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Denser Homes, No Development Charges: How a Toronto Mayoral Candidate Wants to Fix Housing

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Toronto Mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa is on a mission to fix Toronto’s housing affordability crisis with what he’s dubbed a “renovation revolution.”

With the election just over a month away, Penalosa released his housing plan detailing the dozens of actions he plans to take as mayor, the underlying theme of which is increasing supply as a means to bolster affordability. What could perhaps have the most immediate effect on the city’s housing supply is Penalosa’s proposal to end single-family exclusionary zoning citywide and allow as-of-right construction up to six units, depending on the size and height of the property.

“We are in a huge housing crisis and we haven’t we haven’t done much about it, especially on affordability,” Penalosa told STOREYS. “At the same time, we have most of the area of Toronto in single-family housing where everybody has parks and roads and sidewalks and sewage and water, and we have got to put a little bit more density.”

READ: Gil Penalosa Could Be Toronto’s Chance to Challenge to Status Quo

The allowances would cap the number of units per floor to two, meaning a property would need to have a three-storey building to have six units. A four-storey building would still be limited to six units, but would allow for a larger unit to be built — something that would help to accommodate families. Penalosa also hopes that the zoning changes will help to keep more of Toronto’s seniors in the neighbourhoods they live in.

“Nine out of 10 seniors want to age in place, but they cannot afford it,” Penalosa said. “They’ve got a big house, but they need to move because they cannot pay all of the costs. If someone could split their house into into three, all of a sudden they’re going to not only be able to stay in their neighborhood, which is very, very important, but now they’re going to have an income.”

Part of Penalosa’s housing plan calls for leveraging the federal National Housing Strategy for homeowner loans to support these conversions. He also intends to set up a one-stop-shop office that will help owners add new units.

Although the increased density may draw some criticisms from the NIMBY crowd, Penalosa believes that having standardized guidelines for the entire city will help combat that.

“I think most of the fights come because there are no clear rules,” Penalosa said. “The problem is that in Toronto, if the developer or the owner of the house is a friend of a Counselor, all of a sudden they get [approved for] six floors, or seven floors, or 10 floors, and then people are very upset because they are surprised with 10-storey buildings in the middle of a neighborhood of houses. So with [my plan], there is no room for negotiations.”

Urban planner and Co-Founder of Smart Density Naama Blonder sees Penalosa’s plan as a good expansion on progress the city is making towards allowing higher density, but notes that they may need to go even further to fully address the housing crisis.

“I would argue that even increasing the height limit from four to six storeys — storeys, not units — will start moving the needle,” Blonder said. “Vancouver also allows six storeys, by the way. As for NIMBYs, we can’t let a vocal minority dictate the future of our city.”

Penalosa is also seeking to legalize multi-tenant homes — an issue that has been contentious within City Hall for quite some time.

“We have students moving into shelters,” Penalosa said. “We need those shelters for the homeless, not for students. But the students are going there because they have no other option.”

Other students, Penalosa notes, are already living in illegal rooming houses, but because of their illegality, the tenants are afraid to complain about bad conditions.

“If we have them legalized, then it’s going to be very clear how many people per room, how many people per washroom, and how many units,” Penalosa said.

Although the single-family zoning change and multi-tenant houses are likely to draw quite a bit of attention, the majority of the density increases that Penalosa is advocating for would occur around transit. He wants to allow as-of-right height equal to the width of the road on all main transit streets, and would drop the requirement for pyramid stepbacks.

“If you are on Eglinton and it’s 65 meters wide, you can do 65 meters in height, so it’s going be very simple so people will not be surprised,” Penalosa said.

READ: Angular Planes: A Tool That Hurts Housing Affordability

The housing plan notes, however, that additional storey allowances would be made for purpose-built rentals. The plan also requires that the street-level provide commercial space.

What might quickly catch the eye of developers, however, is Penalosa’s plan to drop development charges — a fee paid by the developer at the time a building permit is issued — for five years. This comes just two months after the City of Toronto approved a hefty 46% hike to the residential building development charges. Developers looking to build a detached or semi-detached home would face a $137,040 charge. The charge for every bachelor or one-bedroom apartment built is set to rise to $52,367, and for apartments with two or more bedrooms, the fee will be $80,218.

Development charges collected by the City go towards building infrastructure to serve the residents of the new homes that are built such as libraries, recreation centres, and parks. At the time, Mayor John Tory stated that the development charges, as they stood prior to the hike, “don’t even begin to pay for the infrastructure that we have to put in place to deal with a growing city.” 

“That’s a lie,” Penalosa said. “We we are wasting money on so many things…. Also, with the development charges, we are asking people that are buying new homes to pay for everything in the cities when there are many, many things that every citizen should be contributing to.”

During its vote, City Council did approve an amendment that provides exemptions for multiplexes with four or fewer units so that development charges would be waived on second, third, and fourth units on a single property. Penalosa’s plan, however, would go far beyond this.

The Toronto mayoral election will take place Monday, October 24, with advance voting days from October 7 to 14.

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