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A report going to Toronto City Council suggests allowing multiplexes – buildings with two, three, four or more apartments – on the streets in the city where they are currently not permitted.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

A wave of change is sweeping through the profession of city planning, and it’s washing away a bad old idea: that residential neighbourhoods should be for houses only. In the past five years, governments across North America – and, recently, the government of New Zealand – have all made similar reforms to legalize apartments in larger areas of their cities. That way, people who can’t afford a house may still be able to find a home.

Now Toronto is poised to join this movement. A staff report going before council’s Planning and Housing Committee on Thursday signals real changes coming to the city’s house-centric neighbourhoods.

The report is the boldest and most progressive planning policy to emerge from city hall since the amalgamation of Toronto in 1998. It suggests “multiplexes” – buildings with two, three, four or more apartments – on the leafy streets where they are currently forbidden. And the report asks clear questions: “Toronto is evolving as it grows. What kind of city do we want? How can we make room for housing to create the kind of city that we want?”

These are not the questions that city planning in Toronto – or in general – has been asking over the past half-century. Planning has been obsessed with protecting “neighbourhood character.” Toronto’s Neighbourhoods (they get a capital N in city policy documents) are reserved mostly for houses.

This is known as “exclusionary zoning,” and in 2021 it locks down much of the city for multimillionaires. And it is exactly the kind of policy that New Zealand, Vancouver and the states of California and Oregon are aiming to change. Toronto is also considering reform through a planning effort called Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods.

Such neighbourhoods cover half of Toronto’s buildable land. This week’s report argues that “gentle density” would make those areas “more accessible to a diverse range of people” with all household sizes and incomes. It notes that increasing the population of these areas supports public transit, reduces carbon emissions by letting people walk or cycle, and uses existing infrastructure such as parks and schools more efficiently. All true.

The details are technical, but the upshot is clear. Right now the city creates many regulatory and financial obstacles to constructing small apartment buildings. Planning would like to remove these barriers. The result could be buildings with three or four units everywhere, and “low-rise apartments,” up to four storeys, near transit stations.

Planning is a slow and conservative business. It’s a big deal for city planners (the report is signed by two youngish staffers, Melanie Melnyk and Philip Parker) to advocate on the record for such change. Toronto planning has long made nice vision statements about equity and inclusion; now they’re trying to walk the walk.

City councillor Ana Bailao explained that during the pandemic a large group of planning staff volunteered to work on the neighbourhoods reform, which is run by planner Graig Uens. They’ve come up with useful advice. Chief planner Gregg Lintern has signed on to it and sent it to city council.

Whether politicians will take this advice, a year before an election, is another question. Some on the right are perfectly happy to preserve upper-class fiefdoms. But Ms. Bailao, who is deputy mayor and the housing point person for Mayor John Tory, is ready to defend the proposed changes.

“For me, the character of the neighbourhoods is the people who live in them,” she said in an interview. “We’ve seen a lot of the city change from working-class neighbourhoods into places that only the rich can afford, and we can’t let that continue.” Apartments everywhere, she said, “are absolutely part of the solution.”

Now that’s what the planners say, too.

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