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E-BLAST: Multiplexes & More: Tackling Our Housing Crisis

Toronto's housing crisis has been approaching for years. We've watched our population rise faster than the supply of new homes, rental and ownership alike. The housing gap continues to widen every year, and we have reached a point where we must call it what it is: a crisis. The shortage of housing at almost every point along the housing spectrum has pushed many out of any home at all. This is not only a crisis of housing, it is also a crisis of homelessness.

The graph above shows the total number of new units constructed vs our city's population growth each year. As you can see, the gap is significant.

This morning at Planning and Housing Committee, two items show us both the challenges that stand in the way of alleviating the crisis and some possible solutions: The Housing Now Initiative: 2023 Progress Update and the Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods: Multiplex Study – Final Report. If you are reading this while comfortable in your own housing circumstances, you still need to care about the outcomes of these reports. They impact the ability of our own kids, grandkids, friends, and neighbours to keep living in the city they call home.

Housing Now

First up, there is a detailed progress report on Housing Now. This initiative was introduced right after Mayor Tory was first elected in 2018. Housing Now seeks to utilize surplus city lands to develop mixed-income, mixed-use, and transit-oriented communities. By leveraging public land in partnership with private-sector developers, this initiative is expected to deliver over 12,000 homes, over 4,500 of which would be affordable rental. This initiative really seeks to fill the "missing middle" of our housing spectrum, as middle-income earners in our city have been faced with fewer and fewer housing options, particularly in the rental market.

The Housing Spectrum, which shows the range of housing types any city needs to support its population. Housing Now targets the "missing middle" of the housing spectrum, which includes affordable rental housing.

The challenge with this initiative has been that many of the sites have proven to be complex places to plan and build. This makes sense, as most of the prime real estate in our city has already been parcelled out. As an example, we have a Housing Now site here in Don Valley North: 251 Esther Shiner Boulevard, just east of Ikea. This is currently a City Works Yard, and the plan for this site is to create a mixture of market housing, affordable rental, and long-term care beds. We've run into a number of obstacles at this location, including relocating the Works Yard and figuring out the funding model to support long-term care, affordable housing, and market housing all on the same site.

While City staff were working through these early-identified challenges at Esther Shiner, the Province threw us another set of curve balls with Bills 109 and 23. I've written about these Bills in detail in past E-Blasts, as both have drastically changed our planning landscape. While both of these Provincial bills have sped up the planning process, they have also radically reduced the amount of money our city can collect to pay for the necessary infrastructure upgrades around new developments. This can make entire deals go south for government partners trying to build affordable housing. We must demand that any and all infrastructure issues at a site will be completely committed to by all partners or we are being irresponsible to our city.

At the same time, our private sector partners are facing their own challenges. We are in a new economic era where interest rates can change quickly and the cost of construction can skyrocket well beyond what was budgeted for at the beginning of the planning process. Even if we smooth over every obstacle on our end, the private developer can unable to start construction due to these rising costs.The report presented at Committee today paints a pretty grim picture on our progress on Housing Now projects overall. Like 251 Esther Shiner, over 75% of the Housing Now sites identified in Phase 1 are still marked "Construction Start To Be Determined". The potential to house people is there, but we need our Premier to recognize that our goal is to build complete neighbourhoods with adequate physical and community infrastructure, not just buildings.

Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods (EHON)

Another item at Planning and Housing looks dull, but it’s a game-changer. I've written about it multiple times [1, 2] since the concept was first introduced. It is called EHON: Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods. It's also been referred to as the Multiplex Study.

This initiative opens up options to create more gentle density in our single-family neighbourhoods across the city. It permits up to three or four units of housing to be built on a neighbourhood-zoned single lot (things like duplexes, triplexes, and low-rise apartments). This is not entirely new to the city—it is currently permitted in certain areas—but it is new for us north of the 401. Today, Planning and Housing Committee brought forward the enabling bylaws to make this a reality.

Multiplexes are already common in certain parts of the city. These "fourplexes" are common in the Beaches.

I know many folks in our neighbourhoods are concerned about these changes. I can best explain the benefit of this initiative by sharing the story of one of my own friends who created a multi-unit home over the course of her life here in Toronto.

A long-time friend of mine passed away last year, and we celebrated her life in the beautiful, sprawling house she enjoyed in the Glen Manor enclave of the Beaches for over fifty years. She and her husband bought the large fixer-upper upon the birth of their fifth child, and they did indeed fix 'er up. Over time, things change. My friend became a divorced single mom with five teenagers, and she built a basement apartment to help make ends meet. A carpenter friend made sure the appropriate firewalls and doors passed inspection and legitimized the suite. As the kids grew up and moved out, child support payments dwindled and my friend was not well-pensioned. She created two more suites on the second floor of her house, and my friend Sheila gained enough income to stay on the main floor of the home she loved.

The four-unit house provided two high-end Beaches apartments upstairs, an affordable apartment in the basement, and a home for my friend until she passed on, well into her 80s. These units allowed Sheila to continue to entertain in her lovely living and dining rooms and keep the same neighbours she knew would always have her back. Gentle density allowed her to truly age in place. All the while, it created additional units that allowed other folks to call her beautiful neighbourhood home when they wouldn't have been able to otherwise.

As we introduce multiplexes across Toronto, remember that every applicant will still need to present plans to the city to make any substantial changes to the dwelling. Codes must be respected and inspections will be made. These changes will also be much less drastic than you might be imagining. For example, this semi on Lynch Road right here in Don Valley North houses three homes without any changes to the footprint of the building.

31 Lynch Road. The right side of the semi is one unit, while the left side of the semi contains two units.

These forms of gentle-density housing can blend right into our neighbourhoods, all the while creating a wider range of housing options for young people, newcomers, families, and seniors who want to call Toronto home. It's a step we need to take to tackle our housing crisis and make Toronto liveable for generations to come.


Economic & Community Development Updates

The April meeting of the Economic & Community Development Committee took place this past Tuesday, April 25.

I was honoured to welcome Lillian Allen as Toronto’s newest Poet Laureate. Lillian's work has inspired me for decades, and I know that her empowering poetry and activism will continue to spark dialogue across the city.


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