Toronto is running out of room to grow! The city is being swamped by new condos! The developers are taking over! These are things I hear people say about the city’s real-estate market, as housing becomes more and more expensive. Maybe you’ve heard them too.
And everything you’ve heard is wrong.
The truth is that Toronto has too little housing and too many rules about where to build it. City planning policies are cramming new residents into a few pockets while locking down much of the city from new housing – all for no particularly good reason.
This must change. Toronto, as with other prosperous North American cities, is becoming increasingly unequal and expensive, and regulation is making the problem worse.
How so? In short, there are very few places you can build an apartment building in Toronto. The city’s planning rules largely protect the existing physical form of the city, defend the “neighbourhood character” of affluent homeowners, and in most places shut the doors to new residents.
Toronto’s planning system is complicated and opaque, but its main effect is clear. In the city’s Official Plan, the document that guides growth, about 70 per cent of the city is not supposed to see significant change. This is basically what’s happening. New developments in Toronto are clustered tightly in a few places.
The single biggest problem is the “Neighbourhoods.” That term, with a capital N, covers the majority of the city. This means that whatever goes in those areas is supposed to be residential. Across most of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough, that means at most a house with a “secondary suite.” In the older neighbourhoods of the city, the rules are only slightly looser.
This is a powerful constraint on where and how the city can change. The planner Gil Meslin has dubbed it “the Yellowbelt,” for its colour on Official Plan maps.
In general, it’s easy to build a single-family home here, and very tough to build anything else. So change within the Neighbourhoods only goes one way. Evict the tenants of a triplex to turn it into a big single-family house? No problem. Replace a little suburban bungalow with a McMansion? Sure.
But replace two houses with a sixplex? Forget it.
In Toronto, the politics of this question go back to the sixties, when progressives were defending neighbourhoods from blockbusting developers. Today, if you own a house in Toronto, you are likely wealthy. (Sorry, boomer progressives.) Yet, while the demographics and the finances have turned upside-down, city planners continue to defend the physical form and the “livability” of these areas.
This is creating two cities. Call them Condo Toronto and House Toronto. Condo Toronto exists in a few small, scattered dots across the city, and this is where growth feels like it’s out of control. King-Spadina. Yonge-Eglinton. Humber Bay Shores.
But it’s surrounded – right next door – by House Toronto, the vast plains of low-rise where growth is nearly forbidden. House Toronto is adding very few new homes and few people. Census data tells the tale: The Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis has compiled the numbers from 2001 to 2016, and more than half the city’s census districts – 62 per cent – see a static or shrinking population.
Population change for the City of Toronto, 2006 to 2016
Increase of 10% or more (23% of city)
Increase of 5% to 9.9% (15% of city)
No change or less than 5% change (52% of city)
Decrease of 5% or more (10% of city)
Note: Change calculated using 2006 census tract boundaries.
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEIGHBOURHOOD CHANGE RESEARCH PARTNERSHIP
Why? For one, today’s families are smaller. In the city of Toronto, the average is down to 2.4 people from 2.8 in 1986. For another, baby boomers are remaining in their long-time homes, not selling as soon as expected to younger families.
Again, this is basically what policy calls for. Look at the current Official Plan, the vision document for city planning which dates to 2006. Housing – which constitutes most of the city and most new building today – is supposed to be added in a handful of “Centres,” and in mid-rise buildings along specific major roads, or “Avenues.”
These policies are producing bad results. Condo sites along the Avenues are small, expensive and complicated to develop. The public school board struggles to build new schools downtown while running half-empty ones – even closing them – in suburban areas that are emptying out.
It’s time for a bold new vision, to be achieved through looser rules. It’s time to spread out growth.
An ideal solution would be modestly sized apartment buildings – up to, say, four or five storeys – everywhere. Some planners are now calling this the Missing Middle. Such buildings are relatively simple to design and build. Toronto has many examples that went up between 1900 and the 1960s.
In Vancouver, which has a much worse affordability problem, this discussion has gone mainstream; politicians, planners and architects are advocating for different forms of the Missing Middle, and the Vision Vancouver administration at City Hall has belatedly introduced a radical proposal, “Making Room,” to loosen-up zoning.
YIMBY activists in the city argue that more housing supply will help keep prices from rising and will bring youthful residents to Vancouver neighbourhoods that need them.
The affordability argument is not simple. In Toronto, market housing will never serve the needs of the city’s most vulnerable; only social housing will do that. But there is a shortage of development sites and of new homes. Increasing that supply would help most people.
What’s more, a looser market would bring more people to the right places. Middle-class households that can’t afford a house might well choose an apartment or condo in a neighbourhood. Shrinking areas such as my own, near downtown, have the schools, parks and transit to accommodate them. Across the outer Yellowbelt, there’s even more room, and prices would be more affordable.
More growth, in more places, built by more people and for more people. That should be the goal of Toronto’s land-use planning.
In the next few weeks, I will be presenting specific ideas from architects as to what this change could look like. They are fairly modest proposals for chipping around the edges of planning regulations, for new housing in different places or in different forms.
It will take some political courage, and a realignment in local politics, where both progressives and conservatives find their own reasons to dislike development. But this is a question of social justice; of shorter commutes and a lower carbon footprint. It’s past time for us to think about the Two Torontos as one city – one that has room for everyone.