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Friday, April 19, 2024
Arch-i-text: Ford flak aside, mandated fourplexes could mean trouble
Building fourplexes is not an issue, writes columnist Brian Marshall – rather, it's the "as of right" town bylaw several municipalities have adopted, which remove almost all barriers for fourplex development, that are the issue. BRIAN MARSHALL

On March 8, Premier Doug Ford held a press conference in Milton. During his remarks, he ruled out allowing fourplexes “as of right” across Ontario, saying it would be a “massive mistake.”

Back at Queen’s Park, Ford’s office later clarified the premier’s statement by saying that municipalities can still choose to allow fourplexes – even “as of right,” meaning allowable to be done automatically – but the province government won’t legislate these types of multi-unit dwellings across the board.

While I rarely find myself agreeing with the housing legislation and policy the Ford government has brought forward since the premier entered office in 2018, in this instance, I also believe it would be a massive mistake — understanding that my rationale does not align with Ford’s political agenda.

Now, my position on that “mistake” is not based on a criticism of true fourplexes — a single building that contains four separate dwelling units, each with its own entry.

On the contrary, widespread construction of buildings in a fourplex configuration should notably enhance the number of new housing units introduced into the market each year.

Further, fourplex units could potentially carry a more affordable acquisition price for the home buyer if certain challenges are overcome.

The principal challenge of an affordable fourplex offering is posed by legal barriers which make it simply too expensive for a developer to build and register a four-unit condo.

Alternatively, the cooperative ownership model has potential however, banks are very resistant to writing mortgages on ownership wherein the collateral is co-op shares rather than the actual property — credit unions and private lenders have been the principal source of mortgages.

In 2022, the federal government launched the Co-operative Housing Development Program, with $500 million in funding and $1 billion in loans.

To date, this program has made few gains in addressing the limitations in the existing co-op model.

As a result, and until a new, more feasible ownership structure can be developed to underwrite general market sales, fourplexes will principally address the rental market or those purchasers looking for a multi-generational family home.

That said, it’s not the fourplex that would be the mistake, rather it’s the “as of right” concept that could lead a community down the proverbial rabbit hole.

In his book “Land-Use Planning,” Howard Epstein defines “as of right” in the following fashion: “Entitlement of the owner of property to use or develop it, without recourse to a public hearing process or a vote of municipal council, if the proposed use accords with the zoning bylaws.”

In short, a property owner can build, without any type of oversight, whatever they wish, provided it meets the bylaw(s).

Remember that, in and of itself, a town or city council must pass a bylaw – which would contain the required compliance criteria – to allow “as of right” fourplex developments.

To date, the cities of Toronto, Mississauga and London – spurred by the carrot of federal dollars incentivizing municipalities to increase housing stock – have passed such a bylaw, while Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph and Burlington are busy working toward doing the same.

So, let’s take a quick look at some of the key provisions included in Toronto’s bylaw (read “multiplex” as fourplex). These include:

  • Permit multiplex building types in residential detached, residential semi-detached and residential townhouse zones.
  • Exempt multiplex building types from floor space index – the maximum permitted area on a piece of land for construction (arguably a lot coverage consideration) – regulations.
  • Permit multiplexes up to 10 metres in height in zones where the current maximum height is less than 10 metres.
  • Amend the permitted maximum number of dwelling units on the lot to allow up to four units in all residential zones.
  • Exempt multiplexes from zoning criteria which specify the maximum number of storeys permitted.

Now, let’s assume Toronto’s bylaw provisions will serve as a boilerplate for other Ontario municipalities, considering the “as of right” legal definition, and apply this to your local neighbourhood.

Without any oversight or limitation, a property owner may construct a building more than 10 metres, or 32 feet, tall.

However, because the maximum number of storeys has been exempted by the fifth point, this maximum height becomes a variable.

Further, since these buildings are exempt from floor space index values, the property owner has a valid argument to ignore (“as of right”) any lot coverage provisions.

Net-net … following Toronto’s provisions, after the municipal adoption of an ”as of right” bylaw in this form, your home and streetscape could be dominated and overshadowed by a multi-storey building.

And neither you, nor your locally elected representatives, will have any opportunity for comment or recourse. 

Should this resonate with you as draconian, let me assure you that it is.

When an elected government passes an “as of right” law or bylaw, it essentially abrogates its authority under law, deprives voters of their rights to be heard or enact any method of appeal and conveys these rights and authority to the whims of an individual property owner limited only by the provisions of the associated “as of right” law or bylaw.

So, why would every political party – with the exception of the Conservatives – at the provincial level endorse “as of right” legislation?

Simply because they have swallowed, whole hog, the narrative that NIMBYism is the challenge rather than deal with the decades-long failure of governments (at every level) to properly engage expert urban planners to create urban development zones – with associated transit connectivity – within the official plans to embrace fourplex buildings.

The “coulda, woulda, shoulda” debate might be endless, but that’s all water under the bridge.

The question is, what can we as informed voters do to direct a future that embraces sympathetic – to the community, its neighbourhoods and streetscapes – housing for every demographic required within a viable community?

In some municipalities, this might take the form of petitioning council to have staff inventory all commercial, industrial and institutional zoned areas that are underutilized, either due to lack of development investment as a result of local saturation (availability of existing buildings serving these purposes) or the cost of replacing existing outdated buildings to meet the needs of 21st-century business.

Subsequent analysis of these areas could, and almost certainly would, yield many residential multiplex rezoning opportunities.

Following the same citizen generated petition imperative, most municipalities have residential zoned areas within their boundaries that, having no heritage value, are ripe for urban renewal.

There are various fellow municipally owned lands that could be lodged in land trusts, which could provide similar multiplex zoning opportunities.

All of which could be leveraged to provide this type of multiplex housing without undue interference to established neighbourhoods and streetscapes.

These are only two suggestions out of many, but all require direct community involvement to chart a path forward.

As someone far smarter than I once suggested, “You get what you earn. If you earn nothing by the work of your hands and the sweat of your brow, don’t complain — there’s no free lunch.”

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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