Why is zoning a problem?

CBC’s mini-documentary program Out in the Open with the ebullient Piya Chattopadhyay recently re-ran its segment on us and, although they updated the introduction to indicate that we were no longer a going concern, we’re now getting a flurry of new contacts.

One deserves a public response because it may be helpful to others.

Nils S. writes:

I’m curious to understand what issue the city of Toronto had with zoning? 

There are many houses in Toronto owned by multiple parties that are single family residential zoned.

If in the building there is just one kitchen and X number of bedroom / private spaces occupied by each owner how does that not fit into single family residential? 

Perhaps my understanding is wrong and you wanted to convert a house into x number of individual self contained apartments (ie private bedroom + kitchen like a condo) instead of just private bedroom space.

Your understanding is correct as far as it goes, Nils.

The City of Toronto no longer uses the term “single family dwelling,” which was part of the previous zoning bylaw. Instead, it refers to “residential dwelling houses.” This change came about at least in part because the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner pointed out to cities that they lack the constitutional authority to determine who makes up a family.

So, yes, for practical purposes a single kitchen means a single residential dwelling house, no matter who lives in it, and that’s what we were planning.

And if we had been prepared simply to buy and occupy an existing house, there would be no problem.

However, if you want to create something purpose-built or, as in our case, a combination of renovation and addition, you are likely to face two challenges.

The first problem is in part of our own making. The millennials who are most often among those purchasing and sharing houses don’t seem to mind sharing bathrooms. We do. In our plan, every bed-sitting room would include its own, fully accessible bathroom.

The problem arises, at least potentially, when you go to get your building permit. Architecturally, the plans look very similar to a rooming house. In many parts of the city, rooming houses are not permitted. It’s not a rooming house but it looks like a rooming house. So a permit may be questioned on that score. (We never got this far, but that is the advice we heard from a city planner early in our process.)

The second problem is more fundamental and here we have to get into the weeds a bit. Bear with me.

Once you say you’re building a residential dwelling house, you fit into a specific category that has a whole host of other conditions attached to it. One of these is density. In most of Toronto, the permitted density for lands zoned for residential dwelling houses is 0.6. This means that the area of finished living space cannot exceed 0.6 of the area of the property.

In our case, for example, our property measured 70 by 100, for 7,000 square feet, and our allowable density is 7000 x 0.6 = 4,200 square feet.

But we wanted 6,000 square feet: approximately 500 square feet for each of six private spaces, and another 3,000 for common space. This non-compliance with the zoning bylaw means we would have had to apply for a variance, which, as I explained in a previous post, adds both time and money to the process.

If Toronto (or any other city) wants to encourage seniors cohousing or coliving, it needs to do four things:

  1. Create seniors cohousing/coliving as a recognized type within the zoning bylaw, and provide it with an appropriate framework. Give people an opportunity to comply with a reasonable set of standards and then execute their plans “as of right.” Currently, by contrast, the need for a variance is almost guaranteed. Additionally, within the terms of the seniors cohousing type, it needs to consider the following, listed in order of importance.
  2. Relax density restrictions.
  3. Reduce or eliminate parking requirements where appropriate (we are literally a few steps from the subway, but there was still a question as to whether we would be required to provide a parking space for each unit);
  4. Reduce or eliminate development charges.

Planners and policy makers know this, but they’re reluctant to act. Every area of the city has its NIMBY squad on a hair trigger, and there is really no effective countervailing force.

To quote Kurt Vonnegut and Inspector Clouseau: “So it goes; it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry, you know?”

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