Welcome to the second of my two-part exploration on the ‘missing middle’, where I discuss how a lack of housing type diversity – and the accompanying affordability challenges facing middle-income households in Toronto – is fueling a housing crisis.
In Part One, I explored how restrictive and antiquated urban planning policies have impeded the creation of suitable dwellings for rent and purchase for those most in need. Today, I examine some of the solutions proposed.
Rezoning, Recoding, and Secondary Suites
If the objective is to create a range of housing types in areas that can support more density, it makes sense to change the zoning of single-family neighbourhoods to multi-unit. In this article, “Why It’s So Hard To Get Housing Into Toronto’s ‘Yellowbelt’ Neighbourhoods — And How Experts Say It Can Be Done” urban planner Sean Galbraith suggests that the answer is to simply rezone the Yellowbelts as R (residential) and RA (residential apartments). There is no need to break it down further to a triplex, duplex, townhouse, etc., which assumedly would be an invitation for more red tape. Galbraith believes that having a more open zoning policy will give neighbourhood residents a little more freedom and creativity to build their neighbourhoods as they desire, compromising on their own terms between maintaining the look and feel of a neighbourhood with providing new, much-needed housing. This would include giving existing property owners who want to age-in-place the option of converting their dwelling into multi-units so they can derive an income, cohabitate with family members, or keep friends/support nearby. How amazing would that be?
As well, it’s ultimately more effective to do sweeping rezoning across a City, rather than trying to address individual pockets, if the objective is to address a crisis with the least amount of red tape. There has been some success in this regard in other cities that face similar problems, as the City of Vancouver “Steps Up Townhouse Rezoning Approvals“, Minneapolis creates a “Missing Middle Housing Pilot Program To Develop 3 To 20-Unit Residences“, while San Diego passes “Proposals To Help Lower Costs, Promote Smart Growth & Cut Red Tape“.
While the City of Toronto recently approved as-of-right laneway housing in an effort to increase residential density and create additional accessory units, in this post About Laneway Housing In Toronto, By Sustainable And Urbaneer I share how the as-of-right approvals process is neither easy nor streamlined as one might wish. Specifically, I’ve had a number of buyer clients keen to secure city properties listed for sale where laneway housing is feasible according to the guidelines, but the City won’t say it’s possible until a full application with drawings and survey has been submitted and reviewed. Unfortunately, given our real estate market remains strong, the properties in question sell quickly (and often in bidding wars) with condition-free cash offers to buyers who aren’t purchasing them for their laneway potential, rendering it impossible for a buyer to try to secure the property conditionally for at least a few weeks on meeting with the City planning department to try get enough assurances the laneway house is possible. Because of this, its really only existing property owners who have the time and resources to secure a laneway housing approval, which means it’s not likely to create a sufficient supply of this housing type as we need in a housing crisis. According to this July 2019 piece in the Huffington Post, “Laneway Homes Could Transform 310 Km Of Toronto’s Underused Spaces“, “homeowners in Toronto are buying in. In the past year, the city said it has issued 12 permits and is reviewing 25 other applications”. It’s not a substantial number but in June 2019 the City of Toronto did propose a City-Wide Expansion for as-of-right laneway housing which should become policy (hopefully by the end of the year). It’s a start.
We also need the City to relax the parking and unit entry requirements for the creation of secondary suites in Toronto’s existing single-family residences, because they’re significant obstacles given the narrow lot frontages most of our vintage housing stock has. And even if these changes were made by the City, the cost to Creating An Income Suite In Your Residence can be substantial given the requirements of today’s Fire Code and Building Code are of a standard that significant alterations have to be executed, including digging down basements to meet the minimum legal ceiling height, installing fire-rated drywall on ceilings and bulkheads, fire-proof doors, and ensuring mechanical rooms are self-contained and accessible.
Ontario Housing Supply Action Plan
Recently, the Government of Ontario proposed the “Ontario Housing Supply Action Plan” to address the lack of supply of affordable housing across the province.
The action plan was developed in reaction to the following stats (while it is Ontario-wide, much of the problem is in Toronto due to the affordability crisis):
• 83 per cent of buyers can’t afford to purchase a resale home
• Resale prices climb 8-9 per cent a year, while incomes only climb 2 per cent a year
• It takes 10+ years currently to build apartment buildings in the GTA, with all the policy red tape
• It takes 2+ years currently to get all the necessary site plan approvals for new buildings and major renovations.
The action plan intends to cut the red tape with more sensible, expedient policy. It hopes to have initiatives to promote the increase of supply and to introduce tax measures to help home buyers keep more of their money in order to help their household housing budgets. They intend to be more transparent with costs to developers to encourage more building. They intend to introduce a policy which will support a mix of housing types, which is precisely what is being proposed as an alternative use for our yellowbelt neighbourhoods.
In addition to actually building more housing for the Missing Middle, the answer to this quandary may be to actually rethink how housing is inhabited. For example, this article, “The Solution To Canada’s Housing Crisis Is Right Under Our Roofs” examines how multi-generational housing, which is becoming more commonplace in Canada, can help find space for those who seek this housing type. It’s all about perspective. In fact, in this March 2019 – Home Of The Month – Kensington Market I explore the topic of multi-generational housing, in addition to sharing the tale of a family who purchased three condos in one building over several years to house three generations. I also make a prediction that, as our population ages, ‘chosen families’ will begin transforming older vintage housing to accommodate ageing-in-place, and what they might purchase in the original City of Toronto.
Design Solutions To The Missing Middle Housing
With the need for more diverse housing types and options comes an excellent opportunity for creativity. That’s what really is at the crux of a housing revolution and evolution: when housing is modified and redesigned to meet the needs, wants and wishes of urban residents of all ages, sizes and lifestyles, and the designers and builders who envision and construct them.
Here are some stylish solutions to the missing middle supply crunch:
The Globe and Mail architecture critic, Alex Bozikovic launched a global competition, inviting design firms to put forth their most stylish and sensible visions for missing middle housing stock. Click here to see one of the proposals for a long and narrow lot (which is indicative of where missing middle stock is likely to be resurrected). Making the most of low and dense design, this prototype could house 6 units, which could represent a significant number of new homes.
Edmonton as well has had an infill design competition. There are a few options here, with the common thread being a viable and replicable design that respects the rooflines and streetscapes of existing neighbourhoods while making the best use of available land (i.e. checkerboard, amenity-rich construction). Vancouver held a similar competition in 2018, with the two designs below coming out on top (both courtesy of Urbanarium.org which has a full list of the submissions!)
Happy Middle (Port Coquitlam)
Workshop Architecture entered the Vancouver competition with a structure that built upon the iconic 1970s answer to urban infill “the Vancouver Special”, which maximized living space within bylaws at the time. The Vancouver Special was a high-density housing solution that made use of small and unusually shaped lots during a housing supply crunch in the 1970s in urban locales in Vancouver. During the same period, Toronto did some construction too, but remained committed to a single-family dwelling, building detached homes among the long-established Edwardian and Victorian homes in many of Toronto’s urban neighbourhoods.
Workshop Architecture’s current proposal for Toronto is to relax the zoning requirements to allow the “Extra Special”, which takes a cue from the Vancouver Special. The end goal would be to produce homes that have flexible occupancy by combining two or three single-family residential lots. Their design increases dwelling units creates a sense of community within the dwelling, but still respects privacy and overall neighbourhood design. Click here to read, “An Extra Special Solution To Toronto’s Housing Crisis?“.
Want to learn more about the challenges around current zoning and developing the missing middle? Check out these articles about yellowbelt development and the missing middle.: “The Yellowbelt”, “Toronto Has Lots Of Houses And Towers, But Not Enough In Between” and “BILD: The Elephants In The Room”.
There is an overarching sense for all of the solutions proposed, that the approach needs to be dynamic, in reaction to the current market (and in anticipation of what the market will require in the near future). The yellowbelt zoning was done years and years ago, and while it served a purpose well when it originated, it isn’t effective to have static policies in a market is ever-changing and where affordability is a pressing issue.
Solutions also have to be sensible; it’s not enough to permit the high-density housing, but the fee and approval process have to be supportive of this goal. As we’ve seen in Toronto already, the fees and approval processes around development of any kind have impeded progress, even contributing to the affordability problem that development of new housing stock hopes to reverse. Check out this article, “The High Cost Of Building A Box In Toronto“, where Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic discusses a viable missing middle design option, that would be likely stopped in its tracks because of existing fee and approval structures.
When Might This Happen?
So if the government was pro-active and expanded as-of-right laneway housing, eased the creation of secondary suites, reduced permit fees (even if limited to rental housing) and introduced pro-development policies like changing the zoning on yellowbelt neighbourhoods so that it allowed for multi-units as-of-right, how long would it take for a sufficient supply of rental and market housing to be created that would close the gap between supply and demand? My estimate is that it would take ten years at the earliest. Until then, the single family housing in yellowbelt neighbourhoods that offers the trifecta of a desirable location, on-trend style and condition, and intelligently designed space plans will be purchased by the affluent. And the shelter which is most lacking will be affordable at best to the middle class, providing they can scrape enough of a down payment to get onto the property ladder.
Whereas just two generations ago the working class earned a living wage sufficient to buy a modest residence in Toronto, the gap between incomes and property prices today makes it economically impossible. Unfortunately, housing in Toronto today is no longer a right, but for the privileged. It’s not only a function of a lack of supply but when government interventions restrict mortgage borrowing and increase taxes, they’re most detrimental to those who need housing the most. The entrepreneurs, consultants and self-employed with lower or irregular incomes, and the middle class who make good ‘but not great’ incomes are negatively affected, while those people with professional occupations, substantial savings and large down payments (and those who inherit or are gifted money) are afforded greater opportunity to thrive and leverage any downturn ripple effects of the intervention. As I’m witnessing in the neighbourhood wrapping the City Centre’s Financial District, is that the ‘well to do’ are competing in bidding wars for the best residences in Triple AAA locations while the marginalized middle-income owners in the suburbs are still recovering from the discount slashed off their property values when the government intervened and cooled the market.
Now, if you have the ability to purchase a freehold dwelling in a yellowbelt neighbourhood, I highly recommend you lock one down in the imminent future. Why? Because if the City drags its feet and doesn’t change the zoning of these neighbourhoods to allow for more units as of right, as our city’s population increases, our post-industrial economy grows, and our city moves towards gridlock, freehold properties in the central core are going to skyrocket in value. And if the City does initiate a change in zoning that allows multi-units to be developed in yellowbelt neighbourhoods, this new higher and best use will push the land value of these properties up. After all, if a condo in a high-rise is garnering $1000 per square foot right now, how much might a suite in a small condo with a terrace nestled on a residential street in a coveted neighbourhood setting might get? Definitely a premium.
If you enjoyed this, here are some of my other posts related to this subject
Thanks for reading!
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