Why it’s so hard to get housing into Toronto’s ‘yellowbelt’ neighbourhoods — and how experts say it can be done

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Why it’s so hard to get housing into Toronto’s ‘yellowbelt’ neighbourhoods — and how experts say it can be done


Ryerson University economist Frank Clayton lives near Oriole Rd. and Lonsdale Ave., a midtown locale with primo transit connections, schools and shops.

It’s the kind of amenity-rich neighbourhood coveted by millennials, who have hit their family years. It’s also one of the relatively few areas of Toronto where detached houses, condos and lowrise apartments rub elbows.

Small apartments and single-family homes dwell in close proximity in older parts of Toronto zoned “R” and shaded brown on the city’s zoning map. The diverse character of those neighbourhoods has not diminished property values, says Ryerson economist Frank Clayton, who is among those arguing that the city’s residential detached and residential semi-detached areas need to encourage “gentle density” that would make the nearby transit and services more accessible and affordable to young families.
Small apartments and single-family homes dwell in close proximity in older parts of Toronto zoned “R” and shaded brown on the city’s zoning map. The diverse character of those neighbourhoods has not diminished property values, says Ryerson economist Frank Clayton, who is among those arguing that the city’s residential detached and residential semi-detached areas need to encourage “gentle density” that would make the nearby transit and services more accessible and affordable to young families.  (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star)

Like other North American cities including Vancouver, Edmonton, Seattle and Portland, Toronto would like to get more population into built-up areas that include more than apartments, Clayton said.

“When we look at these prime neighbourhoods now, they have a mixture of single detached houses and lowrise apartments and they have secondary suites. Those are very attractive neighbourhoods, they’re very well located,” he said. “There’s no stigma attached to them because they have a mix of housing.”

But that mix isn’t available in the “yellowbelt,” the term that refers to the approximately 70 per cent of Toronto’s residential areas, which is zoned for detached and semi-detached housing that sells for $1 million-plus on average.

Now there is a growing chorus of policy-makers, planners, advocates and experts pushing to change that. They say a mix of housing in those stable single-family neighbourhoods would make them more accessible to underhoused middle- and lower-income residents. Duplexes, triplexes and more secondary suites would help populate well-serviced areas where resident numbers are actually declining in the midst of a regionwide population boom.

The Land Planning Appeals Tribunal overturned a city decision to allow five townhouses to be built on the site of two detached homes at the northwest corner of Bayview Ave. and Evergreen Gardens in the Bennington Heights neighbourhood. The tribunal accepted the argument that the new townhouses represented "moderate densification" in keeping with the surrounding commercial properties and other apartments in the area, rather than the detached homes of the neighbourhood's interior.
The Land Planning Appeals Tribunal overturned a city decision to allow five townhouses to be built on the site of two detached homes at the northwest corner of Bayview Ave. and Evergreen Gardens in the Bennington Heights neighbourhood. The tribunal accepted the argument that the new townhouses represented “moderate densification” in keeping with the surrounding commercial properties and other apartments in the area, rather than the detached homes of the neighbourhood’s interior.  (Rene Johnston)

Outspoken urban planner Sean Galbraith is among those leading the call to abolish many of the existing residential zoning restrictions.

He said the opponents to less restrictive residential zoning are change-fearing “neighbourhood character fetishists” who want their streets “shrink wrapped.”

Property owners can tear down an old bungalow to build a monster house on the same lot — a practice that has transformed whole streets in places like North York — or they can sever a lot and build two big houses to replace one relatively small home. What they can’t do in most residential neighbourhoods is tear down one house and build a duplex or triplex.

That doesn’t make any sense, particularly given the region’s housing crisis, said Galbraith, who isn’t alone in bristling at the restrictions.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade has been arguing that nothing less than the region’s economic prosperity depends on fixing the Toronto region’s shortage of housing that is affordable and attainable to young professionals.

“We have a culture of saying no to more homes, whatever the type, whatever the configuration, in most of the city. It’s a culture that’s built into our political and legal structure,” vice-president Brian Kelcey said.

Long Branch Neighbourhood Association chair Christine Mercado’s west-end area is among those where lot severances are most prevalent because they tend to be large enough to accommodate two newer houses.

Some Long Branch streets have become an architectural jumble. Little postwar bungalows cower beside imposing modern structures. Two houses built on what used to be a single lot reside with barely a paper’s width between them. A smattering of lawn signs read: “Stop the lot splitting. Preserve the character of Long Branch.”

Read more:

Gripe over ‘too-tall building’ highlights city’s need to spread density into the yellowbelt, planners say

‘Idiotic’ Toronto policy stymies mayor’s affordable housing plan

The GTA’s population is booming — but not necessarily in the right places

Severing the old lots and replacing the original homes threatens the character and trees in Long Branch and it doesn’t create more affordable homes, Mercado said. Where the older homes have been replaced by bigger houses, or the lots have been split to build two homes instead of one, the new structures tend to be just as expensive, if not more costly than the originals.

Besides, she said, there are lots of apartments in Long Branch. They’re being built along the main roads and around transit stations that are zoned for them.

“The (zoning) bylaws are not just property rights that are extended to the (property) owner. But the bylaws should be there to protect the neighbours as well. When I buy my house I should be fairly confident that when my neighbour decides to develop his property next door it’s not going to be overpowering, it’s not going to be overlooking my property, it’s not going to be wrecking the trees that I have. Those types of things,” she said.

“There should be some sort of stability that is afforded me. That’s the thing that sort of rubs people the wrong way. The bylaws have not changed and the city policies are there like tree protection, the environmental policies are the same, the official plan is pretty clear as far as we’re concerned. So why is this happening,” she said.

The owners of 99 Twenty Seventh St. in Long Branch are proposing to sever the lot to build two homes on the site. Toronto's Committee of Adjustment sided with neighbours, who complained about the size of the proposed new homes, the intrusion on the character of the neighbourhood and the threat to their privacy. The case is being appealed at the Toronto Local Appeal Body with a hearing scheduled in April, according to the TLAB website.
The owners of 99 Twenty Seventh St. in Long Branch are proposing to sever the lot to build two homes on the site. Toronto’s Committee of Adjustment sided with neighbours, who complained about the size of the proposed new homes, the intrusion on the character of the neighbourhood and the threat to their privacy. The case is being appealed at the Toronto Local Appeal Body with a hearing scheduled in April, according to the TLAB website.  (Rene Johnston)

Lot severances are one way the city is allowing gradual density into the yellowbelt, said Toronto zoning director Michael Mizzi, who is in charge of the Committee of Adjustment. There are between 400 and 500 variance applications before the committee each year. About 90 per cent are approved and even those that go on to an appeal are often successful because the process gives the developer or resident ideas about how to overcome neighbourhood objections so they frequently win on appeal, he said.

Mizzi estimates that Toronto has actually added 4,000 new lots over a decade.

“Essentially you’re turning a relatively small house on a relatively big lot into two relatively big houses on two relatively small lots,” he said. The large lot sizes are the reason that areas like Long Branch see so many applications for minor variances. The overriding consideration for any zoning variance, Mizzi said, is whether or not it conforms to the prevailing character of the neighbourhood.

But he acknowledged, “It’s stressed those neighbourhoods out a bit because you have some people that are open and adapting to that intensification and change, and those who feel the character of their neighbourhood is changing not for the better.”

How we got here:

You only have to look at the city’s zoning map to understand the term “yellowbelt.” Areas zoned residential detached and semi-detached are yellow on the map. They dwarf the older parts of Toronto, including Clayton’s neighbourhood, that are shaded brown and zoned simply “residential.” There are a few spots of orange for residential townhouse and residential multiple (apartment) zoning — a vivid illustration of how little “missing middle” housing (the term for denser, low- to midrise homes) there is.

The map reflects how the city developed, Mizzi said. The yellow areas developed in a period when car ownership boomed, highways expanded and land was plentiful.

“When you fast-forward, we’re in a very different kind of city environment where mixed uses predominate, where affordability has changed, where there’s a great deal more congestion, where the pluses and minuses of suburban development have clearly shown themselves. There’s good things and there’s bad — you’re absorbing a lot of land and commute times have lengthened,” he said.

Galbraith said the city’s zoning policies are the outcome of blockbusting of the 1960s and 1970s, when developers would buy up houses and replace them with apartment buildings. That is why neighbourhoods like the Annex and Parkdale have big, old houses nudging apartment buildings.

“We wouldn’t do it like that again but it’s not bad that it happened. The pendulum was maybe too permissive before,” he said. “But it’s way too restrictive now when you can’t build a triplex in downtown Toronto.”

Breaking open the yellowbelt

From the critics to the City Hall stalwarts, nobody believes there is a single solution to opening up the yellow belt. Here are some proposed solutions to getting more people into well-served neighbourhoods.

Zoning

If Galbraith had his way, Toronto would have only two residential zoning designations — the R (residential) zone and the RA (residential apartment) zone.

“That’s all we need. We don’t need a detached zone, we don’t need a semi-detached zone, we don’t need a townhouse zone, we don’t need a triplex zone.

“We just need the R zone so you can let neighbourhoods evolve and let people be creative in how they build up a house like they used to allow and we still allow in old city of Toronto,” Galbraith said.

Kelcey agreed that Toronto needs “sweeping rezoning strategies.” He called them “big slice” solutions.

“Where cities are experiencing big success, predominantly in the U.S., occasionally in Canada, is with changes to broad classifications across a city rather than saying we’re going to do rezoning in this particular neighbourhood or kind of neighbourhood.”

He cited Vancouver, which is looking at the elimination of single-family zoning; Minneapolis which plans to up-zone single-family neighbourhoods to allow duplexes and triplexes and Portland, where up to four units could replace a single-family home. San Diego has eliminated parking minimums.

But Long Branch resident Mercado doesn’t believe that owners should be able to sever lots in single-family neighbourhoods like hers.

“In the residential detached neighbourhoods, I don’t think there should be severing lots because, in all honesty, it changes the character of the neighbourhood,” Mercado said. “We have access to the waterfront and we have a bit of tree canopy that makes the community very walkable. If you start chopping down the trees and intensifying the lots and breaking down the pace of the neighbourhood it makes it a less attractive neighbourhood to be in.”

Laneways and secondary suites

A report recommending measures to encourage more secondary suites comes to the Planning and Housing Committee on Wednesday.

Like last year’s new laneway housing rules, these recommendations are the kind of changes that keep the city’s zoning dynamic, Mizzi said.

“Opportunities to facilitate more forms of housing and to address the full spectrum are constantly being reviewed and built into the zoning regime on an ongoing basis,” he said. “It’s not like it’s a static document and stopped and then 10 years later we change it and do all of these good things. It’s constantly happening.”

The proposal would allow secondary suites to be built into new homes and townhomes, they would reduce the parking requirements and allow street-facing separate entrances. They also remove a minimum size requirement for a secondary suite as long as it complies with the Ontario Building Code.

Given the number of homes being rebuilt, the new rules offer density expansion potential, Mizzi said.

“If you were in middle Etobicoke today and your little bungalow was coming down and you wanted to build a new house, with this new zoning why wouldn’t you take advantage of new zoning and build in a secondary suite with a separate entrance,” he said.

Data

From bike lanes to anti-violence strategies, Toronto likes its pilot projects that test policy before they are rolled out more broadly. Why not test less restrictive zoning in the same way, suggested Clayton. He thinks property owners oppose denser housing in their neighbourhoods because they fear it will negatively impact their property values.

However, he said, “I would argue if you rezoned a block of single detached houses, for lowrise apartments, the price of those houses would go up because that land becomes more valuable. The owners actually would benefit from a price perspective.”

If you put an apartment building on a residential street, it might impact the value of its immediate neighbours, Clayton said, but he posits the other homes likely wouldn’t be affected.

Real data though is scarce, he said.

“Maybe what’s required is some studies, some education — getting some facts,” Clayton said. If residents are concerned about parking, people using the parks and the schools, “let’s have some studies of the places where they’ve actually got some of these situations and see what the impact on prices is.”

Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski

This is part of an occasional series on density in the Toronto. Up next, we look at naming laneways and the homes that will be build in them.





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