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opinion

Duplex homes, an example of mid-scale housing, are seen in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood in 2019.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Will Toronto find the Missing Middle? This week the city’s planning department released a report that opens the door for that kind of development – mid-scaled housing, from duplexes to small apartment buildings – in neighbourhoods across the city. It’s an idea that is long overdue.

But planners don’t seem very committed to it. Their report proposes a set of modest positive changes, but wraps them all in a net of study and process that gives them every chance of being strangled to death.

At a time when Toronto has a huge housing shortage, and needs to change its physical form in a dramatic way, this is not great news.

The report is called “Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods,” and that idea is sound. While Toronto has many detached houses and is adding new apartments in high-rise buildings, it needs more of the stuff in between. Some planners have been pursuing this idea for years, and it’s the subject of House Divided, a 2019 book I co-edited.

The Missing Middle is banned by planning regulations in many places. As a result, you need to buy a million-dollar house to live on most blocks in Toronto. That can’t stand.

The report was requested specifically by Mayor John Tory, and it goes to the planning and housing committee of city council next week. It would legalize rooming houses everywhere, loosen up rules on triplexes, allow “garden suites” behind houses, allow development on major streets where it’s not currently allowed and more. All these ideas make sense in a city that’s growing quickly and yet has neighbourhoods of houses that are losing people.

Yet the tone is defensive about the status quo and the approach is backward. The planners have set out a “work plan” of lengthy consultation, pilot projects, financial studies, design studies, toolkits, reviews and demonstration projects.

The main gist should be about simplifying planning. Making fewer rules. Imposing fewer charges. Allowing people to live and work and build, to a larger degree, wherever they want to. Make apartments and corner stores legal anywhere.

There’s momentum behind this idea. As the planners point out in their report, times are changing. A number of jurisdictions in the United States and Canada have begun changing their own planning rules, often acknowledging the fact that this legal apparatus was designed to enforce economic and racial segregation.

That is true here as well, whether Torontonians want to admit it or not. There’s a good passage in the report that acknowledges Toronto was “regulated to ensure exclusivity to detached (single family) homes,” and that powerful groups got to control those rules. In plain language, this was about keeping away apartments and their residents: people who were poorer, less established, lower in the social hierarchy of the day.

Nothing much has changed. The proof is in that same report. Planning staff did door-to-door surveys in Councillor Brad Bradford’s ward this year. They found that 86 per cent of the people they met would support different kinds of housing within their neighbourhoods. But there’s also a survey of resident associations, those self-appointed guardians of the neighbourhoods – who tend to be older, affluent white folks with lots of free time. Among them, 60 per cent are opposed to any sort of change.

So far, the resident associations are winning. Just five years ago, the city made some changes to its neighbourhood policies, making infill development harder – precisely the opposite of what’s proposed now. Resident associations in North Toronto, led by the umbrella groups FONTRA and CORRA, helped drive these regressive changes, which made their neighbourhoods more exclusive.

Now, will those few hundred good citizens sit back and watch the tide roll back? They will not. They will grind it out through the meetings and surveys and studies. They will call their councillors. They will defend neighbourhood character, an idea that the city planners are still defending, even though it’s a vague excuse for exclusion.

There is an easier way to fix all this. Make fewer and simpler rules. The city could just take the planning policies that apply in its oldest neighbourhoods, the ones everybody loves so much. Apply those same rules to the entire city. Make corner stores legal everywhere. Then get rid of the heavy development charges on small apartment buildings. And get rid of parking requirements, as the city of Edmonton has just done. That would make change, and quickly.

But who wants that? Do planning staff? Do city councillors? Do powerful residents? Toronto planning has been stuck for a generation, refusing to acknowledge the dramatic social and economic changes that have remade the city. Whether anyone at city hall wants change, Toronto needs it, and with luck it begins now.