Ontario needs more townhomes and low-rises — so why aren’t we building them?

ANALYSIS: Municipalities have taken a “tall or sprawl” approach to development, writes Diane Peters. But experts want them to focus on the so-called missing middle
By Diane Peters - Published on November 28, 2018
townhouses
Canadian families are getting smaller, and although many of our neighbourhoods house fewer people than they did a few decades ago, we resist density. (Dominic Chan/CP)

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I need to grab a few housewarming gifts: two of my close friends just bought townhouses, and they’ll be moving soon. One scored an affordable three-bedroom with a tiny yard and pink carpeting in downtown Toronto that has room for her two kids and is close both to their schools and their dad. (Fear not — she’s already ripped up the carpet.) Another paid less than $350,000 for an almost-new Kitchener townhouse kitted out with stainless-steel appliances. Just blocks from her aging parents, it will accommodate a home office and the dog she never could have had in her old Toronto apartment.

My friends are finding new places to land in what’s known as missing-middle housing. Graham Haines, research manager for the City Building Institute at Ryerson University, defined it in a recent report as “housing that is appropriate and affordable for a range of household and family sizes, and incomes … The Missing Middle is multi-use housing in our already built neighbourhoods.”

Think townhouses and family-sized units in low-rise buildings — freehold, condo, or rental. Laneway houses, houses split into duplexes, walk-ups, and units above storefronts count, too. They’re often around 1,000 square feet or so. And they’re missing because we don’t just have enough of them.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, the GTA has grown with a mix of typical suburban sprawl at the edge of our urban region and high-rise towers at the centre,” says Haines. Many municipalities’ development processes encourage this “tall or sprawl” approach — it’s pricey and time-consuming to get permits, and plans can be rejected, so it’s primarily big developers that are willing to take the risk, and then generally only for large condos or tracts of housing.

Meanwhile, Canadian families are getting smaller, and although many of our neighbourhoods house fewer people than they did a few decades ago, we resist density: in most cities, you can turn a duplex into a single-family home without telling anyone — but carving out, say, a basement apartment requires a permit at the very least.

Things may soon change, though. The missing middle has become a hot topic, and Haines and others are calling for cities, particularly those in Ontario’s bustling and increasingly unaffordable Golden Horseshoe, to address the issue.

Haines takes Mississauga as a case study in his October report, “Finding the Missing Middle in the GTHA,” and shows how the city — which has no more land on its outskirts for new development — could add 174,000 new units. These roughly 1,000-square-foot residences could house 435,000 people and be built on vacant or easy-to-redevelop sites around the city. The report also notes that single-family residences could be made denser via duplexing or alley homes.

In September, the Toronto Board of Trade published the “Better Housing Policy Playbook,” which makes the case that the GTA needs to incorporate more missing-middle housing, among other measures, to increase affordability so that the region can remain globally competitive.

Places such as Toronto, Mississauga, and Kitchener-Waterloo have already begun to embrace this medium-density approach to development. Mississauga produced its own report on middle housing in 2018, K-W is home to new townhouses, and Toronto boasts urban-redevelopment projects with more varied units, and new purpose-built low-rise rentals. (One such rental building is going up right now near my house in Toronto.)

“It’s not just a way of adding more housing supply, but its form and function fills the needs of young families, couples, and people who don’t want to move into a 700-square-foot condo as their starter home,” says Brian Kelcey, vice-president of public affairs for the Toronto Board of Trade.

Families are changing, and missing-middle homes are the right size for many of them. A 2017 report states that there are more than 5 million spare bedrooms in Ontario — many seniors remain in big family homes, with more space, stairs, and yard than they want or need. In sharp contrast, many families live in cramped quarters. To get more space, they’d have to move to the urban outskirts or to a small town, gaining a long commute in the process.

But adding more middle housing can allow people to stay in their neighbourhoods,  as my friends have. Young families upgrading from a condo could keep their kids in the same daycare and school. “Too many of our neighbourhoods have been built on the premise that the only kind of healthy neighbourhood is where you have the same kind of housing from one corner to the next,” says Kelcey.

Since low-rises or rows of townhouses can be built on smaller lots, they can be tucked into existing neighbourhoods. That gentle increase in density is a good thing: having more adults and kids in an area means healthy schools, busy bus routes, and thriving local businesses.

And when new residents have access to transit and jobs, they don’t need cars: they can bike, bus, or walk to work. If they had to move farther afield, they’d just clog up the roads.

But in most cities, it takes the same amount of time, money, and paperwork to get a row of 10 townhouses approved as it does a subdivision or soaring condo tower. “Our city-planning and regulatory processes are for a lot of understandable, but frankly counterproductive, reasons focused on big developers and oblivious to the value of small developers to add housing supply,” says Kelcey.

Streamlining the processes for smaller projects and rezoning certain areas could entice builders to think medium-size. Trimming fees, reducing the risk, and adding incentives could also help lower the cost of building moderately sized units.

In fact, one of the biggest flaws with the missing middle is that the middle price range often goes missing, too. “Because there’s so little of it and it costs a lot to build, it ends up being a premium product,” says Haines. Toronto builders, in particular, tend to favour low-rise loft developments and new townhouses with incredibly high prices.

Add to this the fact that development has become a dirty word in Ontario cities: people seldom want more residents on their block. “The arguments against having a little more density from affordable housing are so predictable and common, they’re the same from one city to the next,” says Kelcey. “And they’re often so disconnected from what actually happens.”

Neighbours eyeing a new complex often fear more traffic, noise, and crime — especially if the project involves rental units or a low asking price — ignoring the value that having more locals will bring, not just to the immediate area but also to the regional economy. “If people can’t live in these areas, they will start to move on,” says Haines. A people drain is bad for neighbourhoods and for business. “If we want to retain our talent, we need to take affordable housing more seriously.”

Diane Peters is a writer and editor. She teaches at Ryerson University.

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