The Case for Diversifying Development
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The Case for Diversifying Development

Toronto needs to focus on the "missing middle"—townhouses and mid-rise buildings.

Though Toronto continues to add housing at a rapid pace compared to many of its counterparts, it might not surprise you that new development is largely concentrated in the form of high-rise condominiums.

Our downtown in particular has seen a remarkable transformation as new housing and new residents have brought new life to districts that were once desolate and boring.

However, we haven’t seen as much of a change in lower-density neighbourhoods, where new low-rise housing completions have declined from 32,000 in 2001 to 12,000 last year. As a result, the average price for a detached home now stands at $1.2 million, up over 18 per cent from last year alone.

This has led to a lot of discussion among city builders about the “missing middle” of infill townhouse, stacked townhouse, and mid-rise development that could provide Toronto with so-called gentle density and added stock of family-oriented housing.

Many point to City Hall generally and City Planning in particular for impeding this form of development while scolding condo developers for not including a sufficient amount of three-bedroom “family-sized” units in their high-rise projects.

Just last week, the City of Toronto refused an application [PDF] by a local developer to build six three-storey townhouses and one detached home in a North York neighbourhood, arguing that the built form would not be appropriate for the site.

In a rapidly growing, dynamic city like Toronto, decisions like this one are ridiculous, and they’re pricing young families out of the market.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

South of the border, Houston,Texas is seeing remarkable intensification of its neighbourhoods as detached homes on large underused lots are being redeveloped as townhouses.

Sweeping land use reforms enacted in 1999 that decreased the minimum lot size from 5,000 square feet to 1,400 square feet, combined with Houston’s famed lack of zoning, have allowed for this intensification to take place at a pace and manner unthinkable in Toronto. And it’s being reflected in prices.

Home buyers can find new luxury townhouses near the city’s centre beginning in the low $400s (CAD). Imagine that, Toronto.

A Twitter account has been created to catalogue this transformation, posting before and after pictures of lots that have been redeveloped for greater density. Some examples:

As any developer will tell you, obtaining City approval for any of these projects in Toronto would be challenging at best and more likely impossible. That’s why we see so few of them. And that plays a large part in why prices continue to rise so rapidly.

Again, it doesn’t have to be this way.

We should look to Houston as a model for what is possible with regard to the supply and affordability of family-oriented housing. If the missing middle truly is a problem worth addressing, we could do much worse than emulating that city’s land use rules and freeing our developers to do what they do best.