing. In these areas, any original housing stock which has not undergone significant upgrades or additions during its lifetime is considered obsolete, selling for land value and subsequently being redeveloped with City planning approvals and permits into luxury single family residences. Typically, the program is to seek approval for ‘minor variances’ from the City of Toronto’s Committee of Adjustment that effectively grant an owner permission to increase the above-grade square footage of their existing dwelling in these areas by 40%. What this means, is that providing the proposed building envelope complies with height and setback requirements, and it does not significantly impact neighbouring properties, the City will be receptive (as it has done for around the past 10 years) to applications that increase a site’s current as-of-right 0.60 times density to those having a square footage up to, but not exceeding 1.0 times the lot coverage density. If said application is approved by the City, there is a mechanism by which a disgruntled neighbour can appeal the decision within 21 days and force the property owner to make a new application to the Ontario Municipal Board at significant expense (upwards of $20,000) for another hearing. Should the property owner succeed at the OMB, the permits are issued once all the drawings and compliance documents are stamped and the fees paid. By and large, redeveloping a 2500 square foot + lower level single family residence in the City takes around 18 to 24 months if you’re organized, and if the City were to revise the zoning in yellowbelt neighbourhoods to allow multi-unit dwellings, the process would not be substantially different although the permit fees would be significantly higher because one pays based on the number of unit. Regardless, the end result would be a multi-unit dwelling with a gross floor area near identical to the single family ‘monster homes’ being approved and constructed today, which are 40% larger above-grade and typically with higher elevations than the original housing stock.
Would these multi-unit dwellings be as discordant in scale and aesthetic as today’s ‘monster homes’? As I wrote in Ten Toronto New Builds That Recently Sold For Between $2M And $10M, there are two architectural styles which dominate the urban infill residential landscape in Toronto right now. One is distinctly modern: think contemporary cubes precisely arranged and stacked, with generous expanses of glazing, a monochromatic material palette, and fairly austere for their lack of adornment. Sometimes they look a bit like a luxury auto dealership. The second is its opposite: rooted in traditional domestic architecture these ‘stately’ edifices of brick and stone are a historical pastiche of steep gables, mullioned dormers, and the inevitable columned portico embellished in script announcing the address, while a massive garage door framed by carriage lamps swallows the facade. The monied versions designed by a reputable architect can be quite tasteful, while the builder-grade faux castles dripping in snap-in plastic are design travesities akin to McMansion Hell. Unfortunately neither of these status monikers tend to blend with the existing urban fabric, but it’s been going on for long enough that you can drive down residential streets in midtown and North Toronto and see entire streetscapes constructed over the past decade with top-ups and infills in this style, except for the occasional original bungalow still housing its senior. Either we reconcile that in time – say fifty years – these neighbourhoods will look different but contain uniformity by virtue of this new larger massing that’s been approved by the City for some years now or, if the City is genuinely concerned with maintaining the ‘character’ of these yellowbelt neighbourhoods, it needs to impose an urban design manifesto for property owners and developers to follow sooner than later, and independent of whether we rezone or not.
Curious where we go from here?
Here’s the next installment, where I examine proposed solutions to our “missing middle” shelter issue, including how other urban centres are addressing it, in addition to some examples by design: Toronto Real Estate, Yellowbelt Zoning & The Missing Middle: Part Two.
If you enjoyed this, here are some of my other posts related to this subject
The Pitfalls Of Permit Fees And Toronto Real Estate
A Brief History On The Intensification Of The Danforth In Toronto
Toronto’s Booming Technology Economy And Our Real Estate Market
Gentrification, Densification, And The History Of Toronto Real Estate
Thanks for reading!
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