Op-Ed: Is Lot Splitting a Good Way to Increase Density? Yes.

By August 6, 2019 No Comments

This op-ed appeared in the Toronto Star on August 6, 2019. By Cherise Burda.

Toronto is facing a housing affordability crisis, and single-detached neighbourhoods are, unfortunately, growing increasingly exclusive. Meanwhile, our population is growing fast. Adding new housing throughout the city, including in desirable residential neighbourhoods made up of mostly detached houses, is key to supporting a healthy, inclusive region.

As it stands, only the wealthiest of Toronto’s residents can afford to buy a detached house. A recent Zoocasa study found that only the top 10% of GTA residents could afford a “benchmark house,” costing $873,100. Detached houses in Toronto are even more expensive, selling for $1.35 million on average. 

Over the next twenty-five years we are expecting about 1,000,000 new neighbours. And, over the next fifty years Toronto’s population is on track to double. In simpler terms anywhere we currently have one housing unit we will need two. 

This combination of an affordability crisis and rapidly growing population is why City Council recently voted overwhelmingly in support of Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão and Mayor John Tory’s motion to study opportunities to accommodate new forms of housing in our residential neighbourhoods.

Adding gentle density to detached-residential neighbourhoods is critical. These areas occupy approximately 70% of the total land zoned for residential uses in the city. Restricting these neighbourhoods from changing and densifying means that these areas will become even more exclusive than they already are. Furthermore, if we expect families and other large households to continue to find a home in Toronto we are going to need to build more than just tall condos in high growth nodes. This means finding ways to encourage and allow other forms of housing, like new laneway units, townhouses, multiplexes and low-rise apartments.

We are already seeing the impacts of our exclusionary approach to detached residential neighbourhoods. While the City’s population is growing, the population of most detached neighbourhoods is aging and declining, leading many residents in these areas to be overhoused: a study by the Canadian Association for Economic Analysis estimates that Toronto contains 2.2 million empty bedrooms. 

Finding new ways to add housing to these areas—like lot splitting, or converting single-family homes into duplexes or triplexes—will help ensure we are using our residential land efficiently. It would offer seniors an opportunity to downsize and unlock home equity while aging in place, and provide more attainable options for new neighbours to move in. The population added could help reverse the trend of school closures. It would also help support local services, transit, and the cafes and restaurants that people love in their neighbourhoods. 

From a climate change mitigation standpoint it is important that we add density to our urban footprint, especially near transit, rather than relying on sprawl to accommodate our growing population. Transportation and buildings are responsible for the majority of Ontario’s Greenhouse Gas emissions, and our continued development of car-dependent neighbourhoods is a major culprit. Densifying Toronto’s residential neighbourhoods presents an alternative to sprawl. 

As we convert, rebuild and expand our existing housing stock we have the opportunity to achieve even deeper greenhouse gas reductions. Vancouver now mandates that by 2020 new residential buildings from one to six storeys must be carbon neutral and use 50% less energy than homes did in 2007. 

No action alone will be the salve to our affordability crisis, but to continue building a livable and sustainable city we need more diverse new housing options. Making headway in our residential neighbourhoods is an important step towards a comprehensive housing action plan, one that should include plans to build and maintain new subsidized housing alongside market housing to ensure everyone can find a home. 

Toronto is not alone is reconsidering what forms of development should be permitted in residential neighbourhoods—Minneapolis, facing its own affordability crisis, recently developed a new City Plan and zoning by-law that allows more density along transit routes, and allows for triplexes anywhere that currently allows for single-detached homes. 

What’s compelling is that the movement to change that Minneapolis’ zoning was led in part by owners of detached houses in single-family neighbourhoods who recognized the need and the benefits of adding gentle density to their community. They called themselves “Neighbours for More Neighbours.” We have the opportunity to do the same.