Anshu Arora LLM, MSc, PMP

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Can a zoning ‘revolution’ save Canada from a housing crisis?

On Oct. 20, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie came back from her temporary leave to overrule a previous rejection by city council and allow the building of four-unit housing on low-rise residential lots.

The move not only kept Mississauga in the running for a federal housing grant, but it also added the city to the growing list of municipalities around Canada pushing through massive zoning changes to address Canada’s housing crisis.

Since the federal government’s $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund was launched in May of this year, cities have been rushing to claim the incentives that are tied to zoning changes. In the last few months, the Ontario cities of Brampton, London, Vaughan and Hamilton, as well as Halifax and Kelowna, have all signed agreements with the federal government. Others, like the Ontario cities of Mississauga, Kitchener and Burlington, as well as Calgary, were making significant gains in zoning changes.

This has led some experts to argue that Canada was witnessing nothing short of a zoning “revolution.” In much of the country, zoning restrictions mean developers are allowed to build only single-family homes or condo towers in residential areas. There is a huge chunk of housing options, often referred to as “missing middle housing,” that does not get built. “It’s been really fascinating to watch how quickly that’s happened after almost 50 years of that (single-family) zoning being locked in place,” Carolyn Whitzman, a housing policy expert and expert advisor to the Housing Assessment Resource Tools Project, told Global News this week.

Whitzman said cities around Canada are beginning to realize that single-family zoning is not only serving them poorly but is exacerbating the housing crisis. “Zoning came in in the 1920s, so it has a century of use in Canada,” she said. “They were made much stricter in terms of suburban redevelopment from about the 1960s and 1970s onward. So now, you’re talking about one or two generations that really can’t imagine any other (kind of) development happening.”

James McKellar, professor emeritus of real estate and infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business, said Canadian cities need to adapt zoning rules to allow for housing that better meets the needs of Canada’s population. Part of the reason many cities are accelerating the pace of change is the federal government’s Housing Accelerator Fund. The federal government is pushing municipalities to make rapid zoning changes. This includes pushing municipalities to build more fourplex and mixed housing units.















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