Policy and zoning changes to permit multiplexes across Toronto were approved by City Council on Wednesday afternoon, and many are saying it’s high time.

Under the city’s current zoning bylaw, around 70% of Toronto’s residential areas permit only single-detached homes, but the new changes effectively put an end to exclusionary zoning, allowing for that same land -- known as the "Yellow Belt" -- to serve a greater proportion of city residents.

The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board is one of the entities in strong support of the zoning changes, with TRREB President Paul Baron saying in a recent statement that the development community is now empowered to build more gentle density housing -- “the kinds of homes that growing families, singles, and new Canadians desperately want.”

Legislation Long Overdue

The multiplex framework has been in the works for several years, but more recently, a study report from Toronto’s City Planning Division recommending amendments that would allow multiplexes was considered by the Planning and Housing Committee in late April, and the proposed item was thereafter approved. Wednesday's City Council ruling sets the legislation in motion: duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes will now be permitted in all Toronto neighbourhoods, and the approval process for these builds has been sliced from months to 10 to 15 days.

“It is a very big milestone to finally end exclusionary zoning in Toronto. It has been a very long time coming,” says Eric Lombardi, an advocate from More Neighbours Toronto. “In 2015, we actually created the Yellow Belt in its current form and, I think, in a very quick amount of time, we've actually seen a change in attitudes towards neighbourhood change. I think multiplexes are really just the start of what we need to be doing in order to end the housing crisis in the city.”

Lombardi readily acknowledges, however, that the legislation doesn’t go as far as it probably needs to address Toronto’s housing crisis, which is, quite frankly, severe. Still, he says, “it’s thought out well.”

Unlike single-family homes, multiplexes will be exempt from FSI provisions, which Lombardi notes “enables and incentivizes builders to go with multiplexes over a McMansion if they're going to do a property renovation.”

In addition, in neighbourhoods that have a maximum height limit of less than 10 metres, multiplexes will be permitted up to 10 metres in height in order to enable a third storey. A fourth storey could potentially be built depending on the area’s existing height allowances. The new rules also stipulates that, in some cases, garden or laneway suites are also permitted on the same lot as a multiplex, allowing for as many as five residential units on a single lot.

“Will this result in a dramatic amount of change right away? No. But when it comes to what gets facilitated over the next 10 years or 15 years, I think it's incredibly important and will help to add to the supply mix,” says Lombardi.

A Stepping Stone

Toronto-based urban planner Naama Blonder of Smart Density agrees that the changes couldn’t have come soon enough.

“It’s about time. Probably, the right time was 15 years ago when property values weren't at what they are right now. With construction costs, I’m curious to see how many [multiplexes] will actually be built,” she says. “Having said that, one of the challenges that I'm facing as an architect is the premise that we have multiplexes, but don't worry, it's still going to look like a house."

Blonder argues that the thinking behind what Toronto homes and neighbourhoods should look like needs to be shaken up. “Why can't we have something that is bigger, better, four storeys, five storeys, six storeys -- something that is more Montreal-like or European-like and something that will actually move the needle. What I'm afraid of is that it's just building triplexes and fourplexes is just not enough for what we need.”

But, as Lombardi puts it, “sometimes it's harder to go from zero to one than it is to go from one to 10,” in that the act of legalizing multiplexes stands to be a stepping stone to more progressive and impactful policies.

“This does open the door to doing more things, like finally ending the apartment ban or reviewing how well we’re facilitating properties to be redeveloped so that we can change rules so that we can hit targets in the future. All those things are less difficult than initial multiplex win,” he says.

Lombardi adds that he hopes Toronto’s moves with respect to multiplexes will ripple out to other municipalities, and eventually, the province at large.

“To me, the next step is really for the Province to take Toronto's lead, and try to establish some common rules across the province,” he says. “By standardizing, they would make it a lot easier for producers and supply chains, and bring down bring down the costs of building too.”

No Shortage of Skepticism

Despite the fact that multiplexes have been, for the most part, well-received, the matter is far from black and white. Skeptics are calling the changes reactionary and something of a bandaid on a bullet hole -- which you could argue is fair. The City of Toronto has pledged to build 285,000 new homes by 2031, and opening up the Yellow Belt is not believed to be a solution in and of itself.

Alex Beheshti, Consultant with Altus Group, says that while multiplexes certainly pose advantages, they’re also bound to come with growing pains.

“Toronto has not historically built this form of housing at scale for many decades, so it is expected that it will take some time for existing builders to become reacquainted with it and for new builders to emerge and gain experience,” he says. “The City also has several choke points in its approval process outside of the development application process that could delay or impede multiplexes. While multiplexes can now be built ‘as-of-right’, the City is already dealing with a pre-existing high volume of Committee of Adjustment applications.”

In other words, there are still plenty of kinks to iron out.

“Time will reveal if the development envelope that the City provided multiplexes is sufficient enough to accommodate most building permit applications, or there could be a wave of minor planning applications -- minor variances and consents -- that could see multiplex construction throttled as those applications work their way through the COA process,” adds Beheshti. He also anticipates that particular resident groups may try to block the zoning bylaw over the next few weeks (as we saw happen with garden suites last year) which could stall uptake.

As well, Beheshti cautions that building multiplexes in neighbourhoods where they traditionally have not been may also spark a degree of backlash amongst Toronto homeowners. This is a major point of concern for City Councillor Stephen Holyday (Etobicoke Centre), who was one of seven councillors that voted against the new rule and feels the city has legalized multiplexes in haste.

“One of the things I did was think about who wins and who loses in this decision. And I came to the conclusion that on the winning side would be many small developers who would be looking to buy up properties, to build a fourplex as an investment and to rent those out, create housing, and collect the profits from that,” he says. “But on the losing side are people within the neighbourhoods who would find a really large building in a place where there wasn't one before, and people that would be impacted by access to light, access to air, privacy considerations, overflow parking.”

Holyday anticipates that once these units begin to get built across the city “sparks will fly.”

“The argument is, why do this? We know that triplexes are allowed, people with basement apartments, people with accessory buildings, such as garden suites or laneway suites -- none of those have solved the housing issue, so why would you think that the addition of fourplexes everywhere would suddenly change that?”

Residents Showing Interest

Ken Greenberg of Greenberg Consultants and former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto says that precedent exists to mitigate concerns like Holyday’s.

“What's interesting is some of the most cherished neighbourhoods in Toronto, in the Old City of Toronto, have all along had this mix of housing types,” he says, pointing to Riverdale, The Annex, and The Beaches as areas that already utilize gentle density effectively.

And Greenberg speaks from experience. “I lived in The Beaches for many years, and I ended up living in fourplexes. They provide excellent housing, they really fit well on the neighbourhood, I lived in a couple of those, and I thought it was just great when I was beginning to raise a family.”

In Greenberg’s view, multiplexes are “enormously beneficial” for not only individual residents but for cities at large.

“I think they deal with the diminishing population in many of the older neighbourhoods as people age and you get more and more empty-nesters occupying large houses. Right now, they have no place to go, so they end up staying and being over-housed because there just aren't choices. This will provide more choices.”

It’s an example of “subtractive urbanism,” he adds. “And by that, I mean simply taking away unhelpful rules. And it's the simplest way to and the most effective way to get things to happen.”

But like other experts, Greenberg too believes that legalizing multiplexes in itself is not enough to solve Toronto’s housing woes.

“It's good in terms of obviously providing more housing -- although the caveat is, it has to be combined with programs that will lead to truly affordable housing in and of itself. It won't solve that problem,” he says.

As for what’s next for multiplexes in Toronto, it remains to be seen. But Greenberg says he’s already getting calls from homeowners wanting to take advantage of the new zoning allowances.

“So it suggests to me, very informally, there's going to be a lot of take up,” he adds. “Before, it was so painful and so expensive and took so long to do an individual rezoning or Committee of Adjustment application. And so this will really clear the way for the people who were not inclined to go through that complicated process, but are now excited about taking advantage of it because it will be relatively simple and easy and fast.”

As for whether the new rules do enough to address Toronto's current and impending housing need -- the consensus seems to be that it’s a mere drop in the bucket, but at the very least, it’s a start.

“The City has so far approved laneway suites, garden suites, rooming houses, and now multiplexes within the last five years. While this demonstrates progress, they are not expected to materially improve the housing situation on their own,” says Beheshti. “Further reforms that touch on higher-density homes like townhouses, mid-rises, and high-rises are planned to come before council in over the next three years. Those changes are the ones that will have a material impact.”