Zoning, building codes may hamper Ottawa’s housing catalogue: experts

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As the federal government begins work on creating a catalogue of pre-approved housing designs, getting all levels of government to use them may be challenging, experts say.

Colleen Bailey from More Neighbours Toronto says some municipalities and provinces will need to adjust their zoning bylaws and building codes to best make use of the catalogue, but many may not be inclined to do so.

I think we’ve heard some positive noises from municipalities and provinces, but it’s going to be up to them whether they get on board with some aspects of this, which would really help to make it a success,” Bailey told Global News.

Housing Minister Sean Fraser announced Tuesday the Liberal government is reviving a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) program to provide standardized housing blueprints to builders by the end of 2024.  Fraser’s vision for the modern revamp will include various styles of homes, including multiplexes, mid-rise buildings, student and senior housing and “other small-to-medium scale residential properties,” he said.

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“This will include garden suites and laneway homes and different kinds of houses that will solve the challenges that our communities are facing today,” Fraser added.

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Pre-approved housing plans are anticipated to cut down on the building timeline by having projects move through the municipal zoning and permit process more quickly, but Bailey said Ottawa will likely face some pushback from provinces and municipalities.

“The federal government can use these designs to streamline some CMHC programs, but to have maximum impact, we need the designs to also be pre-approved under municipal zoning and design guidelines, at least for some lots,” Bailey said. “These catalogue designs, they should be a signal to municipalities about how to design these bylaws to really make multiplexes feasible in cities and small towns all across Canada.”

Bailey adds that even if municipalities adjust their zoning bylaws, provincial governments will need to be on the same page as well as make necessary modifications on their end, such as building codes.

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“You really need all three levels of government to use this catalogue in order to speed things up,” she said.

In Toronto, these approvals can take 18 months for mid-rises, Bailey said.

Affordable housing advocate Mark Richardson, of HousingNowTO, said that right now the catalogue would only be successful under very specific circumstances in the city. For example, it could work if the catalogue included options for creating four-to-six in-fill apartments on a single 40-foot wide bungalow lot in the suburbs.

Furthermore, they would have to be allowed “as of right” by city hall, meaning a project would need only a permit, no further approvals, and be unappealable to the Ontario Land Tribunal.

If that’s the case, the city might be able to build about 200 new apartment units by 2026-2027, he said.

Richardson added that launching blueprints for “gentle-density” doesn’t work in a Toronto context, where the need is so great.

“We would advise Minister Fraser that his federal focus needs to be on accelerating much denser new apartment building developments, near transit, where each project is generating hundreds of new apartments at a time rather than a handful of units per site,” Richardson told Global News by email.

The minority Liberals have recently been touting the Housing Accelerator Fund, a program designed to entice cities to submit applications for federal funding tied to zoning changes.

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They promised the $4-billion fund during the 2021 election campaign. The money was allocated to CMHC in the 2022 federal budget, with the goal of adding at least 100,000 new homes across the country over five years.

Several cities across the country have already made agreements with the federal governments through that funding initiative.

However, it’s unclear where the provincial and municipal governments stand on this week’s announcement and how they’ll embrace a set of one-size-fits-all housing designs. Given the role they play in construction — and in dealing with the challenges that come with a housing shortage — Fraser said it would be in their “self-interest” for all parties to work together. 

“If we can collaborate with our provincial partners and our municipal partners, we’re going to dramatically accelerate the pace of home building in this country,” Fraser said Tuesday.

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Housing policy consultant Carolyn Whitzman said the catalogue is “a very welcome part of a much larger effort” to accelerate housing construction.

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She said the federal government is taking leadership on an issue of national importance, which municipalities and provinces would be smart to comply with.

“There have been highly restrictive and exclusionary zoning practices for about 50 years now, in some cases longer, and that needs to change if we’re going to have more well-located, affordable housing,” Whitzman told Global News.

She adds that while the pre-approved plans will likely not have a big impact on the cost of new homes, it will help make housing construction more “productive.”

“It can de-risk development because part of that pre-approval process would mean more rapid approval of housing and more rapid approval of financing packages,” she said. “There’d be a lot more certainty about costs and it could, as I say, help with the productivity of housing, which is still in many cases very bespoke.”

Still, Whitzman said affordability will remain a matter of importance to Canadians, as the cost of homes skyrocketed following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s really fascinating to see the rapid changes that are happening after a long period where the programs in the National Housing Strategy were just not working to create genuinely affordable homes. And the challenge remains to create homes that low and moderate income people can afford, whether it’s rental or ownership,” she said.

— with files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea and Mackenzie Gray. 


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