Toronto’s Missing Middle: 11 answers to your most-pressing questions

Written by Naama Blonder | Edited by Josh Papernick

In July 2019, Mayor Tory and Deputy Mayor Ana Bailao motioned to review a timeline to increase housing options and planning permissions in areas of Toronto’s Official Plan (OP) designated as Neighbourhoods. The original date to report back to Council was Q4 of 2019, however, as of Q2 of 2020 this is still in the works.

The goal of this review is to summarize what is already known, what has been published by authorized resources, and what can be predicted to occur.

1. What is the Missing Middle?

The Missing Middle refers to building typologies that contain a higher density than a single-family house and a lower density than a mid-rise building. This type of typology includes laneway housing, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes (and other ‘plexes’), townhouses, and low-rise apartment buildings.

2. What the Missing Middle is not?

Contrary to the belief of many development professionals and the public at large, Missing Middle does not refer to mid-rise buildings, which are defined as 6-11 storeys by the City of Toronto’s Mid-Rise Buildings Design Guidelines.

3. Why is the Missing Middle so important?

Allowing building typologies in areas of Toronto where they were previously prohibited is a historic step forward for the city. This will help facilitate new housing alternatives in desirable neighbourhoods which otherwise would have been out of reach to many young couples and families.

4. Where will the Missing Middle be built?

Following decades of regulated stability, the aim will be to intensify Toronto’s ‘Neighbourhoods’, which are also colloquially known as the ‘Yellowbelt’. However, currently, the City’s OP directs to ‘protect the Neighbourhoods’ and preserve their character’. In other words, new typologies are restricted, and thus instead of a single-family house, one can only build… a bigger house.

5. Why is it called the Yellowbelt, anyway?

The term ‘Yellowbelt’ was popularized in 2016 by Urban Planner Gil Meslin, which stems from the yellow colour depicting ‘Neighbourhoods’ in municipal official plans. Meslin intended to equate the sharp development restrictions within this land designation to the development restrictions in the actual Greenbelt found at the region’s edge.

6. What constraints will face low-rise development?

If low-rise apartment buildings will face the requirements for loading, drop-off, underground parking, and waste collection, similar to mid-rise developments, it might impose some unrealistic feasibility challenges.

7. Will the Missing Middle be allowed everywhere in the Yellowbelt?

Probably not. Missing Middle housing and low-rise apartment buildings will likely be allowed in Minor Arterials (e.g. Christie St. which is 20m wide), but not along small and narrow residential streets.

8. How can the Missing Middle improve Housing Affordability in Toronto?

Overall, affordability is a numbers game (even if economists might not fully agree). High housing demand coupled with a shortage of supply creates the perfect storm for an affordability crisis. By loosening planning restrictions, existing housing options will be able to expand and diversify. In addition, most Missing Middle units, especially laneway suites and ‘plexes’, will be rental properties, which supports yet another City priority. Furthermore, as expanded on in the next question, it is more affordable to construct and acquire land because most of the City is designated as Neighbourhoods.

9. Why is it more affordable to build the Missing Middle?

Two main reasons:

  • The Ontario Building Code (OBC) allows wood construction in buildings under 6 storeys in height, and it is easier, faster, cheaper and more common to build with wood than concrete.
  • The land acquisition process is more economical compared to mid- and high-rise buildings because land suitable for high-density development only exists in a fraction of the city, while Neighbourhoods make up the vast majority.

10. How will the approval process for Missing Middle buildings look like?

This is not known yet, but there are three scenarios for a process that will not require a full rezoning application (which is an interest of the City to make it less burdensome):

  • As-of-Right – the City will adjust the zoning to allow eligible properties to apply directly for a zoning certificate and a building permit, in a system similar to laneway housing. An as-of-right system means that if your application meets the requirements, it has to be approved. If the City is truly interested in tackling housing affordability, this would be the best approach.
  • Committee of Adjustments (CofA) – the City would adjust some of its policies without permitting as-of-right approvals. The application could go through the CofA as a minor variance application as long as it complies with the guidelines and incorporates feedback from the City Planning department. The major difference between a minor variance application and a full rezoning application is the costs and the approval authority – minor variance is cheaper and approved by members of the public, while rezoning is costly and approved by council.
  • Site Plan Approval (SPA) – this process allows the City to maintain a higher level of control over the proposed design, as well as the ability to offer its critique. A SPA may require an agreement to secure certain aspects of the proposed design (e.g. landscape commitments).

11. How to deal with NIMBYsm in the Missing Middle context?

As with many new developments in Toronto, a significant issue is community objection. These objections are bound to exist despite the relatively small scale of Missing Middle typology and its harmonious fit into the surrounding context. While some points may be valid, many objections will stem from peoples ‘Not In My Back Yard’ (NIMBY) attitude and a general lack of ability to accept change. One of our strategies to effectively deal with this type of objection is to lead a discussion based around future housing options for their children. Where will they live? When these children grow up, the only option to raise their families in the same environment as which they were brought up will be to increase supply.

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