Globe & Mail: The secret to lower housing prices? It’s all in the zoning

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July 13th, 2019



Globe and Mail editorial has a viewpoint on both the character and built form of a community that sheds some light on what Burlington faces. Several words have been set in bold by the Gazette.

g&m LOGOThe defining feature of North American cities is the single-family detached home. It is the least efficient way to house people, yet municipal zoning laws have historically served to ensure its primacy.

It’s time for change – and urgently so. The cost of housing in Vancouver and Toronto is stratospheric, and even in more affordable cities like Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal, it is way more expensive than a generation ago.

Expensive housing hinders economic growth. Cities are the engines of the economy but are increasingly inaccessible, and the financial challenge of moving to Canada’s biggest cities, to study or to pursue a career, is daunting.

The high cost of housing also leaves a generation of young Canadians facing the prospect of a lifetime of renting, never able to build equity, or shouldering a worrisome amount of mortgage debt that will take decades to pay off.

There are many factors at play – British Columbia has done much to address the issue of foreign speculators – but the core problem is the allocation of land. Our zoning is forcing cities to expand endlessly outward, by preventing them from building up.

Alton Village is not a cheap place to live - it is also sassy and brassy - these people worked hard to be able to live in this community and they are going to make the city a different place.

Alton Village

The bulk of municipal land zoned for housing – at least two-thirds of it in many cities – is reserved for detached homes, while multiunit housing is restricted to small designated areas, generally in the city core but often far beyond or on abandoned industrial lands. That leaves the supply of housing artificially limited, particularly in areas near transit lines and city centres.

Meanwhile, owners of detached homes, who have the ear of elected officials, argue the so-called character of their neighbourhoods must not be disturbed. The long-standing status quo serves them well, effectively enriching them through government policy.

But the argument about character is a smokescreen. Where there is a neighbourhood of single-family homes, there was once a forest or a field. No one mourns the lost character of what had been there before. Character is wielded as a weapon against change. As Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic put it in June, “’Character’ means exclusion.”

There is an answer. It’s called the missing middle: small-scale, multiunit housing, from duplexes and triplexes to mid-rise apartment buildings. The missing middle is not a fix-all, but it is an essential step forward.

Minneapolis is a beacon of possible change. Last December, city council passed a plan that ended the dominion of single-family zoning. It is regarded as the first of its kind in the United States, but it’s hardly radical. Where a single house was previously permitted, a building with three units, a triplex, is now allowed. The rallying cry has been “Neighbors for More Neighbors.”

Oregon was the next to move. State legislators in late June passed a bill that will remake single-family zoning to allow fourplexes in cities of more than 25,000 people, and throughout the Portland region.

In Canada, the prospect of change is depressingly dim. In the City of Vancouver, a one-year trial allows applications for duplexes in single-detached zones. This is in a region where the typical house costs $1.4-million and median annual household income is $73,000. Meanwhile, city council is ponderously debating whether to get work started on a new citywide plan that will take three years to complete.

This is the opposite of urgency.

In Toronto, the story isn’t much better. The province in June approved new rules for downtown and midtown Toronto, after reworking plans the city had submitted, but the geographic reach of change is limited. There is no serious talk of rezoning what’s dubbed the “yellow belt” – the 70 per cent of available land limited to single-family homes.

The moves in Minneapolis and Oregon are interesting, but modest compared with what is needed in Vancouver and Toronto. Small apartment buildings – of three, four or five storeys – would go a long way. Then there are important questions about low-income housing and rental housing. And there’s the issue of how cities should benefit from increases in land values sparked by zoning changes.

But first we need some political will. There are 10 million Canadians between the ages of 20 to 40, the time of life when people make a first foray into home ownership. Canada’s zoning rules are antiquated. They should be rewritten to serve the present, not the past.

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15 comments to Globe & Mail: The secret to lower housing prices? It’s all in the zoning

  • david barker

    @James, I very much try not to name call or demean others, but to stick to an adult discourse. I do not understand what part it parts of my response to you could be found to be condescending or be thought of as name calling. My apologies for offending you. I would ask you to consider the tone of the last paragraph of your post which seems to show a lack of understanding of how do many Ontarians struggle to make ends meet and their only options are poor options. Perhaps you can think on that.

  • david barker

    @James. I appreciate your comments and perspective. I think though you might further consider:-

    “In many cases the answer is yes, whether by choice or necessity.”. The question I put was do people WANT to live in multi-unit housing. “Necessity” is rarely a factor in a “want”. I believe most live in high rises through necessity.

    “Many young people have no desire for yards or cars”. Where do you get your evidence for this position. If you are right, I guess the developers building sub-divisions of single family homes are finding them difficult to sell.

    “Developers design and build what the market wants.” Again you confuse “want” with “necessity”. Yes, there is a huge market for high rise condos, but a very large portion of which are bought by investors and then rented out. Those renting likely would prefer to own but cannot afford the condo price.

    “The whole concept of affordable housing is a bit misleading in my opinion.”. Yes, I appreciate what you’re saying. The phrase “affordable housing” is generally used in two distinctly different applications. The first and most common is as a synonym for low rental cost assisted housing, i.e. housing aimed at those at the foot of the economic ladder. Thus is a type of housing that brings out the nimbysm in many out of fear this type of housing will have a negative impact on the value of locally owned homes. Others use “affordable housing” as a tag for homes within the economic range of first time home buyers. These high rise and single family homes are usually found outside of city centres.

    “Everyone is responsible to evaluate their own personal financial situation and determine where they can afford to live, even if that means somewhere other than the GTA. Just because I want a Ferrari doesn’t mean I get to have one. I can afford a car, I just can’t afford a Ferrari, so perhaps rather than complaining about it I should take it upon myself to look at other options instead of trying to force Ferrari to make a less expensive car. Housing is no different.” WOW !! OK it may be more affordable fir someone to live in say Sudbury that in Toronto, but if employment opportunities for a particular career path are only in the GTA, Sudbury us not an option. Here in Burlington we have a large minimum wage population that commutes to their job in our city from the likes of Stoney Creek, Grimsby and even St Catharines. They commute because they cannot afford Burlington prices. But then they have to pay for gas and car maintenance for the privilege of a minimum wage position. They do this out if necessity not want. Rents in Burlington’s condo towers now rival rents charged in Toronto.

    You’re right. If government gets involved in providing low cost rental housing, then it will have to be paid via higher taxes. Isn’t that what Canada is all about. A caring (yes, socialist) country that takes care of those that need help. Those that can afford it support others through government programs via the taxes they pay.

    “start making smarter decisions, because there are always options.” AGAIN WOW ! That’s a comment from someone out of touch with reality. Ever heard of “catch 22”? Well it often exists for those at the foot of the economic spectrum ladder. Yes, there may be options, but no good options. It’s you’re screwed if you do or you’re screwed if you don’t. James, making that kind of comment takes away any credibility your arguments may have had because it shows your lack of understanding of the challenges facing the young and the disadvantaged.

    • James

      Couldn’t disagree more, but I’ll leave it at that. It’s unfortunate that those with opposing opinions can’t comment on this forum or have a respectful exchange of ideas without being attacked with condescension and name calling.

      Editors note:
      James was responding to Barker. We have added this comment for Barker: “If I get one more response like this on your comments you will not be permitted to comment going forward.

  • david barker

    @Alfred. If it was as profitable for a developer to build semi-detached houses as are both high rise condos and single family homes, one would have thought there would have been a line up of developers hounding City Hall and going to the OMB/LPAT to get their way as they have done for the other forms of property development. In Burlington we have though seen numerous townhouse type developments; but again these are usually outside the reach of first time house buyers.

  • Alfred

    Tom and David. I am not talking about any other area other than the Low- density area in this comment. Not High-density not Med-density. You keep bringing up the fact of ROI. on investment. The small builders do not have the funds to build anything other than Semi’s or Singles. You cannot build a highrise in a stable residential neighborhood (Low- density). Only a handful of semis have been built in Burlington over the past 10 years. Because the City intentionally did not provide a zoning by-law for these forms of housing even though the Burlington Official Plan clearly states they shall be permitted. According to the Planning act these zoning by-law must be created upon the Passing of a new Official Plan. Yes the one dated 2008 11 years ago. Why someone wasn’t fired over this proves how broken some aspects of our planning system really is. Ask yourself why a product in very high demand is not being built in Burlington. Over regulation prohibitive cost and time wasting process required to bring Semi’s to market. This nonsense does not exist in the other 450 Ontario Municipalities. Hallmarks of your anti-development Mayor.

    • Tom Muir

      Alfred, I just gave you an answer – Clearview is low density. Someone bought the property and applied for 6 storeys with some great expectations from the former Councilor and Council actions, and based on previous approvals like 35 Plains Rd E.

      Based on these expectations, your small guys are just unable to compete as the speculation puts prices out of reach.

      And even with a refusal recommendation, staff still said they favored intensification of the site despite Council direction to retain the site in low density. So what’s going on here and what about the land price impacts? Do you know?

      One final point. The existing OP had to have Provincial approval to be in force, and this would cover the zoning bylaws you say are missing.

      In any case, since 2008 the province has made a lot of policies that mandate intensification – more height and density – and this is the main in play thing that is doing this stuff.

      I have no idea how you can blame the Mayor, as she was really the only one who voted against what was putting you out of business as a small builder, if that in fact is what you are or represent. It’s the big developments she opposed and that’s what’s pricing you out.

      I challenge you to prove that all the other municipalities in the province have no such issues as you claim only exist in Burlington, if in fact they exist at all and are just another figment of the hyperbolic fallacious style you don’t seem to be able to resist and control.

  • david barker

    @Alfred. I believe we do understand this “complicated” matter. Though I do not understand why you need to employ a condescending tone. Not needed. In my opinion it all comes down to money and more specifically ROI. Developing low rise “affordable” housing is so much less attractive to developers than high rise condos or single family homes. There is so much more money/profit in condos and single family dwellings. All the development in Burlington is aimed at the market where the purchase price is $500,000 and higher. Developers are not even listening to our Council which is seeking affordable housing to be integrated into their high rise towers. Developers and condo owners do not want that for dear it will depress their property values. Provincial government should take on the responsibility to fund and manage “affordable rental housing” across the province.

  • Stephen White

    There are two aspects of this editorial that make absolutely no sense and that are ignored by the authors. The first is an environmental concern. Shoe-horning 12-15 million people into a land space that extends from Oshawa to Hamilton places inordinate stress on the natural habitat. There is a finite amount of land on which to build homes. We have seen the damage created by flooding, and we experience first-hand the negative externalities associated with traffic congestion, pollution, etc. Compounding the problem by building duplexes and triplexes in the backyards of single unit family dwellings won’t help the problem, and will only exacerbate overcrowding.

    Second, there are dozens of communities across this country that are dying and are becoming virtual ghost towns. Residents are aging. Industries close. Young people want to stay but there are no jobs so they move away. Amenities and services are lacking.

    Why not encourage the movement of young people to these smaller established communities? Why not invest in local regional development outside the GTA? Technological innovations now permit people to live in communities far distant from their actual place of work. Why not invest in high speed rail transit to permit people to commute quickly in an affordable, environmentally sound method to work, assuming they actually need to? They do it in Europe, so why not here?

    Finally, if you want to know why Toronto has a housing crisis try looking at the number of properties that have been taken off the rental market and converted into Air BNBs. Also, the federal government recently instituted an investigation into money laundering in the housing market in Vancouver. It is an estimated $5.3 billion problem, and is thought to be a major contributing factor behind escalating housing costs in B.C. Let’s not be so naive as to think the problem doesn’t exist in Ontario too.

  • Alfred

    Gentlemen. You appear slightly confused. I understand this is complicated business. No one is suggesting that areas deemed low density can or should be rezoned high density. Show me one example in Burlington where this has happened? You should be careful telling stories that are not true. This article talks about low density areas being opened up to mild forms of development. Semi-detached Duplexes and some others. While this article speaks in general terms. The Low density areas in Burlingtons Official Plan permit as follows. Singles and Semi-detached homes as well as other forms of ground oriented developments according to the 2008 Burlington Official plan. Last year in this City we built 0 Semi detached homes in Burlington. Why? I would encourage you to ask the Mayor that question if you don’t get an answer ask the Director of Planning. Failing which contact the head of Zoning. Or when all else fails contact the City Manager. When an Official Plan passes it is the obligation of council and City staff to create zoning laws which sets the rules for what can be built on a certain property. The City and its councilors are obliged to do this, it is mandated by Provincial law. Clearly this gives clarity to the Neighbors and developers as to what can be built there. It is now 2019 and the City has deliberately and negligently failed to meet their obligations for 11 years to creating proper and inclusive zoning in the Low-density areas. This was done deliberately so that the application process in place now would take over $100,000 in costs and over 2 years to process for 2 Semis. A developer looking at this business plan Burlington has established and says no thanks, as it only takes $5,000 and 3 months every where else. Our Mayor claims she is trying to cut costs and bring homes to market faster. Every day that passes and this zoning issue is not addressed, the negligence is on the Mayors watch and her responsibility to correct. She is in a tight spot, nimby’s on one side and doing the right thing on the other. Little tough finding words to justify being one of the few Cities that does not have a zoning by-law for Semis in the Low density areas Approx. 85%of our City. Even tougher turning nimby’s into yimby’s. We have been pursuing this matter for a long time now and have contacted the Mayors office on numerous occasions. She appears to hiding and stalling on this issue. You will see this negligence brought forward and addressed at a upcoming council meeting. She can’t run from there. I would also encourage the gazette to pursue the issue as to why after 11 years someone has not done their job passing required By-laws which by law they are required to do. Some thing don’t smell right. Democracy quickly turns to Tyranny, when the rulers ignore the rules that govern them.

    • Tom Muir

      It may be that no one applied to build a semi. I have seen triplex and four-plex downtown, and maybe n-plex or rows recently. Focusing on one year is too short a time frame.

      But remember, last year was a year of speculative and inflationary expectations prompted by the previous Council, and their adopted OP, where the message to developers was pretty much anything goes. You can see it Downtown as approved, and elsewhere too, applied for.

      Why apply to build semis on a suitable sized lot with an OP that permits it alongside singles, when the Councilor encourages an ask for 6 storeys, or 8, or more, at 10 times permitted density and with all kinds of zoning variances that are needed for the build applied for?

      This happened openly in Ward 1 last year and for several years before (Clearview, 92 Plains Rd., 35 Plains Rd., 484 – 490 Plains Rd.- Bingo Parlor, 57 Plains Rd- Solid Gold). Political support in Ward 1 continues for this kind of building application asking for more.

      This is where the OP and zoning bylaws, which we have the requisite number of, go down the drain caused by aggressive developers always asking for amendments to OP and Zoning permissions that go way beyond permitted but are what the developer wants and thinks he can get from the messages received. Say “intensification” and it’s a magic wand – presto, change-o.

      This is the reality of my experience and there is more.

      But from your comment record for a while here, you seem to know it all Alfred, so I won’t bore you further.

  • Steve

    Here’s an idea put an imaginary line around greater GTA where no building is allowed. That will ensure all land inside the barrier will increase, making sure only shoe-box sized high rise condos become the norm.

  • david barker

    The Globe & Mail editorial does not address:-

    – Do people really want to live in multi-unit housing, where not only do you share space but also smells and sounds,
    – There is less privacy
    – A desire of people to own their own castle.
    – Developers likely do not get the best possible ROI as compared to single family homes or high rise condos

    The best suited developer for “affordable housing” is government. Why? Because government does not need to worry about ROI and other commercial concerns in the same way as as does the private sector.

    • James

      My 2 cents:

      “Do people really want to live in multi-unit housing?” In many cases the answer is yes, whether by choice or necessity. This has always been a valid market sector and in fact more and more people are pursuing multi-unit housing options as they are considerably more affordable than detached homes and are essentially the only housing product that can still be built in Burlington in any meaningful volume.

      “There is less privacy.” As with all things one must weigh the pros and cons, and everybody’s different when it comes to their individual preferences towards privacy.

      “A desire of people to own their own castle.” Times have changed, castles have gotten smaller, what was thought to be desirable 40 years ago isn’t necessarily desirable today. Many young people have no desire for yards or cars anymore, as strange as we may find that concept to be.

      “Developers likely do not get the best possible ROI…” ROI is of course one factor, but so is market demand. Developers design and build what the market wants. Most highrise buildings don’t start construction until they are 90% sold out for financing reasons, meaning if nobody is out there buying these units, the developers can’t build them. The fact that these buildings are popping up everywhere and are getting built demonstrates that there is a demand for this type of product and they are desirable, regardless how residents who already live in the area may feel about it.

      “The best suited developer for “affordable housing” is government.” The whole concept of affordable housing is a bit misleading in my opinion. What’s affordable to one person may not be affordable to the next, so who is this even geared towards? Developers are not going to willingly build projects at a loss, and neither is the government (or if they do it will be you and I paying more in taxes to make up the difference). Time to face reality, the GTA isn’t affordable to many people anymore and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Canada is a big country with plenty of cities, towns and communities that can readily accommodate additional population where housing prices are a fraction of what they are in the GTA. Too much emphasis has been placed on the GTA over the past 15-20 years to accommodate all of the growth for Ontario. It’s not the government’s job to solve everybody’s problems. Everyone is responsible to evaluate their own personal financial situation and determine where they can afford to live, even if that means somewhere other than the GTA. Just because I want a Ferrari doesn’t mean I get to have one. I can afford a car, I just can’t afford a Ferrari, so perhaps rather than complaining about it I should take it upon myself to look at other options instead of trying to force Ferrari to make a less expensive car. Housing is no different. $200K in your pocket in Toronto means you’re homeless. $200K in your pocket far enough outside of the GTA will buy you a 2500 square foot home with a large yard. It’s time for people to drop the false sense of entitlement and start making smarter decisions, because there are always options.

  • Jim Young

    The missing middle is excellent in theory.
    It’s like Goldilocks planning …. Not Too Dense …Not To Sprawling … Cities and Citizens …. Live Happily ever after.
    Except the profit per acre accruing to developers is much higher in high rise/ high density housing.
    Zoning for the missing middle can only work where developers cannot amend the municipal plan and zoning.
    In Ontario the old OMB and new (and enhanced) LPAT give developers complete freedom to overrule any municipal plan or zoning.
    An unelected body set in place by the development lobby groups does not care about the Missing Middle.
    To think otherwise is to believe in Fairytales.

    • Joe Gaetan

      Jim: The Goldilocks Principle provides some much needed guidance on what is needed whether it be height, parking, cycling infrastructure, engagement, etc.Kudo’s