Housing report

Ontario housing report calls for end to ‘single-family’ zoning

Released Tuesday, the report also says the province should declare that up to four units, with up to four stories, will be allowed “as of right” — automatically without rezoning.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Zoning rules that ban all but single-family homes in swathes of Ontario cities must end to solve the housing crisis, says expert panel convened by provincial government in report recommending sweeping changes to process of planning.

The report of the government’s task force on housing affordability, chaired by Jake Lawrence, CEO of the Bank of Nova Scotia and Group Head of Global Banking and Markets, says the province needs to engage build 1.5 million new homes over the next 10 years. And to succeed, he suggests a menu of rules and regulations to scrap to speed up a sluggish approval system that has contributed to property prices spiraling out of control.

Released on Tuesday, the report also says the province should declare that up to four units, with up to four stories, will be permitted “as of right” — automatically without rezoning — by removing local rules that now only mandate the single-family homes. The report says that in 70% of Toronto, current rules prohibit all but new single-family units. But this change could come with a backlash, as many owners have historically resisted new developments.

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Other recommendations include increasing the province’s density plans around transit by allowing ‘unlimited height and unlimited density’ zoning by right near major transit stations if municipalities fail to meeting provincial density targets, and allowing buildings six to 11 stories tall on any bus or streetcar route.

The task force calls for “a more permissive land use, planning and approvals system” that would remove local rules meant to preserve “neighbourhood character” – such as those that limit shadows cast by new buildings – and replace them with provincial standards.

The committee would also legalize “multi-tenant housing” or rooming houses. (In Toronto, where such dwellings are only allowed in the old part of town, twice last year the mayor was unwilling or unable to organize the vote to allow them more broadly. The instead, council postponed a decision both times.)

Rules requiring a minimum number of new parking spaces should be removed or reduced in municipalities with more than 50,000 residents, according to the task force. And the committee is recommending changes to make it harder to appeal developments to the province’s backlog-ridden Lands Court, including a $10,000 fee.

With just four months to go before the provincial election, Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said in an interview that he hoped to produce a “bold plan” with regulatory changes or a bill to present to the Legislative Assembly before voters go to the polls. But he wouldn’t say what recommendations that would include.

“I haven’t taken anything off the table,” Mr. Clark said. “I want to come up with a very forward-thinking plan that’s as accomplished as possible.”

Mr Clark has already introduced a series of changes intended to speed up housing construction. But critics say the measures were intended to make it easier for developers to approve suburban sprawl. Premier Doug Ford has made it clear he intends to win re-election with his Progressive Conservative Party on the promise to build two previously abandoned highways, the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413 – which, according to environmentalists, will further fuel sprawl.

In a brief reference to highways, the task force says it is “important to carefully plan the communities that will arise from these investments, to ensure that they are compact and livable.”

The report also indicates that increased density is needed when building on “virgin” agricultural land, outside of built-up areas. The government reduced density requirements for suburban municipalities in its growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe in 2019. The committee also says the province, even with its Greenbelt protected areas, is not lacking land for new housing. Mr. Clark has been pushing for GTA municipalities to designate what critics say is too much new farmland for future development. Hamilton challenged him in November, voting instead to direct development more towards its built-up areas.

According to the report, the province should amend the Planning Act and its other policies to make “growth of the overall housing supply” and “intensification in existing built-up areas of municipalities” its “most important residential housing priorities”.

The proposals land as municipalities across North America take a closer look at both restrictive zoning and parking minimums. Led in part by the Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) movement, a planning approach mentioned in the report, a number of jurisdictions are relaxing zoning restrictions or considering doing so.

Among them is Minneapolis, which voted in 2019 to allow duplexes and triplexes on all residential lots. California has passed a bill that would allow duplexes and fourplexes on most residential lots. In Canada, Toronto City Council recently backed reforms that would allow backyard housing.

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