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To build 1.5M homes, we must think outside the box

by Richard Lyall on 23 Jun 2022

Many jurisdictions in the U.S., other parts of Canada and around the world have been thinking outside the box and pushing the right buttons to boost the housing supply. Here in Ontario, we’d be wise to follow suit.

The State of California, for one, has taken direct aim at the problem. Despite substantial opposition, the legislature stood firm and passed into law Senate Bill 9, known as SB9, a radical density experiment which will effectively eliminate single-family zoning in wide swaths of the state’s cities.

The legislation overrides locally approved zoning rules and permits denser development in residential neighbourhoods. This will lead to hundreds of thousands of new homes being built.

SB9 will enable more housing options. The thinking is that new units will be smaller scale, more cost-effective, and more varied. This is critical as cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland are in dire need of more housing.

Under the legislation, property owners now have the legal right to sever a residential unit property into two plots and turn any single-family unit into a duplex. So, instead of one unit on a single-family lot, the owner can build up to four units.

The legislation is controversial. There have been objections to the move, most notably from the media. For example, the LA Times said in an op-ed that it is the absolute wrong way to solve California’s housing crisis. Pleasanton vice-major Julie Testa wrote in a column in the Pleasanton that SB9 will destroy local control over housing and silence neighbourhood voices.

But the legislation has its supporters. An extensive and well-researched report by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley indicates that the legislation could enable the creation of approximately 700,000 additional new units, representing a 40-per-cent increase in existing development potential across single-family housing parcels in the state. The authors calculated SB9 would enable new development on 110,000 parcels where none were financially feasible before. 

Other jurisdictions have also made moves to speed up the production of new housing. Cities like Minneapolis, Tokyo, Copenhagen and Barcelona have jumped on the bandwagon and made substantial changes that allow for increased residential density. New Zealand has also revamped its rules.

In Oregon, the state made changes to ban single-family zoning and allow a duplex or four-unit building to be erected on land zoned for residential use if it is in a municipality larger than 25,000 people. It was the first law of its kind in the U.S. or Canada. The Oregon Home Builders Association reports that the state will have to build 584,000 new homes over the next 20 years to keep up with demand.

Closer to home, the City of Surrey, B.C., has approved a guaranteed timeline plan for building permit applications in an effort to limit frustration for builders. The city has beefed up its staffing resources and expanded its online digital permitting portal. Opening hours were also expanded by one day a week.

Meanwhile, Vancouver is also looking at establishing guaranteed timelines for building permit applications. A task force has been directed to explore the feasibility of waiving fees or giving automatic approval to applications that don’t get a decision within an established time period.

The city is also embarking on a new, city-wide plan centred on the need for adding housing through more density, especially in the many neighbourhoods zoned for single-family homes. A draft of the plan proposes to increase development near rapid transit and shopping areas and allow more types of housing in neighbourhoods of detached single-family homes.

But here in Ontario, we still have a way to go.

Our zoning policies are restrictive and stymie residential construction. In Toronto, for example, about 70 per cent of the city is zoned for detached houses only. The rules must be changed to allow for intensification.

The province has taken many positive steps to address the housing shortage, but there are still inefficiencies in the development approvals process. Further actions are warranted and necessary to keep up with demand and ensure that our industry can meet the housing target.

We must remove the many pointless systemic barriers to building and spur more missing middle housing by implementing all 55 recommendations in a report by the Housing Affordability Task Force. We must also streamline the development approvals process by adopting the One Ontario solution.

It is critical for Ontario to address the housing supply crisis. If the left coast can do this, so can we. 

Richard Lyall is president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON). He has represented the building industry in Ontario since 1991. Contact him at [email protected]

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