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Toronto these days is a spiky city: New highrise towers poke up from a steady plain of houses. Now the whole landscape might be about to change. On Wednesday City Council passed a new policy that allows “multiplexes” – four units, in three storeys, on one lot – across the entire city.

It is a historic change. Toronto has reversed a 70-year trend in its planning and decided to make room for more people in more places.

But the question remains: Is this the end, or just the beginning of much larger shifts?

For half a century, apartment buildings have been illegal across most of Toronto. Even four-unit apartments were largely banned on side streets. These planning policies built on a century-long history of classism and xenophobia. Somehow, for decades, city planning continued to be shaped by the vague idea that apartments brought the wrong sort of people.

Now, the city’s plan allows “multiplexes” with up to four units on any lot – plus an additional laneway house or garden suite in some cases. Regulations about the size and location of buildings have also been loosened, so that there are no regulatory tripwires.

Council voted 18-7 to implement this plan. The debate was calm, if you ignored the yelling of a few minor figures and the droning of second-generation city councillor Stephen Holyday, whose words seemed to have been beamed in from 1956.

The winning coalition included all the downtown representatives – including some, such as Gord Perks, who have been suspicious of market housing – and a bloc of young suburban councillors. Scarborough representative Jamaal Myers pushed for his ward to allow six units per lot. The pro-housing coalition is young and growing.

What a change eight years makes. In 2015, Toronto planners tightened up neighbourhood rules to further restrict apartments, and nobody on council seemed to notice. Soon thereafter, city planning became the subject of fierce political debate. Cities across the U.S., as well as Vancouver and Edmonton, took steps to allow at least small buildings in existing neighbourhoods. In Toronto, there were calls to open up the sea of houses, which planner Gil Meslin dubbed “the Yellowbelt,” that covers half of Toronto. I co-edited a book on this theme in 2019.

The pro-housing advocacy group More Neighbours, which didn’t exist five years ago, has been relentless and effective in communicating that young people and new arrivals need places to live.

Toronto politicians and planners have gotten the message. City Planning, led by veteran Gregg Lintern, has decisively changed direction. They deserve credit.

Last fall, Ontario’s Bill 23 required cities to allow a minimum of three units per lot. The new Toronto policy is intended to comply and to make such buildings actually make economic sense. Toronto has decided to lead the way.

However, more work remains to be done. At council, Mr. Lintern acknowledged that multiplexes are “not a panacea.” How many people will choose to convert their house into four apartments? How many entrepreneurs will tear down a house and do the same? Mr. Lintern told council that the profitability of such projects will be “tight, tight.” It’s safe to assume that this will generate a trickle of new homes.

And the tide is going the other way. The city has a huge shortage of housing of all kinds. And about half of all Toronto census districts actually lost people between 2016 and 2021. Many areas dominated by houses, from the Annex to North Scarborough, have fewer people than they did half a century ago. Apartments are being converted to single-family houses. Homeowners have fewer children and more money. Each person takes up more space.

What’s needed is much larger change. Toronto needs to legalize apartment buildings, period. Every block in the city should be able to see buildings of a larger scale on smaller lots. Maybe the next wave is seven- or eight-storey buildings, like the non-descript slabs that went up in older neighbourhoods in the 1960s. Maybe it is “stacked townhouses” with 30 or 40 apartments on a couple of suburban lots. Perhaps both.

But the next increment must be larger; it must make economic sense; it must work at scale. Only by growing much more quickly, making room for as many people as possible, can Toronto continue to be a diverse and welcoming place. The city has embraced small change. Now it needs to go big.

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