Fraser Forum

Advice for Toronto’s next chief planner—give Torontonians housing options

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The City of Toronto recently announced that its chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, will step down from her role after five years at city hall. The ensuing transition presents an excellent opportunity for Toronto to tackle one of its most pressing problems—a lack of housing options.

Toronto is a highly desirable place to live. Between 2011 and 2016, the city gained more than 116,000 new residents—the equivalent of a city the size of Ajax. To accommodate this growth, 65,000 housing units were added to the city’s dwelling stock, according to the latest census. The vast majority of new units were apartments in five-storey buildings or higher (read condos).

Similarly, the fastest-growing group of Torontonians is one-person households, up 8.7 per cent since 2011 (approximately 29,000 new households). In short, Toronto is booming for one-person households, but isn’t necessarily providing the type of housing units that many families would prefer.

The urban housing options most likely to accommodate families such as row houses, duplexes or walk-up apartments (often called the “missing-middle”) represent a fraction of new units built, underscoring a key issue Toronto faces—red tape at city hall.

Fraser Institute research published last year explored the regulatory barriers faced by homebuilders and developers while attempting to build new housing. On average, it takes almost 18 months to obtain a building permit in Toronto. In addition, more than two-thirds of building projects in Toronto required rezoning, the process whereby former factories can become lofts, and bungalows can become condo towers or townhomes.

Faced with these hurdles, amid strong demand for housing, developers are limited to building as many units as they can per building permit, rather than the gentler densification or multi-bedroom units that might draw families, which the city’s planning staff recommend.

One solution to this problem is “as-of-right” zoning, a technical term used to describe zoning that matches city hall’s intentions, and letting the housing market respond accordingly, as opposed to the more piecemeal approach Toronto currently uses. In fact, Keesmaat advocated this approach, tweeting that Torontonians “need as-of-right zoning derived from area based plans."

While the condo boom has provided Torontonians with an alternative to pricey suburban housing and long commutes, a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t sufficient for a large metropolitan area hoping to retain young families. The city should allow for more options to meet those diverse preferences.

Whoever replaces Keesmaat as chief planner will inherit major challenges. Toronto faces enormous growth pressures, and the way city hall responds may dictate the makeup of Canada’s largest city for a generation. If the new chief planner wants Toronto to be an attractive city for all types of families—including singles, couples, children and seniors—they should make meaningful moves towards giving Torontonians more housing options.

One way to do this is by freeing up zoning, allowing for a variety of dwelling types and uses to emerge.


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