Zoning regulations in North America, while aimed at promoting orderly development and protecting communities, have had unintended consequences that contribute to the high cost of housing. Single-family home zones create class divides, minimum lot sizes cause inefficient servicing, building height restrictions limit vertical growth and drive costs higher, and parking requirements discourage transit. As the zoning approval process gets more complex, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) supporters try to politically sway a suburb’s housing fabric. This makes building higher-density housing more difficult, and building any housing at all, more expensive.
Recently, Toronto adopted the new Multiplex bylaw. In essence, it alters some of the most restrictive rules that used to govern the 70-plus-year-old stable neighbourhood plan that for the most part, consisted of single-family homes. The new rules are fashioned from the old permissions outlined in Toronto’s first bylaw from the 1920’s. Duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes are now a permitted use, as-of-right. When paired with previously approved laneway or garden suites, virtually all lots in Toronto can now contain up to five independent residential units.
What does this mean for Toronto and possibly Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, all of whom are reviewing their own exclusionary zoning policies? We spoke with Toronto planner, Sean Galbraith, from Galbraith & Associates, to discuss the bylaw.
RENO+DECOR (R+D): What is the best part of Toronto’s Multiplex initiative and what, in your opinion, did they miss (if anything)?
Sean Galbraith (SG): The best part is that it is actually achievable as-of-right. The city really wanted to make zoning that would result in units being built as easily as possible, and this does that for the most part. The limitation of only four units [in the primary building] is the only item I feel they missed on. Allowing up to six would be better!
(R+D): Toronto’s Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods (EHON) initiative has been working through a drip campaign of laneways, garden suites and multiplexes. What else is pending?
SG: Major streets policies are expected to roll out in the fall. There is a workplan for EHON for other stuff to come, including major transit station areas and local retail and services, as well as financing and pre-approved design options. The Beaches pilot project is profiling four- and six-storey apartment options for corner lots, too.
(R+D): If you were the mayor of Toronto, what policy change would you drive with strong mayor powers?
SG: I wouldn’t use strong mayor powers unless the traditional council route failed. It is an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass thing.
(R+D): With 26 new municipalities recently getting strong mayor powers, do you see these multiplex initiatives expanding throughout the GTA?
SG: Nope. The suburbs are NIMBY. This is a city thing.
(R+D): Do you see the municipal approval process, NIMBY-ism, construction costs or too few citizen developers as some of the barriers to these getting built?
SG: Yes, all of the above.
(R+D): Is there anything in North America or even internationally that would be a good thing for Toronto to implement for housing policy permissions?
SC: Toronto is a North American leader in this now. Edmonton and Vancouver did some good stuff, too, as did Minneapolis, but I don’t think any place has exceeded Toronto… yet.
The last word
Multiplex housing is a lowrise alternative to the highrise condo. There are barriers to getting these projects built, but for several reasons, multiplex housing is the right fit. These options provide solutions for aging in place, launch pads for students, first-time-buyer mortgage offset, multi-generational living, investment by way of rental housing, co-operative living, condominiumization and generally fills other basic shelter needs that every major city is grappling with. Change will likely happen slowly, as the barriers are still plentiful. Not everyone will want to leave their current single-family arrangement, and in fact, most won’t. But in time, as life cycles change, so too will the fabric of these streets, replacing those older inefficient singles with much denser multiplexes, providing housing solutions to more and more citizens.
When planning your own multiplex housing solution, connect with professionals to help guide your path to avoid costly pitfalls. Getting from an idea to move-in can be a daunting path, as there are a number of unique intricacies to consider and plan for.