On Wednesday, the recently established provincial Housing Affordability Task Force released a report highlighting their recommendations designed to address the housing affordability crisis in Ontario.

This report largely reaffirms problems and solutions that many housing advocates have known for a long time by, in particular, overtly addressing NIMBYism and the Missing Middle (gentle-density housing, such as townhomes, to fill the gap between tiny condo units and single-family dwellings). The political will these topics have garnered in recent years is owed to the work of advocates in urban centres across Canada that challenge both governments and residents to shift beyond outdated visions of the suburban dream towards housing that is appropriate for our growing population. 

Read: ‘Absolutely the Right Direction’: Experts Weigh In on Housing Affordability Task Force Proposals

As we begin to eagerly await the province’s next steps, I will reflect on the anticipated implications of cementing these recommendations into official policy by unpacking a few of the Task Force’s more compelling responses to the Missing Middle conversation.

Why Not Densify Beyond Transit Routes?

The tendency to prioritize residential growth along transit routes can come with unintended complications while upholding the exclusionary practices that Missing Middle advocates seek to challenge. We know that increasing residential density near transit -- especially near local transit and GO stations -- holds benefits for improving access to transit, reducing automobile reliance, broadening the housing supply, and promoting greater access to amenities.

However, not all transit routes are created equal or necessarily located in amenity-rich areas. More importantly, there is not a substantial difference in the access provided on main streets compared to the streets a few blocks behind them.

Permitting the densification of transit routes is definitely favorable but may sound more progressive than it is in practice -- recommendations like these continue to reinforce the exclusionary planning ideals that protect interior neighbourhoods by relegating growth elsewhere. One could ask why we insist that residents of multi-unit buildings should tolerate busier, louder main streets while the residents of single-family homes on adjacent streets do not? But ultimately, addressing the housing supply shortage requires that we draw on every available opportunity and easing restrictions in all residential areas, not just those located immediately along transit routes, represents a simple option to improve the supply and diversity of housing in cities.

Prioritizing Gentle Density Over NIMBYs

Removing site plan approval and public consultation requirements for projects of 10 units or less that meet Official Plan guidelines is a creative solution to NIMBYism that may appear to be controversial at first. Community consultation is an important part of the development process, but City councillors are often swayed by the community members with the loudest voices and largest capacities to show up to defend the status quo, leading to outcomes that do not represent the community at large.

This recommendation may come under fire by residents’ associations as undemocratic, but the provision of smaller developments is crucial because they offer great potential to improve the housing supply while providing gentle density that, really, has a small relative impact on how the neighbourhood is experienced. Smaller projects are already difficult due to their low profit margins so the uncertainty of the approvals process, which is often lengthened by contentious public consultations, can be the final hurdle that makes these projects unfeasible. 

Read: Could Major Residential Zoning Changes be Coming to Toronto Neighbourhoods?

The certainty and timeliness achieved through limiting public consultations to larger projects would, perhaps ironically, help create neighbourhoods that reflect the desires of the majority of residents. Additionally, this may even allow smaller players to enter the residential development arena.

Legislated Approval Timelines at Last

I am sure that, like me, many planners were thrilled to read the Task Force’s recommendation that “approvals facilitators” be funded to “quickly resolve conflicts” that regularly prevent the achievement of approval timelines. Similar to the way that public consultation can prolong an approvals process to the point that a Missing Middle development is rendered unfeasible, under-resourced municipal planning bodies can also mean costly delays that essentially prevent the construction of new housing. Overall, if we need to build more housing quickly then implementing measures to speed up the development process would be an obvious win.

Opening the Yellow Belt Through Provincial Standardization

Province-wide zoning standards are recommended as a means of making zoning in cities more permissive of Missing Middle housing typologies, which represents a departure from how zoning tends to function. Neighbourhoods are typically zoned in a way that produces housing with similar form and character throughout a given area, with zoning variances allowing for slight, controlled differences. Province-wide standards have the potential to prioritize growing the housing supply growth over the preservation of neighbourhood character by legislating zoning rules without neighbourhood boundaries, essentially legalizing at least some forms of Missing Middle housing in all residential areas.

The effectiveness of this recommendation would depend on just how permissive the standards end up being. The report recommends establishing standards for building features such as maximum building setbacks, minimum heights, angular planes, shadow rules, building depth, landscaping, and floor space index. We can speculate that, if implemented, the standards would be significantly less restrictive than current Yellow Belt zoning, but the Province must be bold in its legislation if the Missing Middle is to contribute meaningfully to the provincial goal of producing 1.5 million new homes in 10 years.

While this report could be an important step forward, the recommendations must be legislated and implemented by the provincial government if the Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force’s findings are to have any effect at all on the provision of housing in our cities. If enacted, these policies would meaningfully open the Yellow Belt in ways that housing advocates have been demanding for years. Still, NIMBYism and exclusionary planning will inevitably continue to permeate urban environments and surface in new ways. I look forward to (hopefully) celebrating the legislation that follows these recommendations as well as future dialogue as we strive to build increasingly liveable and inclusive cities. 

Urbanity Fair