What is a ‘fourplex’ and could it help Canada’s housing crisis?

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Could ‘fourplexes’ solve Canada’s housing crisis?
WATCH Could 'fourplexes' solve Canada's housing crisis? – Oct 19, 2023

Kelly Singh, 32, says she’s “as Mississauga as they come.”

She grew up in the Toronto suburb and hopes to make her life there, but as Canada’s housing crisis worsens, she has seen her community change rapidly.

“Many of my friends who grew up in my community, who grew up the same way I did, have had to leave. They would love to come back, but they simply don’t have that choice,” she said.

In addition to housing prices skyrocketing in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in the last few years, Singh said new homebuyers have very few choices in terms of what kind of house they want to live in. Outside of buying a single-family home, which can cost upwards of a million dollars, or a condo in a tower, there isn’t much else to purchase.

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Last week, a proposal before Mississauga city council aimed to change that and offer more options to homebuyers. The motion, which called for more four-unit housing, or ‘fourplexes,’ to be built around rapid transit stops, was voted down by council.

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Singh, a housing advocate with the group More Housing Mississauga, was among those who deputed before council in favour of the motion. She said the outcome was “disappointing.”

“While council was presented with a lot of good data that supported the value of fourplex housing in Mississauga, the councillors voted against the motion. They did not reject it based on a data-based response. Their rejection was on the desire for more consultation. It was repeatedly pointed out to them there will be ample time for public consultation as part of this second phase.”

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie and federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser both expressed their disappointment as well.

“I think it’s time that we move past exclusionary zoning and introduce gentle density into Mississauga,” Crombie told Global News soon after the vote, suggesting that councillors may change their minds in the “near future” after public consultations.

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This is also part of the federal government’s strategy to push municipalities to enact zoning changes, as part of its $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund.

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But in another city not far from Toronto, the debate around fourplexes went in another direction. On Monday, the council in Kitchener, Ont., asked city staff to draft a bylaw that would look into building fourplexes on residential lots. The motion could be voted on as soon as early 2024.

What is a fourplex?

A fourplex is a residential building with four distinct housing units.

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“A fourplex could have a number of configurations,” said Carolyn Whitzman, a housing policy expert and expert advisor to the Housing Assessment Resource Tools Project.

“I think the most sort of humane version of a fourplex would be two adjacent duplexes. So, two joined-up duplexes, each with two or three bedrooms,” she said.

James McKellar, professor emeritus of real estate and infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business, said: “If you drew a box and you drew a vertical line in the middle and a horizontal line in the middle, you would end up with four squares. And that’s a fourplex. It just opens up so many new or better ways of housing people.”

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The problem, though, is that fourplexes are illegal to build in most of Canada, McKellar notes.

“The City of Toronto banned these kinds of multiplex units in 1929,” he said. “And so, we got stuck with single-family housing.”

Whitzman added: “Zoning came in in the 1920s, so it has a century of use in Canada. 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.”

This, experts like Whitzman believe, entrenched the idea of an ideal Canadian home in the minds of many – a single-family home in the suburbs with a white picket fence, a lawn and a backyard.

'Cultural resistance'

One example Whitzman points to of a Canadian city that has more diversity of housing is Montreal.

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She said the notion that one cannot raise children in a multi-unit complex in cities like Montreal is wrong.

“I grew up in Montreal with a single mum, and we lived in duplexes. When I was a student, I lived in a triplex. I grew up in a duplex environment with no backyard. I am not harmed by that. I think a lot of it is cultural resistance,” she said.

“We just can’t afford this kind of single-family housing. But more importantly, it doesn’t satisfy a growing part of the market as people age,” McKellar said, adding that for an aging population looking to downsize, the current housing market is not well suited.

“The choice is (between) a 2,000-square-feet house or a 650-square-feet condo,” he said.

McKellar said a fourplex offers a solution for this conundrum.

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“It (fourplex housing) would allow you, for example, to move your parents in and have their own suite. It allows you to have an extended family. It also allows people to have an investment unit that they may have their kids stay in for a while and then they rent it out,” he said.

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A hallmark of the Mississauga fourplex proposal was that these housing units were set to be built around transit stops, including both bus corridors and light rail networks. Whitzman said the lack of viable transportation alternatives is another reason people might want to leave the suburbs.

While the immigration boom in the 1980s meant many new immigrants were making a beeline toward suburban centres like Brampton, Ont., and Mississauga, the next generation may not have such an easy time finding affordable homes in the cities they grew up in.

For many, the decision to move away from their hometowns means moving away from aging parents.

“Their kids can’t afford to live there anymore. The next generation isn’t living there partly because of affordability and partly because of those ridiculous commutes (from the suburbs to the cities),” Whitzman said.

Fourplexes could help cities in addition to residents

Aside from advantages for residents, McKellar said it would be better for city budgets too.

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“What we’re finding today is that we can’t afford the infrastructure for this new development,” he said. “You’ve got to build sewer water, police stations, fire stations, libraries, parks.”

It would be easier and cheaper to lay down pipes and sewer lines, he said, and to create this infrastructure if housing were denser.

“I’ve always said that cities work best when you find ways to bring people in close proximity to each other,” McKellar said.

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Whitzman said the rollout of the Housing Accelerator Fund and the tying of incentives to densification could help roll the ball on housing nationwide. She said many major cities across the country, such as Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria, were changing their mind on restrictive zoning laws. Meanwhile, some Ontario municipalities such as Ottawa were lagging behind.

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For Kelly Singh, the way the debate went in nearby Kitchener offers up some hope for her hometown. She is certain the debate will move toward more dense housing. She just hopes Mississauga isn’t left behind.

“Let us not be an outlier just for the sake of being an outlier. It doesn’t help us. It doesn’t help the people who live here already,” she said.

“And it’s certainly not helping the people who are dying to return to their community in Mississauga.”

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