Lured by Federal Dollars, Canadian Cities Rethink Zoning

Fourplexes, multiunit dwellings that are relatively rare in Canada — a country where detached homes dominate residential streets — appear set to become more prominent in major cities. The lure of federal cash to build housing is causing many municipalities to bend staunch zoning rules that once prohibited fourplexes.

“We want cities to increase their ambition on housing, and through federal funding we are incentivizing that change,” Sean Fraser, the housing minister, said this week in a post on X, the platform once known as Twitter.

Mr. Fraser has been touring Canada to announce agreements with cities made under the Housing Accelerator Fund, a $4 billion program that should, according to the government, “unlock new housing supply through innovative approaches.”

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the government-owned mortgage insurer, has even provided something of a cheat sheet for cities to increase the odds of success for their applications to the fund. In addition to sweeping aside rules that banned higher-density housing like fourplexes, its strategies include loosening parking requirements and easing development charges for builders of affordable housing.

Zoning for fourplexes is a traditionally divisive issue for city councils, and several are reconsidering their position on the zoning amid increased housing costs and population pressures as Canada pushes to meet its lofty immigration target.

[Read Ian Austen’s story from October 2022: ‘Not Chump Change’: Home Prices in Canada Strain Affluent Budgets]

Until five months ago, Toronto banned multiplexes in 70 percent of the city, but these dwellings now represent an important part of the new mayor Olivia Chow’s plan for a “generational transformation” of its housing system.

So far, the federal government has entered into funding agreements to fast-track housing builds with London, Vaughan, Hamilton and Brampton in Ontario, and Halifax in Nova Scotia, and on Wednesday added Kelowna, in British Columbia.

Some city councils are still treading cautiously on rezoning, commonly unpopular with homeowners who subscribe to the NIMBY — the acronym for “not in my backyard” — philosophy of fighting against development and density in their neighborhoods.

The City Council in Mississauga, the Toronto suburb where I was raised, recently voted against fourplexes, instead directing its staff to study the feasibility of rezoning. That decision put about $120 million in federal funding at stake and caused Mayor Bonnie Crombie to enforce her “strong mayor” powers — a special veto authority introduced by the Ontario government last year — and override her council’s vote.

“It is one of many ways we are working to build the ‘missing middle’ in our city and communicate to residents that Mississauga is tackling the housing crisis,” Ms. Crombie, who is on leave to run for leader of Ontario’s Liberal Party, said in a statement last week.

About 1.5 million households in Canada live in conditions that are either inadequate or unaffordable, according to the 2021 census, which defines these households as having “core housing needs.” In other words, one in 10 Canadian households fall into this category, which includes private households.

But the data does not capture the housing needs of students and people living in congregate dwellings, for example, said Carolyn Whitzman, a housing policy researcher who is submitting a report about core housing needs to the Federal Housing Advocate in Canada next week.

The number of affordable homes needed to close that gap is closer to four million, Ms. Whitzman’s report will show.

“The purpose of more permissive zoning is to allow more nonmarket housing,” she told me, meaning homes for under-market rates, and specifically rents around $1,000.

“It’s a really exciting time,” she added, noting that a federal election could be called as soon as next year. “I think the current federal government knows it needs to show some rapid actions, or it’s in trouble.”

Trans Canada

Wildfire damage in northern Quebec in June.Credit…Renaud Philippe for The New York Times
  • It was a fire season unlike any other in Canada, forcing thousands from their homes, scorching millions of acres and sending heavy fumes south. “It’s like our country exploded,” Tzeporah Berman, a climate activist, told David Wallace-Wells, a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, for his report on Canada’s year of fire.

  • Peter Nygard, a once-powerful fashion executive, testified in his sexual assault trial this week. Mr. Nygard offered testimony that countered what his lawyer called the “revisionist history” of the five complainants, who accuse him of sexually assaulting them in his office bedroom.

  • Air Canada and the Canadian government have apologized to Mohammad Yasin, a British lawmaker, after he accused them of improperly singling him out for an airport screening.

  • Songs by the Canadian singer Celine Dion are an apparent favorite of “siren clubs” in New Zealand, a subculture of Pacific Islanders who compete to blast their music the loudest.

Vjosa Isai is a reporter-researcher for The New York Times in Toronto.

How are we doing?
We’re eager to have your thoughts about this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Please send them to [email protected].

Like this email?
Forward it to your friends, and let them know they can sign up here.

Back to top button