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Rocky Petkov is a volunteer and housing advocate with More Neighbours Toronto.

Between sky-high property values, bidding wars and the rush to turn offers into signed agreements, finding an affordable place to live in Ontario can be a monumental undertaking. Buyers and renters often face a disheartening uphill battle to find a home within their budget and preferred community. But just as we built the system that led to this reality, Ontario has a rare opportunity to transform the market and create more affordable housing for all.

For decades, municipal housing bylaws and other legal restrictions have been used to shape our neighbourhoods and regulate who gets to call them home. The earliest practices were explicit about what type of residents were desired in a given community. A group of homeowners in Ontario, for example, signed a restrictive covenant in 1951 that stated a lot in their area could not be sold, rented or even inherited by any person of “negro, Asiatic, coloured or Semitic blood.” A report by The Walrus notes a bylaw introduced to Toronto’s North York neighbourhood in 1946 specifying houses in the area were to be occupied only by “families,” defined as a group of people related to one another. The bylaw was successfully challenged in 1971 when a group of four unmarried female roommates were denied the ability to rent a North York apartment together.

Land-use and homeownership policies that discriminated on the basis of race and gender were eventually ended by the courts, but in their place there has been a strong emphasis on using zoning codes to protect property values and preserve neighbourhood character. While we no longer articulate the same goals of explicit discrimination in our city planning, these practices carry the legacy of their original purpose.

Today, zoning bylaws govern everything from lot sizes to the type of home allowed on a lot, and even the number of doors a building can have. Even where multiunit buildings are allowed, additional “built-form” restrictions often make them difficult to actually build. For example, a fourplex built in an older part of Toronto will often have greater setback requirements than a detached home on the same lot.

Taken together, these types of practices are known as exclusionary zoning. While municipalities no longer regulate the types of people who can live in an area, controlling the types of homes that can be built there prevents the construction of housing that’s more affordable for the working class, young professionals and older residents. Young families with parents who work in Toronto have had to accept hours-long commutes in order to find affordable housing. Low-income residents, many of whom have jobs as essential workers, are forced to cram into illegal rooming houses that have few, if any, provisions for safety. Meanwhile, seniors lack options if they wish to downsize and stay within their neighbourhood.

To solve Toronto’s housing crisis, we must end restrictive single-family zoning policies

Don’t give up on Canadian cities just yet

The rare areas of cities such as Toronto or Vancouver that permit multiunit housing developments are forced to absorb most of our population growth, while neighbourhoods with restrictive zoning grow slower than citywide averages or outright lose population. We must allow the construction of housing beyond just skyscrapers or detached single-family homes that sprawl into our farmland. We need more for everyone in between.

In early February, a task force convened by the Government of Ontario released a report detailing 55 proposals to improve the affordability and variety of market-rate housing in the province. Key recommendations included a provincewide end to exclusionary-zoning bylaws; permitting the construction of fourplexes without having to obtain a bylaw exemption; the legalization of rooming houses; allowing construction of mid-rise 10- to 12-storey buildings on transit corridors; and easing restrictions on the “built form” of a residence.

This last point is often overlooked. While Minneapolis made headlines in 2019 by ending single-family zoning and legalizing triplexes citywide, uptake has been slow from developers who say there are still too many built-form restrictions in place to make construction feasible. By addressing this issue up front and allowing the growth of a more robust and equitable housing market, Ontario would become a leader in North America.

These recommendations will not solve Ontario’s housing crisis overnight. Nevertheless, they are a necessary first step in ensuring Ontario has a housing market that meets the needs of the 21st century. Coupled with strong tenant protections and increased investment in social and public housing, a future in which all Ontarians have access to decent housing in communities they love is possible.

Already, forces seeking to preserve the status quo are beating their war drums. In a newsletter response to a draft of the task-force report, Oakville, Ont., Mayor Rob Burton raised concerns about whether it would be worth sacrificing “neighbourhood character” in the “name of increasing … housing supply approvals.”

The mayor, and those who agree with him, would do well to remember the character and vitality of our neighbourhoods is not found in the buildings that line the streets but the people who fill those streets with life.

By preventing the construction of additional housing within our communities, exclusionary zoning prevents many people from moving into the neighbourhood that is right for them. If we don’t act now, more people will be excluded. Neighbourhoods that used to be home to vibrant, family-oriented communities are rapidly being hollowed out into wealthy enclaves; this is the real threat to the character of our neighbourhoods.

It is not too late. We can still confront this threat, but it will require opening up our neighbourhoods to more people and constructing more diverse housing that meets their needs.

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