Chris Spoke: This election is an opportunity for Ontario to get serious about housing

To accommodate future growth, Ontario will need to build at least one million new homes over the next ten years
Builders work on the roof of a home in a new subdivision in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata, on Friday, July 30, 2021. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

It’s been a week since Ontario announced the membership of its Housing Affordability Task Force. The idea is that these experts will work in consultation with as many stakeholders as possible to develop a plan to address the province’s housing affordability crisis.

I have some ideas for changes that they should include in their final output. If accepted and successfully implemented, these would do a lot to unlock the massive potential of missing middle housing development in Ontario’s cities.

To place this all in context, consider the following: to accommodate future growth, we’ll need to build at least one million new homes in Ontario over the next ten years. That’s much more than the approximately 720,000 that were completed over the last ten years.

There are 850,000 detached and 250,000 semi-detached homes in Toronto alone. If it were legal for these to be converted to lowrise multi-unit housing, or what planners call missing middle housing, converting just 15 percent of them to fourplexes (or 10 percent of them to sixplexes) would deliver half of those one million new homes.

Here are a few ideas to allow for more missing middle housing throughout the province that I’ve organized into three categories: pre-election, platform, and post-election.


The next five to six months should be used by the province to demonstrate that it’s serious about addressing housing affordability with strong supply-side reforms while not actually touching land-use rules—yet. (Meaningful land use liberalization is as much a third rail in Western politics as any, but it is necessary. It should be saved for the first 100 days following the election.)

Specifically, the province should make three big changes that would set the stage for a boom in missing middle housing development once those land-use rules are updated.

First, it should exempt buildings of up to eight units from site plan control.

Currently, any development project featuring more than three or four units, depending on the municipality, needs to undertake a lengthy and expensive site plan control process before it can apply for and receive any building permits.

Without going into too much detail on the steps involved in the site plan control process, that threshold should be bumped up to eight units.

Second, it should amend the Ontario Building Code to allow for a single exit, with alternative fire measures implemented, on buildings up to four storeys tall.

Currently, all multi-unit development projects require two exits. This one requirement can often mean the difference between a feasible and infeasible project at the scale we’re talking about, as missing middle housing is often built on small urban infill sites.

The Ontario Building Code could allow for one exit with alternative fire measures implemented (for example, a sprinkler system) without affecting resident safety. The Ontario Association of Architects, among other professional groups, agrees that this is a good idea.

Third, it should amend the Condominium Act to allow for easier small-scale land stratification at the missing middle scale. 

This one’s pretty straightforward: it shouldn’t be cost-prohibitive to condominiumize a fourplex. The easy way to do this would be to just copy British Columbia’s framework.


The election platforms of all parties should be used to rhetorically emphasize their seriousness about addressing the housing affordability issue while not being too specific about the more controversial aspects of those supply-side reforms.

Remember, we call NIMBYs “NIMBYs” because they all insist that they’re very much pro-development, just not in or anywhere near their backyard.

All three parties should include language in their platforms around working with municipalities to allow for more missing middle housing in more neighbourhoods.

The key here is to stress the economic, environmental, and social benefits of gentle intensification in a way that would be hard for any opposition to form and attack in the abstract.


Now for the fun stuff. The first 100 days following the election are when the big, controversial changes need to be made.

Remember: housing is expensive because there’s not enough of it, and there’s not enough of it because of a strong and pervasive status quo bias to preserve the so-called character of our urban neighbourhoods.

If you want to overcome a status quo bias, you need to establish a new status quo as quickly as possible ahead of the next election.

The first 100 days following the election are when the province needs to force meaningful land-use liberalization.

These are three ideas for what that should look like, which I’m borrowing (with some amendment) from a bill that was just introduced in the New York State Senate last week:

  • No minimum lot sizes above 1,200 square feet;
  • No minimum parking requirements; and
  • No maximum building heights below 12 meters; and
  • Every residential lot must allow a minimum of four units, or six units within a population centre of 500,000 or more people, or eight units within 800 meters of a major transit station.

Taken together, these changes would lead to an unprecedented boom in missing middle housing development over the next few decades.

They would also open our urban neighbourhoods back up to the young, the new, and the middle class while curbing urban sprawl and kickstarting a new wave of upward mobility.

Given the severity of the housing affordability crisis and the extraordinary appetite for bold action, the province has a generational opportunity to chart a new path for our future.

We should all hope that they choose one that includes many more homes for many more people.

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