Take $10 Off Your Next Event!
Join ULI by July 31 and save $10 on your next event.
A few hours after the Toronto Raptors held its historic NBA championship parade on Monday, June 17th, 2019, city-building enthusiasts gathered at the Isabel Bader Theatre to support the book launch of House Divided, a thought provoking collection of essays published by Coach House Books. Described as a transformational roadmap for housing in a city like Toronto, this anthology examines the perspectives of developers, planners, and residents and how housing can be created to keep pace with a city’s growth.
As Toronto faces ongoing affordability issues, House Divided also dissects the single-family “Yellowbelt” and suggests that the “missing middle” could help create a more affordable and inclusive Toronto. To convey some of the ideas offered within the book, ULI Toronto hosted a thought-provoking panel discussion with presentations featuring co-editors John Lorinc, Author & Journalist and Cheryll Case, Principal, CP Planning. Lorinc articulated that the book explores how the Yellowbelt, which was formed decades ago, has resulted in approximately 5% of Toronto’s developable land being readily available for residential intensification.
The panelists included Cherise Burda, Executive Director of Ryerson City Building Institute (also a contributor of House Divided); Geoff Kettel, Co-Chair of the Federation of North Toronto Residents’ Associations; Leona Savoie, Senior Vice President – Development at Hullmark Developments; and Alex Bozikovic, Architecture Critic from the Globe and Mail (co-editor of House Divided).
Is the answer to just increase supply?
While recent media publications have expressed support for increasing housing supply as a solution to housing affordability, Burda declared that the underlying issue was not from an imbalance of demand and supply, but due to the financialization of real estate as a global commodity which has increased prices and increased speculation. “Ninety-four percent of condos are sold before a shovel hits the ground and 50% of those are sold to investors,” she stated as an example of how commoditization of real estate was being exhibited in Toronto. From a developer’s standpoint, Savoie indicated that people are not paying enough attention to income levels. Accompanying this argument, Bozikovic discussed how rental rates are at historic highs, which are not aligned with population growth. Increasing supply is not necessarily the answer as the housing already exists, he said. The solution may be more related to the intensification of existing neighbourhoods or perhaps, the consideration of self-contained second units into existing homes (such as basement apartments, accessory apartments, in-law suites, or nanny suites), which should then be reflected in how easy it would be to provide housing in those formats. Kettel, representing residents’ points of view, supported the human right of housing and argued that the demand has outweighed supply, inherently increasing speculative issues.
How do we build the Missing Middle?
The panelists discussed the option of building for the “missing middle.” The missing middle is generally used to describe clustered housing formats that exist between single-detached houses and high-rise buildings. In Toronto, the missing middle is often describing low to mid-rise apartment buildings but other housing formats within the missing middle definition include laneway housing, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, rowhouses, and townhouses. These housing formats should promote walkability and accessibility, endorsing community building. Offering full support for the missing middle, Burda claimed that housing will continue to get more expensive if these missing middle formats are not built. She provided an example of Vancouver’s efforts in leveraging public land for long-term leasing. The perpetual revenue from these land leases are then reinvested into affordable housing options. Burda discussed other examples in Denver, Montreal, and in the UK where there are examples of mixed-use/mixed-income options. Burda discussed how modular construction could hold the key to certain housing affordability issues. With modular construction, the house is built off-site and can be assembled on-site within a matter of days. Burda suggested that by offering the flexibility and minimizing the time-consuming and unattractive process of construction, modular construction could be accepted in the Yellowbelt (i.e. single-family zoned neighbourhoods).
Lorinc introduced Vienna as an example that was discussed in the book. Addressing the fact that Vienna’s example required a higher public subsidiary and increased government involvement, Kettel suggested the implementation of other tenure arrangements. Calling out programs like Stay at Home in Leaside, a condo-type building targeting seniors wishing to stay in their neighbourhood of Leaside, Kettel argued that there are limited projects now that are related to co-operative housing or life leases that could potentially offer feasible options for residents.
Further exploring development options, Lorinc asked Savoie to provide a perspective on development forms in other cities and how Toronto can learn from those past examples. While Montreal’s three-storey walk-ups are popular examples, the city has one of the lowest homeownership rates in the country, widespread rent control, and zoning that allowed for low-rise apartments. While there are a multitude of success stories, these projects need to provide enough incentives for developers to assess the viability. Savoie mentioned that developers are often fee driven and there are few developers that could make the project financially feasible.
Lorinc introduced Minneapolis and how the city became the first major U.S. city to abolish single-family zoning. Bozikovic commented on how the reform was largely a progressive issue addressing how single-family zoning was historically viewed as a form of racial segregation or income/class segregation within Minneapolis. As a result, the eradication of single-family zoning was mainly a political move, though Bozikovic also acknowledged that single-family zoning does not necessarily make sense anymore. “To change the political conversation, we have to change the way of growth,” Bozikovic claimed.
With much development that gets proposed in Toronto, there are often instantiations of the “NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard) mentality. Lorinc suggested that it is frequently from an underlying anticipation of a negative event happening. In addressing how neighbourhood character should be maintained and considered, Kettel noted that the City often reviews development proposals individually without looking at the overarching impact as to what impact it would have, as a whole, to the community. He claimed that Davisville had about 9 existing applications for high-rise towers and thus warned that existing residents would assess the cumulative impact in the form of increased traffic, water usage, and public transportation, to name a few.
Savoie suggested that developers must continue working closely with the community to ensure interests are aligned. Recognizing that the planning regime can sometimes be a grey area, Savoie recommended that partnerships must be formed in educating the public. Bozikovic agreed that communication was crucial in making a case for growth. He requested that planners be more defensive and impactful in statements that speak to social and economic impacts and the anticipated consequences of associated growth in a community. Without a targeted level of population that a new tower can bring, there may not be sufficient support for amenities like local retail shops to survive. Burda also provided her perspective in putting more emphasis on “ground zero” (ground level retail/amenities). Oftentimes, the neighbourhood will refute a new development before truly understanding the social, community, or economic benefits of the development. There is still a large focus from residents on traffic, parking, and height density.
The panelists also debated the practicality of providing mid-range rental housing. Savoie, speaking on behalf of a developer, stated that oftentimes, the financial feasibility of developing mid-range rental apartments does not necessarily work in favour of mid-rise housing. Construction costs are generally more expensive (on a per square foot basis) for mid-rise than for high-rise development. However, Savoie recommended that deferrals of development charges may help incentivize for more mid-rise development. Burda and Bozkovic brought up the idea of “monster homes” — large homes that could be used for making triplex units. Currently, homeowners have to pay significant development charges for conversion and thus likely limiting the viability of the project.
While the panelists may have held some differing views for potential solutions, all seemed to agree that while one solution may not address all housing affordability related issues, there is an increasing social and economic divergence that must be addressed through targeted planning and development transformation as well as public education. The panel discussion was the perfect introduction to how House Divided is helping us rethink the roadmap to the missing middle.