NIMBY Ontario: Where even gentle density can be too much

The GTA has a housing crisis, but residents are often opposed to things like new semi-detached homes. That’s something the Tories will have to reckon with
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 05, 2020
“Gentle density” can mean incorporating such options as laneway housing. (Kevin Van Paassen/CP)

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The housing crisis in the Greater Toronto Area is complicated, with multiple interrelated debates over how to balance things like rent control and tenant protection against the fears of choking off new housing construction in a market that badly needs new homes. But it boils down to a fundamentally simple question: How are we going to make room for the tens of thousands of people who want to live and work in the region?

In last night’s episode of TVO.org’s Political Blind Date, we see two different responses to the issue: Toronto city councillor Stephen Holyday introduces members of his community who are worried about a tower development in their neighbourhood; his colleague Councillor Ana Bailão shows Holyday various approaches to “gentle density” in her ward — a homeowner looking to turn his two-storey home into a triplex, some unassuming laneway homes.

Gentle density has been having a bit of a moment both in Toronto and in other major cities around North America, as planners and city leaders try to devise ways to add new homes to cities in smaller, incremental ways that will be acceptable to local residents anxious that a 40-storey tower is going to sprout up in their neighbourhood.

Which is fine, in theory. In the real world of Toronto city planning, local residents and the city recently fought someone proposing to build eight semi-detached homes in place of three existing ones about 200 metres from a subway station, on the grounds that semis would disrupt the “neighbourhood character.” (Do semi-detached homes already exist in the neighbourhood? You betcha: right across the street.) The five net new homes were approved over the city’s objections, so, in that sense, it’s a good-news story. But the builder was forced to slog through a lengthy and costly process — maddeningly, it involved land where semi-detached homes were already allowed under the city’s zoning bylaws.

This is hardly an isolated case (watch that episode of Political Blind Date for another), and it illustrates a major obstacle that housing advocates face. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Yellow Belt” in reference to the constellation of policies that protects Toronto’s residential neighbourhoods and been confused, this is a concrete example of what it means: across huge swaths of Toronto and the GTA, even the most minimal amount of new homebuilding is slower and more expensive than it needs to be. Gentle density may well be at least part of the answer, but, for many voters, no form of density is ever going to be gentle enough.

Readers may remember that, last year, the Progressive Conservative government angered a number of Toronto councillors by proposing to loosen the rules governing homebuilding close to major transit stations, like subways. City leaders were outraged by the prospect of a mild reduction in their privileges and protested that this amounted to a giveaway to developers. But the Tories were proposing the changes to deal with cases exactly like these — in which the city’s status quo bias and pathological fear of new homes was making a mockery of such principles as transit-oriented development.

Tory housing policy-making is ongoing: Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark is still mulling ideas to get more new homes built. But the challenge the government faces is daunting: we’re seeing major shifts in population growth across southern Ontario, and the most obvious explanation for that is families seeking cheaper housing.

In a pair of articles written this week, economist Mike Moffatt looked at where Ontario’s population is increasing. Statistics Canada data, he writes, shows that the “905” belt of suburbs immediately around Toronto isn’t growing all that quickly anymore. Instead, international migration and temporary residents are driving a lot of growth in the city of Toronto itself; people looking for permanent homes are now overwhelmingly going farther and farther to find an affordable roof to put over their head. The key indicator Moffat sees: tens of thousands of people aged 0 to 15 — i.e., children moving with their parents — are leaving Toronto, York, and Peel Regions and relocating to Halton, Hamilton, Niagara, and Simcoe County.

This is why planning policy in Toronto — and in the 905 suburbs around the city — is a matter of pressing provincial interest. It’s the province that will be footing the bill for highway expansion (or, more optimistically, GO train improvements) to handle the tens of thousands of new long-distance commuters created by the GTA’s high housing costs. And the province will have to plan for and build the schools and hospitals those families need.

The question for the Tory government — and frankly, all parties at Queen’s Park — is how the province intends to respond to and manage these kinds of population flows. We should start getting more answers when the legislature returns later this month.

                       City councillors Stephen Holyday and Ana Bailão discuss Toronto's housing                                                     crisis on TVO.org's Political Blind Date.

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