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Rethinking Urban Growth.

September 26, 2023

By Richard Lyall 

The case for mid-rise housing in Canada.

The way I see it, we have two choices if we’re serious about closing the gap between the number of homes needed and built in Canada.

Communities and cities can either build outward which will result in urban sprawl. Or we can build upward and promote more density by allowing more mid-rise homes to be built in existing neighbourhoods.

Admittedly, high-density developments are not always welcome. But they are a way to put a significant dent in the housing supply and affordability crisis. Mid-rise buildings allow more people to live in less space, make more efficient use of land and transportation and result in less environmental destruction. In my view, there should be no debate about the need to increase density.

The stark and deeply troubling fact is that we face an acute shortage of housing supply and must improve the density of housing in our cities. We need millions more units and must pull out all the stops to make that happen.

Increasing density is not the sole solution but it is a start. Densification of existing neighbourhoods can be accomplished by tearing down older buildings and replacing them with mid-rise residential structures with more units or converting underused properties into housing.

It is distressing that we are still arguing over the merits of densification as any advanced jurisdiction on the planet has embraced it as a way of building the homes we need. Countless other cities around the world have had success building mid-rise housing on a large scale.

Paris, for example, ran into NIMBY obstructionism and from 1975 to 2006 only 14 per cent of new homes in the area were built within the city limits. The rest were in the ring around the city, usually on greenfield sites. But the city broke out and achieved a truly remarkable turnaround.

Barcelona is another example. Today, the Spanish city is one of the tallest and densest cities in the world. The city scape of Copenhagen is also dominated by four- to six-storey buildings.

A recent report called Making Room for Growth examined the prospect of Canadian cities growing inward and upward through densification and how much housing stock is occurring in existing urban areas.

The report, done by Josef Filipowicz and Steve Lafleur, both senior fellows at the Fraser Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian public policy think-tank, found that despite a housing shortage in many cities, 26 per cent of urban neighbourhoods, or one in four, actually lost more dwellings between 2016 and 2021 than were added.

Our urban neighbourhoods had a cumulative net loss of 33,723 dwellings over the study period. The City of Toronto fared especially poorly, reporting a five-year net loss of 7,195 housing units. This highly uneven growth pattern holds across most major metropolitan areas.

The authors noted that Toronto, for example, faces a net loss of housing units partly because gaps are being left by apartments that have been razed or multiple units are being converted into single-family homes.

Alarmingly, what growth is being seen in new housing units across Canadian cities is largely happening in very small pockets. As study co-author Lafleur noted in a press release, to more meaningfully tackle the housing shortage policymakers will have to look at ways to create more housing units of all types across urban areas, not just in certain small pockets.

To its credit, Toronto has started moving in the right direction. Council recently adopted a new policy allowing as-of-right permissions for single-family homes to be converted into duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in all low-rise residential areas. The change will allow more density in low-rise neighbourhoods city-wide while ensuring they largely maintain their built form.

The move could transform up to 70 per cent of Toronto’s yellowbelt areas where only one single or detached family home per lot was permitted. This is certainly a good start. However, the city has a long way to go. In The Danforth area, for instance, the city has limited the height of buildings along much of the street. It is time to seriously rethink that policy and allow as-of-right zoning on arterial corridors such as the Danforth. RESCON has proposed that the city amend its three-storey limit to eight storeys on minor arterials and to 15 storeys on major arterials.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, we need to build 5.8 million housing units between 2022 and 2030 to restore affordability to the housing market. That’s triple the country’s historic home building rate.

The task is huge, and that is why immediate action is necessary. Permitting more housing density in our cities is one way to make inroads. The necessity of higher density should not be up for debate. It is a given.

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