Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A low-rise condo project is seen under construction in Coquitlam, B.C., on May 16, 2023.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The federal government’s offer is simple: Allow a bit more density everywhere in your city and we’ll give you money for housing. Not every Canadian municipality is willing to play along.

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars for cities facing a housing crisis. But the change runs counter to decades of zoning policy in North America.

The issue of exclusionary zoning – rules that for generations have reserved large amounts of urban land for single-family homes – has gripped cities across Canada. Critics note that it has created communities in which a minority of people occupy the majority of the residential land. Supporters say it protects neighbourhood character.

Several large cities, including Toronto and Calgary, have moved to do away with exclusionary zoning. Edmonton will have a public hearing this week on a new zoning bylaw that would eliminate this type of restrictive zoning.

But a small group of cities is pushing against this trend – and against federal pressure – and last week Mississauga joined them.

Getting rid of exclusionary zoning in Canada’s seventh-largest city, west of Toronto, by allowing four-unit buildings in all neighbourhoods was explicitly identified by federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser. But Mississauga council was deadlocked after hours Wednesday and a motion backing four-plexes “in principle” failed on a 5-5 tie. A vaguer motion asking staff to explore “the feasibility” of this type of housing then passed.

Councillor Carolyn Parrish, a sponsor of the original motion that failed, said its message “was to tell people we got your backs, and we’re going to do everything we can … and the signal now has been aborted.”

Mayor Bonnie Crombie said this month she supported the four-plex motion, arguing it “really reflects where we need to go as a city.” However, she has stepped away from her duties to run for the provincial Liberal leadership and was not at the meeting to cast a tie-breaking vote.

Kerry Gold: Vancouver faces the thorny problem of following through on promise for three-bedroom condos

The Editorial Board: A fairer way to share the costs of ending the housing crisis

The decision by Mississauga council prompted strong criticism from Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Paul Calandra, who said his government would not spend billions to build transit infrastructure and then tolerate municipalities preventing development.

“This idea of NIMBYism has got to stop,” he told reporters Friday, repeating his government’s goal of adding 1½ million homes. “We’re gonna get it done, full stop. And Mississauga will be a partner in getting it done.”

Days before the vote, Mr. Fraser issued a letter that dangled the possibility that loosening zoning rules would lead to him approving $120-million for housing in Mississauga.

Mr. Fraser was not available for interview late last week. On the social-media platform X, formerly Twitter, he called Mississauga’s vote “very concerning.” A statement forwarded by his office Friday did not rule out granting the funding but said Ottawa would work with the city to determine “how they intend to implement the density offered by four units as of right without delay.”

The federal Liberals have promised $4-billion through 2027 to accelerate housing, money that municipalities can use to reduce fees, improve affordable housing or speed up development approvals. The government has warned that cities that do not meet its criteria may not receive the funding.

This approach has had a mixed track record.

Vancouver-area municipalities Burnaby and Surrey both got the federal cold shoulder last month after agreeing to density increases but also massively boosting development charges. Mr. Fraser abruptly postponed a press announcement to unveil nearly $140-million in housing funds for the two cities. The event has yet to be rescheduled.

In recent weeks, Halifax council agreed with most of Mr. Fraser’s requests but drew the line at allowing four-storey buildings across the city. However, Ottawa accepted that council’s approach suited the local context and would deliver sufficient density. On Thursday the city and federal government announced a $79-million funding deal.

In Mississauga, the city faces overlapping housing and demographic issues. After decades of sprawl, the city has now built on all its available untouched land, meaning that further development must come in the form of densification or by converting industrial land.

Mississauga was also the only large Canadian city to shrink in the last census, slipping behind Winnipeg to rank seventh-most populous in the country, as neighbourhoods of empty-nesters lost people. At the same time, growth concentrated in a few areas has not been able to keep up with demand, leading to home prices beyond the reach of many young people.

However, the amount of building, particularly in the downtown, prompted some councillors to argue during the four-plex debate that the city was doing enough to address housing.

“We are doing at least our fair share, if not more,” insisted councillor Brad Butt, who also said he was galled by what he perceived as pressure from Ottawa. “I don’t know what the rush is. … I found that [letter] to be offensive, quite frankly.”

With a report from Jeff Gray

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe