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Toronto Looking to Fill ‘Missing Middle’ Housing Need Through East-End Pilot

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In a city that’s flooded with sky-high condo towers and droves of detached homes, it’s often challenging to find affordable mid-rise options in neighbourhoods across Toronto.

This lack of housing is a term referred to as the ‘missing middle’ and it includes mid-rise residential buildings like duplexes, triplexes, and low-rise apartments. And while there are definitely some in the city, with options found on Queen, College, and Dupont, for example, there hasn’t always been enough of them.

Now, the City of Toronto is exploring a new pilot project to build mid-priced housing in low-density neighbourhoods in Toronto’s east end.

The Beaches-East York Pilot, which was presented to Toronto’s Planning and Housing Committee on Tuesday, will review appropriate City-owned sites in Beaches-East York and will work with the community and development industry to build missing middle projects that could be used as models for missing similar projects on other sites, both publicly and privately owned, within the City.

Spearheaded by Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford, the Pilot follows Toronto councillors adopting the Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods (EHON) report from the City’s planning department this past summer, which looks at expanding housing options in the yellow belt by making way for a wider variety of homes — and increased density in neighbourhoods across the city — by increasing housing such as duplexes and low-rise walk-up apartments to meet the needs of the ever-growing city.

“By starting the Pilot, I hope to take a leading role in showing those who might have concerns about the missing middle how these types of projects look, feel, and work in practice,” said Bradford.

“I also hope it will show that thoughtful changes to our planning system can lead to much better outcomes in our communities, especially for housing affordability. We’re talking about making changes to the neighbourhoods and communities that are at the heart of peoples’ lives. That has to be based on consensus, shared understanding, and deep empathy – that takes hard work from local leaders.”

READ: Toronto Needs Missing Middle Housing Now More Than Ever

While the Pilot would zero-in on the Beaches-East York neighbourhood, Bradford told Toronto Storeys he believes every community across the city could benefit from the changes that this missing housing segment would bring.

“A great secondary effect of adding these housing forms is that we welcome new members to our local communities,” said Bradford. “That helps keep a diverse, healthy population for our neighbourhoods which keeps communities, local businesses and main streets vibrant. I think every community across Toronto could benefit from these kinds of changes. That’s not to say there’s a one-size-fits-all solution but that there’s a version of missing middle that could work basically everywhere in the city.”

While the support to build this lack of housing is there, Bradford says the current development process just hasn’t evolved to make these types of projects particularly feasible.

According to a report from Evergreen and the Canadian Urban Institute, both provincial and municipal planning policies support intensification and increased density along local avenues and around transit. However, in many parts of Toronto, zoning by-laws remain outdated.

For instance, a 2015 report published by the Pembina Institute states that “many zoning bylaws in GTA municipalities have not been updated in decades, so they don’t reflect the evolving nature of our cities or the provincial goal to build upward and inward.”

“From a regulation perspective, 47.1% of the City of Toronto’s total land area is subject to Residential zoning. One third is zoned RD (31.3%), which is ultimately the most restrictive – the only permitted housing type is a detached house,” explained Bradford.

Bradford said that a relatively small proposal in an area like that would need to go through a rezoning application, which involves a significant time, financial, and community investment — with not a lot of certainty on the outcome.

“The numbers on the balance sheet simply don’t work when there are a smaller number of units being built in a project,” Bradford added.

READ: City Council Votes in Favour of Allowing More ‘Missing Middle’ Housing Options

As such, more often than not, big-name developers are the only ones willing to take the risk, and typically only do so for large condos, leaving missing middle housing to be overlooked.

This somewhat antiquated approach persists despite the reality that the needs of residents have changed, and continue to evolve — especially now amid the pandemic — so that missing-middle options often offer the best chance for people to stay in their neighbourhoods, rather than relocating outside of the city when the price of detached homes become too high and/or skyscraper living is neither available nor desired.

As for those who have successfully built these missing projects, Bradford noted that, more often than not, the story behind the project is about how difficult it was to make it happen.

“We have to look not only at the zoning, but at the broader influences that can make or break a project. These include by-law details, the math on unit counts, the steps in the application process, and the local engagement process, for example. We’ll be looking at these areas holistically as we work through each stage of the Pilot development,” said Bradford.

But to successfully complete projects like this in the city, it all boils down to political leadership and support.

“I think we’re seeing the willingness on Council now to tackle this issue. The housing crisis is evident, and we’ve worked through a number of other important priorities like building affordable housing through programs like Open Door and Housing Now. So now is a good time to focus on the next set of priorities,” said Bradford.

The next step now is to make the Pilot a reality, and, if proven successful, it can be used as a catalyst to bring this missing segment to other neighbourhoods in the city.

“My biggest hope is that bringing this forward shows that missing middle can be done, done well, and done more often in Toronto,” said Bradford.

“The best way to move the needle on something like the missing middle is to have tangible, demonstrable examples for people to get a look and feel of what change might look like. It’s easy to shoot down ideas or fear monger when they are abstract – but when they’re real, when you can see them, you need to really assess a project on its merits. It’s about engaging with the community in the discussion and doing the work to bring people along.”

Through community engagement, Bradford says you understand the current housing options have an impact on everyone.

“Everyone has a story about housing in this city — and how tough it can be to find housing — at every end of the income scale, whether you were born and raised in Toronto or a newcomer, and regardless of where in the city you want to be,” said Bradford.

As for what’s to come, the committee has asked Gregg Lintern, Toronto’s chief planner and executive director of City planning, to work with Real Estate Services, CreateTO, and the Housing Secretariat, in consultation with Bradford to help develop the design and construction procurement, as part of the Beaches-East York Pilot Project.

“Getting this project right will bring communities new choices — to stay in their neighbourhood when they want to downsize, or when their adult children want to find a place to live, or finding housing that’s affordable when starting a family,” Bradford said.

“As we know, the ability to choose changes lives.”

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