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When the Protestant, straight-laced Toronto of the 1910s banned apartments in much of the city, housing shortages and soaring prices soon followed. What happened next still has consequences in the red-hot market of today

A fire-insurance map from 1924 shows what the Annex, Harbord Village and Palmerston neighbourhoods looked like a decade after city bylaws banned apartment buildings in many parts of the city. Single-family homes still dominate much of these neighbourhoods today. Map: City of Toronto Archives • Archival research for this story: Paula Wilson/The Globe and Mail

One hundred years ago, Toronto was in the midst of an acute housing shortage.

Although 6,000 new homes were expected to be added that year, the “immense contribution to the city’s bulk of homes” was simply not going to be enough, decried an article published in The Globe on June 16, 1922. All through the spring, the article stated, “the supply of moderate-sized homes available for rent filled only a small percentage of the demand.”

The lack of housing wasn’t a new phenomenon. By the turn of the century, Toronto had become Canada’s second-largest urban centre, after Montreal, putting a strain on its existing stock of homes. Military manufacturing boomed during the First World War, and when it was done the city bulged with returning soldiers, immigrants and rural folks, drawn by the promise of work in the city’s new harbour and financial districts.

The problem then, as now: For Torontonians without significant wealth, finding housing was a challenge. But at a time when affordable rental properties were needed most, of the 3,000 new dwellings that had been built since the beginning of the year, just five – less than 0.17 per cent – were apartment buildings.

That’s because, for the most part, they were banned outright.

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Apartment blocks in various stages of construction on Kendal Avenue in 1922, when new apartment projects were heavily restricted in Toronto.Contract Record, 1922

On May 14, 1912, motivated by moral concerns, the City of Toronto passed By-Law No. 6061, which meant no apartment buildings could be built on the majority of the city’s residential streets.

While it’s certainly not the only factor that has led to Toronto’s dearth of low-rise, affordable rental properties – indeed, many buildings were erected despite the law – experts say the city is still grappling with the bylaw’s effects on its urban fabric and zoning, not to mention the NIMBYism toward multiunit housing generally.

“Early land-use regulations have had a major impact, still very perceptible today,” said Raphael Fischler, dean of the faculty of environmental design at the Université de Montréal, in an interview about Toronto’s history. “Large parts of the city that exist today were built a century ago, under the influence of the regulations on the books at the time.”

Unlike many European cities and even Montreal, Toronto lacks elegant low-rise density, which provides a spectrum of sizes and affordability in smaller-scale neighbourhoods. These housing options, particularly beneficial for people who are often left out of the market – renters, people living alone, young families, the elderly – offer a sense of community and contribute to the character that makes cities pleasant to live in.

While Toronto became largely a city of single-family homes, Dr. Fischler said, Montreal developed as a city of duplexes and triplexes. As a result, he said, the latter now offers a wider range of housing options. “It’s fair to say that Montreal displayed a greater tolerance for density and for the mixing of uses than many North American cities,” he said.

The Roslyn Apartments at Glen Road, north from Howard Street, in 1913 and 2022. The first tenants of the three-storey red brick buildings included realtors, merchants and manufacturers.
Osgoode Mansions at Palmerston Avenue and Harbord Street, as seen during construction in 1914 and in 2022. Today, neighbourhoods like Palmerston lack many ‘missing middle’ properties, denser than single-family homes but not as dense as low-rise apartments.
La Verne Apartments, built beside Allan Gardens in 1927, was allowed under the bylaw bans because Carlton Street, deemed a commercial road, was exempt. The tower behind La Verne was built after the city passed the Condominium Act in 1967 in an attempt to regulate affordable housing. City of Toronto Archives; Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Turn-of-the-century Torontonians had a complicated relationship with apartment buildings.

On the one hand, early developments typically upheld the gentility demanded by the city’s elite. Unlike today’s towering condo buildings, the “apartment-houses” of the early 19th century were often no more than four floors high and blended in nicely with the surrounding neighbourhood.

Residents of the city’s first apartment buildings – the St. George Mansions, completed in 1904 near the current site of Robarts Library – included professors, barristers and two bank managers, according to Richard Dennis, a University College London geographer considered the authority on Toronto’s early apartment history.

But despite that pedigree, the predominantly Protestant city found the negative moral associations hard to shake. Apartment-dwelling families were expected to have fewer children, and this was considered an unethical constraint on the natural order. Meanwhile, dwellings that offered in-house kitchen and cleaning services were seen as degrading the traditional role of a wife.

“Unsurprisingly, there was negative reaction from both wealthy neighbours and city administrators who were reviewing building permits and were not familiar with this new building type,” said Emma Abramowicz, a planner at ERA Architects who has researched Toronto’s early planning history.

Yet by the end the century’s first decade, Dr. Dennis wrote in his landmark 1989 research paper, Toronto’s First Housing Boom, the city’s directory listed almost 50 such buildings creeping into single-family home neighbourhoods. This raised concerns about property values and privacy, as well as the loss of home ownership as a priority (apartments were typically rented).

St. George Mansions on Harbord Street, photographed in 1944 and shown in its architectural drawings, was Toronto’s first apartment building. After it was finished in 1904, the six-storey complex had 34 apartments and about 99 occupants. City of Toronto Archives; Trinity College Archives
The Spruce Court Apartments in Cabbagetown were built from 1913 to 1925 for working-class residents. But with rents of $25 a month – half of an ordinary worker's monthly wages – it wasn't quite as affordable as advertised. City of Toronto Archives

Experts have often noted that the turning point was set in 1911 by physician Charles Hastings with the publication of his report exposing the unsanitary conditions of those living in the Ward, the inner-city slum located next to City Hall.

Fearing that Toronto might fall victim to the scourge of these “human packing cases,” so rife in New York, Dr. Dennis wrote, the report reinforced the belief that shared dwellings were immoral and not fit for Toronto.

“If Toronto becomes a city of closely-packed tenements,” one Globe journalist wrote on April 27, 1912, “it will become a city of stunted children and of unhappy adults. Its morals will suffer as well as its health.”

In response to these mounting concerns, and after a slate of lesser measures were deemed inadequate, in 1912 city council passed the apartment ban by 18 votes to nil.

By-Law No. 6061 limited the construction of apartment buildings to a few arterial roads.

Developers found breaking the law could be fined $50 – about a month’s salary at the time – or jailed for as much as six months.

According to Richard White, an author and Toronto historian, public response was favourable. Nonetheless, there were dissenters.

Builders who had purchased land for the purpose of apartment development were angry. Two weeks after the bylaw had been passed, architect John Alexander Mackenzie wrote in The Globe: “It surely is not British fair play that the objections of a few property-owners should be allowed to bar hundreds of our best families from a share in the fresh air and pleasant outlooks of our hill and Rosedale districts.”

Others rejected equating Toronto’s mostly upper-class apartments with New York’s tenements. Builder Alfred Coleman argued that planned multifamily dwellings were actually better than the crammed single-family houses that would result from the ban.

Almost immediately, developers found workarounds. They could usually get special approval from city council or run a long apartment block behind a narrow commercial street frontage.

As a result, several hundred apartment buildings were constructed in areas where they had initially been banned. Dr. White said that of the 12 applications for exemptions in the Beaches neighbourhood, all were approved.

According to data from the City of Toronto Archive, between 1921 and 1931, the number of units in apartment houses increased tenfold, from 2,000 to 20,000. Yet for a city with a population of 630,000, that number was tiny compared with cities such as New York and Chicago.

“It’s the core reason why Toronto doesn’t have a historic character of medium density throughout its historic core, like the four-storey buildings seen in American cities,” Ms. Abramowicz said.

The policy was generally quite effective, she said; for decades, much of the city saw very little apartment development.

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A 1920 report from the Toronto Housing Commission includes these specifications for a semi-detached home of Type C, one of the permitted types of housing at the time.Toronto Housing Commission

Type A and C houses on Gilmour Avenue, as seen in the 1920 report, and a block plan of other properties in the neighbourhood. Toronto Housing Commission
One of the apartment complexes built in the post-ban era was Claridge Apartments at Avenue Road and Clarendon Avenue, built in 1927-28. Architectural firm Lawrence Baldwin & Gerald Greene designed it in a Venetian palazzo style. City of Toronto Archives

While many areas did get more low-scale apartments and condo towers later in the century, few of those developments broached tree-lined, residential streets.

“We haven’t really shifted from the planning approach the City of Toronto took in 1912,” Ms. Abramowicz said. “I think it’s to our detriment.”

While experts agree that By-Law No. 6061 has left a mark on the city’s building story, many argue its more significant legacy is the attitude it initiated. According to Richard Harris, an urban historical geographer at McMaster University, Toronto’s early 20th-century policies led to its ingrained resistance to development in residential neighbourhoods.

“That’s where the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ consideration comes in,” Dr. Harris said. “Once the built environment has been built in a particular way, property owners resist any kind of density.”

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Apartment buildings under construction at Moss Park in 1963.Boris Spremo/The Globe and Mail

Mr. White said this mentality was truly entrenched in the 1960s, amid numerous attempts to rezone the apartment-free areas to add density. This was met with strong opposition from homeowners, and in 1966 the planning department marked most of those neighbourhoods “inviolate” – protected from widespread development.

“The urban reform movement stopped neighbourhood destruction, but it then entrenched an anti-development mindset,” he said. “To me, that is the root of present-day opposition to the missing middle.”

A hundred and 10 years on from the passage of By-Law No. 6061, it is impossible to know how the city would have evolved without it. Indeed, Toronto never got the “wealth of attractive, medium-density character apartments” it could have had, Ms. Abramowicz writes in the housing anthology House Divided.

Such apartments offer a spectrum of quality, architectural style and affordability, she argues. Amid a housing crisis comparable with that of a previous century, she asks: “Why shouldn’t there be room down the street?”

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