By AHMED DIRIE
A provincial task force has recommended more aggressive residential developments that would bypass laws that protect the “character” of neighbourhoods across Ontario, and supplant single-family homes as their backbone, in an effort to deal with the affordable housing crisis.
The nine-member Housing Affordability Task Force was appointed in December in response to housing prices that had tripled, according to their report released in February. One of the tenets of the report is to reduce the red tape and legislations that limit the types of dwellings that are allowed to be built in Ontario neighbourhoods.
Some of the bylaws are there to protect the character and history of neighbourhoods and communities that go back decades, but that may be a necessary evil according to John Cameron, President of the Balmy Beach Residents Association.
“I think in an ideal world we would be able to have a number of the controls that we have,” said Cameron. “But given the reality of what the markets have become, and how enticing neighbourhoods like the Beaches are, I don’t think we have a choice if we want to house future generations and residents of Toronto.”
Increasing urban density is one of the options being considered, and it is something MPP Rima Berns-McGown, and her party the NDP, can get behind while understanding the worries of incumbent residents.
“I know that there’s a lot of people in the Beaches who are going to say ‘We love the small town feel of our neighbourhood’,” said Berns-McGown. “But we’re going to actually need to have increased density. We’re just going to have to figure that piece out. There are going to need to be some adjustments made. But I think overall, in part because the folks who live here are very progressive minded, they do think it’s important to house their neighbours. And they don’t want unhoused people in parks because that’s just cruel.”
Laneway suites, detached apartments above the garage, and garden suites, detached structures with their own bathrooms and kitchens built in the confines of an existing property such as in the yard, are among the solutions the City of Toronto is considering to increase urban density in a way that may be less intrusive to current residents.
“As we continue to grapple with the generational issue that is the housing crisis, it’s become increasingly clear that we’ll need to look at all creative options and innovative ideas to help us move the needle on this issue,” said Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford.
“Garden suites and laneway suites aren’t the panacea to housing affordability, because there is no one fix for the crisis we’re in. That said, these units are an important addition to the toolkit and I’m glad to see City Council vote to approve both of these new housing forms over the past few years. There’s more to do,but being open to having new types of homes in our communities is part of how we can add new housing options now and keep being thoughtful about creating even more tools to keep addressing the issue.”
One of the issues cited by the provincial task force is that real estate developments have traditionally been the jurisdiction of the municipal government. Taking that jurisdiction away is being met by opposition in many municipalities including Toronto, where Mayor John Tory is among those pushing back at what is perceived as an incursion by the province on zoning rights.
Tory told CBC News in February that he had emphasized to the province that it “is local officials…who know best, not the provincial government.”
“I actually disagree with Mayor Tory, vehemently,” said Bern-McGown. “And particularly as someone who has, again, had to work so hard to keep people housed during the pandemic, who has watched the homelessness crisis, which was already a crisis before the pandemic balloon during the pandemic, who has watched Mayor Tory do absolutely nothing about it.”
The housing crisis is too big a problem for any one level of government, much less municipal, said Berns-McGown, who has fought against homelessness and unfair evictions which have both been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“First of all, he doesn’t have the financial means to solve the problem,” said Berns-McGown of the concerns of municipalities.
“So no, I don’t think mayors ought to be in charge of this. I think we have a full-blown crisis, both in terms of housing people, and what does it mean when you take housing as a human right? When you’re serious about that, and not just putting people in cockroach infested anywhere and calling that housing, but actually housing people in places where they can thrive?”
Donna Braniff-Adams, spokesperson for the Beaches Residents Association, said the association supports garden suites and laneway housing options as “these housing forms are consistent with the eclectic housing styles that have evolved in the Beaches over many decades.” However, the association is concerned about the provincial task force’s links to the development industry and the recommendations to limit public input.
“Our concern with the (Premier) Doug Ford task force is that it’s heavily influenced by the development industry. Six of the nine names on the task force show up on Elections Ontario’s political donations list – and all contributed to the PC party within the last few years,” said Braniff-Adams in a statement from the Beaches Residents Association sent to Beach Metro Community News.
“We are concerned with the recommendation to ‘Repeal municipal policies that focus on preserving a neighbourhood’s character.’ We think the Beach is a special place with a charming character worth protecting,” said the statement. “The task force recommends limiting public input. That’s autocratic. Not democratic. And not the Beach way.”
Bradford said the housing crisis requires the support of more levels of government and communities, not less.
“I think we get the best outcomes through collaboration,” said Bradford. “Whether that’s with partners at other levels of government, the local community, or with future neighbours who would like to join us in the years ahead. Like many of the big issues of our time, it takes partnerships, collaboration, and a joint effort to move us all forward. Those policy conversations are an important way we can address both local needs as well as the shared experiences we’re seeing play out Ontario-wide.”
Cameron believes the cost of housing could have far reaching impacts outside of the neighbourhoods themselves.
“It’s in the national interest for the GTA as a whole to be an economic driver,” said Cameron. “And if you look at a number of studies out there that look at being competitive from an economic standpoint, more and more economists are getting concerned that the cost of housing is making it unattractive for companies to hire people here. And so I don’t think this can just be a Toronto issue. I don’t think it can be just an Ontario issue. I think it’s a national issue.”
Neighbourhood associations, who have been at times averse to change and in many cases were formed to fight these exact types of decisions, may be more open to the idea now than in the past, said Cameron.
“I think had this proposal come forward even five years ago, there would have been more pushback,” he said.
“I think there will be some pushback from certain corners of the city. I do think it will be more readily accepted by the neighbourhood because if you look at our neighbourhood, you’ve got every age group from those who have just finished school all the way up to retirees. And I think you’ve got the younger people trying to get homes and you’ve got the older people worried that their grandchildren will be able to live in their neighbourhood. I think even those who’ve done well off the real estate boom of the past couple decades realize that it’s come at the expense of their children not being able to have their children grow up in their neighbourhoods.”
There is concern that the recommendations of the task force could override Toronto developments already underway and make the Queen Street East Urban Development Guidelines unenforceable by city planners.
Those guidelines limit the height of new buildings on Queen Street East between Coxwell Avenue and Nursewood Road, and have become a key part of the debate for building proposal at Queen and Coxwell. (Please see our earlier story with more information on this issue: https://beachmetro.com/2021/06/15/community-meeting-debates-housing-nows-plan-for-18-storey-building-at-queen-and-coxwell-site/ )
In the Beaches Residents Association statement, Braniff-Adams said the association is committed to protecting the Urban Design Guidelines for Queen Street East.
“We welcome thoughtful new developments and mid-rise buildings that fit into the community streetscape, while following Design Guidelines and Official Plan policies that were created with these goals in mind. This has allowed the addition of numerous new condos on Queen Street that provide new housing options for both first-time buyers and Beachers looking to downsize. The most recent example is at 1630 Queen (formally a KFC fast food shop) transformed into 89 new housing units. The Beach has undergone considerable redevelopment and densification, including the former Greenwood racetrack, the Shell gas station and doughnut shop, a car dealership, fast food restaurants and vacant lots. This redevelopment has maintained the human scale and character people love and that makes the Beach a tourist destination,” said the statement.
The statement pointed out the Beaches Residents Association’s Fight the Height petition against the plans for the 18-storey building at Coxwell and Queen has received more than 2,800 signatures supporting the call to enforce the six-storey height limit which is part of the Queen Street East Urban Development Guidelines.
“If the province or city overrides the guidelines in the Official Plan to build an 18-storey high-rise tower at 1631 Queen, it will set a precedent that will invite additional high-rise towers,” said the statement.
Bradford said the provincial task force’s report included 55 recommendations.
“At the moment, these are just that – recommendations from those stakeholders and experts involved in the housing sphere. From my understanding, these components suggested would first need to be written into policies or a framework, then brought forward by the Provincial government before they’d be actionable either at an Ontario or Toronto level. Should there be any legislation drafted out of these suggestions by the province, I’d certainly be interested to take a close read on how any provincial changes would play out in Toronto, whether on our guidelines or other areas of our planning processes.”
Berns-McGown thinks that there are solutions that can combine new developments with the old in a way that isn’t as intrusive to current residents.
“I’m the daughter of an architect,” said Berns-McGown. “And I have many architects in my family, I have many friends who are architects. I am absolutely convinced that good architecture always figures out how to be part of its context and its environment and not be a jarring thing in the middle of it. That doesn’t make any sense. I’m not always convinced that developers understand that. But I think that if you have good architects involved in projects, you will always figure out how to make it blend in with an environment.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated from the one originally filed to include comments from the Beaches Residents Association.