Why two new proposals could mean big changes in your neighbourhood

ANALYSIS: Policy-makers at Toronto city council and Queen’s Park are looking to change rules that have protected residential neighbourhoods for decades. Are we finally ready for gentle density?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 23, 2019
a row of townhouses in Toronto
Last week, Toronto mayor John Tory and Councillor Ana Bailão presented a motion to council asking staff to consider options for “missing middle” housing. (Deborah Baic/CP)

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Last week, Toronto city council took the first steps toward maybe, eventually, opening up the city’s sacrosanct “neighbourhoods” to the kind of new home-building they’ve been protected from for decades. Mayor John Tory and Councillor Ana Bailão presented a motion to council asking staff to consider options for allowing “missing middle” types of housing — townhouses, low-rise apartments, and others — across the broad swath of the city currently reserved for detached (or, at most, semi-detached) homes.

When introducing the motion, Tory invoked policy changes either proposed or implemented in other jurisdictions: Minneapolis now allows triplexes in every part of the city, California continues to argue over stronger pro-housing rules, and the entire state of Oregon has new rules restricting the rights of municipalities to prohibit small-scale density. The mayor acknowledged that any similar changes in Toronto are going to face stiff opposition.

“There will be a wide range of opinions,” Tory said dryly on Thursday. “Even when you mention specific words in here — duplexes, low-rise walk-up apartments … even when you start mentioning things like that, people start flapping their hands and getting excited about it. Fine, we can get excited about it, but we have a responsibility to look at them in a responsible way.”

Tory and Bailão make a number of arguments for opening up these parts of the city to intensification —most urgent, they say, is the need for more and different types of housing in the face of the city’s housing crisis. But there are more prosaic reasons: planners Cheryll Case and Tetyana Bailey have found that many city-designated neighbourhoods have lost population due to demographic changes, while few areas have seen concentrated growth. Given 2019’s smaller family sizes, it would take substantial new construction in these neighbourhoods just to bring them back to the population they had in 2000 — a fact that has implications for everything from transit planning to school enrolment.

On Monday, it became clear that there’s another, more direct, reason to do it: Queen’s Park is moving in this direction, too, and this might be Toronto’s chance to guide its own planning process instead of waiting for an edict from the province. This week, Steve Clark, the ministry of municipal affairs and housing, released proposed changes to the Provincial Policy Statement — a document that, while its title makes it sound as it could be about literally anything, is in fact one of the key texts guiding planning decisions in Ontario.

The PPS was last updated in 2014 by the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne. Clark is proposing numerous changes: the one that is especially salient, given the debate last week in Toronto, is the introduction of a new term, “housing options.” As defined in the government’s draft, this would mean “a range of housing types such as, but not limited to single-detached, semi-detached, rowhouses, townhouses, stacked townhouses, multiplexes, additional residential units, tiny homes, multiresidential buildings” that could be owned in a variety of different ways. The draft PPS would also require cities and towns to allow housing options and intensification as part of their growth planning.

The 2014 PPS did list some forms of intensification, but the Tories’ proposal is more explicit. If it survives the current round of public consultation (the proposal is open for public comment until October 21), its language may or may not influence planning departments across Ontario’s 444 municipalities — but it will undoubtedly be cited at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (formerly the Ontario Municipal Board), where homebuilders will be able to point to the clear language of the provincial policy when arguing that their townhouse, duplex, or low-rise apartment projects conform with Ontario’s planning rules even if the local council doesn’t like them.

We will likely see Toronto’s planning staff report before we know how and whether the government’s draft PPS will change in response to public input. As the mayor acknowledged, the city’s report will also be subject to intense public scrutiny. It will, in all likelihood, be several months into 2020 before we know whether the city or province is willing to allow this kind of “gentle density” in already built-up neighbourhoods — or whether public resistance will prove that, in the GTA’s “stable neighbourhoods,” no density can ever be gentle enough.

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