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Can more townhouses and apartments address Toronto’s housing crisis? | CBC News

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A plan to allow townhouses and small apartment buildings up to six storeys on major streets across Toronto has been approved by a city committee, but concerns are being raised about its viability as a tool to address the housing crisis.

Toronto’s planning and housing committee approved the proposal Thursday, which would loosen restrictive zoning bylaws that prevent townhouses and small apartment buildings in many parts of the city.

The plan has been in the works for years and could see buildings with up to 30 units built on many new major streets. 

But Coun. Brad Bradford, the vice chair of the committee, wants city staff to do more work on the proposal before it heads to council later this month.

A feasibility study warns that even if the city loosens the zoning restrictions, a 30-unit cap on the projects will make them financially unviable in places like Scarborough.

“We need to stop bringing stuff forward that doesn’t work,” Bradford said.

“We need to abandon the radical incrementalism that has governed planning in this city for the past two or three decades and move forward with solutions that can be delivered by anybody who wants to build housing.”

The committee agreed with Bradford, supporting his motion to report back to council on increasing the cap to 60 units and doing away with other restrictive parts of the plan. 

“I just think we need to be doing everything that we can to not just approve projects on paper, but make sure we’re providing a pathway for people to actually get shovels in the ground and build the housing or housing that we need,” Bradford said.

“So, I don’t want to be voting for something that we know coming out of the gate is probably not going to work.”

Plan sparks concern, opposition from some councillors

Some councillors and neighbourhood associations told the committee they oppose the plan, saying there hasn’t been enough consultation and that the city is moving too fast.

They say some streets considered “major” in the staff report don’t qualify and aren’t served by transit. A move to cut some streets from the plan was voted down by the committee. 

“You know, people call them NIMBYs,” Coun. Stephen Holyday said of people who oppose the plan.

“I call them residents. I call them constituents. If the committee doesn’t accept those words, maybe electors or ratepayers? I think they have a say, I think their say is actually very, very important.”

Coun. Gord Perks pushed back at suggestions that this type of housing doesn’t belong in some neighbourhoods in Toronto.

“Frankly, the form we’re discussing here exists on side streets in the ward I represent, on tiny little dead ends,” he said. “There are apartment buildings built to this form that were built 100 years ago.”

Perks also rejected the idea of exempting streets from the proposal.

“It just opens the door to everyone pulling out a street here, a street there, until the whole sweater unravels and we have no policy,” he said.

Coun. Gord Perks pushed back against efforts to remove some streets from a plan to loosen rules that restrict where townhouses and small apartments can be built. (Lauren Pelley/CBC)

Builder John Aruldason’s firm wrote the committee last week to ask for changes to the policy because it’s current structure makes the math impossible for builders.

He told CBC Toronto the plan is a good first step, but it needs some changes to help get shovels in the ground, including the city waiving development charges on the projects.

“The margins are there when you get to big development projects,” Aruldason said of large towers. “But the group of people that are able to do projects like that are few and far between.”

Aruldason said he’d also like to see the city focus on cutting months off the approval process, to help speed these types of projects along. Right now, he said if a small builder has to sit on a property awaiting approvals, they won’t take the financial risk.

“They’ll run their numbers and once they see, when they’re factoring in the amount of time they’re going to have to hold the property before they can put shovels in the ground, it just tips the numbers into saying this is not doable,” he said.

Experts say plan could plant seeds for future growth

Murtaza Haider, the director of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Urban Analytics Institute, said the city proposal is a step in the right direction, and while it may not spur a boom in construction, it could be planting the seeds for future growth. Right now, a labour shortage and high interest rates are deterring builders, but that won’t always be the case, he said.

“The city is saying that there will be a time where construction will be easier,” he said. “When that happens, zoning and bylaw amendments should not be the things slowing people down.”

University of Toronto planning professor Matti Siemiatycki said the housing crisis is convincing many people who oppose loosening zoning that things need to change. The city has a lot of work ahead to convince some neighbourhoods that more density is needed to help accommodate hundreds of thousands of people expected to come to Toronto in the decades ahead.

“You convince people by building great places, that really the quality matters,” he said. “It’s not just the density, but we should be talking about the quality of the buildings and the quality of the communities.”

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