Toronto’s chief planner is hoping to crack open the city’s long-impermeable “yellowbelt,” adding extra housing supply to neighbourhoods currently dominated by single-family homes.
In a new report headed to a city hall planning and housing committee this week, planning boss Gregg Lintern and his team suggest denser housing supply — duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and, in some cases, walk-up apartments — can fit into lowrise neighbourhoods across the city.
The idea is a marked shift from the current rules, where roughly 70 per cent of Toronto neighbourhoods — the “yellowbelt” — only allow detached and semi-detached houses.
It’s an approach a variety of housing advocates, planners and experts have been calling on the city to take for years, and it’s still at the starting line, with consultations on multiplexes expected to run through 2022, and the final decision in the hands of elected officials.
But of more than 2,100 respondents so far to a city survey on the issue, 88 per cent back multiplexes citywide, and the new report signals support within city hall.
In advance of Thursday’s meeting, the Star spoke with Lintern, who stressed the issue wasn’t about changing the scale of neighbourhoods, but working within the lot and height sizes that already exist in those areas — trying to boost housing, as he put in, “inside the box.”
“People are probably familiar with monster houses … maybe it’s six, seven thousand square feet,” he said. “We think, inside that box, you could have three or four units as an alternative … You would carve it up differently, and actually be able to house a greater diversity of people.”
What could opening all Toronto neighbourhoods to multiplexes mean — for current residents there and those looking for a home?
These neighbourhoods are some of our oldest neighbourhoods, built in the late 1800s. And some of our newer neighbourhoods are now approaching 70 years old, the postwar neighbourhoods.
So, I like to think about, well, what is this place going to be in 2051? Who’s going to be living here? Are we going to be happy when we look around and see what happened? I would like our neighbourhoods to be places that are rich and vibrant, full of life and enjoyed by more people.
What concerns have you heard about boosting density, and do you think they’re valid?
(People) often will ask, are there going to be enough services? Infrastructure, where are people going to park? Parking is always a favourite topic in the city of Toronto. What we’ve seen is, over time, many neighbourhoods have either had their population flatlined, or actually declining. They tend to correlate with neighbourhoods that don’t have permissive zoning.
I think that actually, it’s a good thing to add population where the population is declining, because they can enjoy the services that are already there. They can go to the local shops, they probably have kids that keep the schools open, they can frequent the local parks and keep the transit viable. I do understand that infrastructure is important, but I think we can demonstrate that there is actually room in our neighbourhoods to house much larger families.
How big a role should neighbourhood character play in determining what kind of housing gets built in Toronto?
I like to keep it at a high level. I talk about the scale of the neighbourhood. I get it. I like low scale neighbourhoods, and lots of people do. The challenge is that we get into a lot of detail about character. The overall scale of neighbourhoods, I think, is important too because it gives people housing choice and housing options — to live in a low, a medium or a highrise area.
But what are the details of character that people really, really feel are important, and what areas of character are maybe less important? It does come back to the bigger challenge that we’ve got around climate and inclusion and affordability. Are we going to fuss about a dormer or a peak of a roof, when literally we’ve got people who are so challenged to find housing choice in this city? In my sense, we’ve got a bigger priority to worry about.
How much sway do existing neighbourhood residents currently hold over what kind of homes are built around them, and how much say do you think they should have?
We’ve got a process under the Planning Act that is set up around people being able to participate in the conversation, through committee meetings and through statutory meetings. And, ultimately, council decides. But there are some other important factors here.
The provincial policy statement sets out planning guidelines that do encourage the intensification of neighbourhoods. We are obligated to plan in a way that conforms with provincial policy. The other really important part of this is understanding who is in the conversation.
We’ve been very conscious of the fact that many Torontonians have not participated in the conversation about the future of the city — especially more vulnerable people, whether they feel intimidated about the process or whether they feel that they, for economic or social reasons, have been left out. We’ve been very conscious about bringing an equity lens to how we approach consultation.
How likely do you think it is that Toronto sees these changes?
I’m going to let the people decide. I’m pretty confident in the wisdom of people, if we bring them enough information, if people have a chance to see a balanced debate. Sometimes change comes fast, and sometimes things come slow. I don’t exactly know how this will play out.
I do think it comes back to personal experience for people. They are experiencing really significant challenges in where their kids are going to live, where their families are going to live. I really think people are going to be serious about trying to find solutions for this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.