Photo: James Bombales

Toronto is a city with plenty of sky-high condos. But when you look out across the city, you’ll find that large stretches of low-rise housing still make up most of the city’s land mass. Buildings in between — often referred to as “missing middle housing” — are few and far between. But according to one expert, there is a city with a variety of housing that Toronto can learn from.

“Tokyo’s become a sort of poster child for urban growth,” said Ryerson Centre for Urban Research and Land Development senior researcher Diana Petramala, in a recent episode of BuzzBuzzNews’ weekly Facebook live broadcast.

Petramala explained that Tokyo’s supply of new construction housing keeps up with the demands of its population, thanks to developer-friendly legislation, progressive zoning rules, and an enthusiastic yes-in-my-backyard population.

“There’s a little bit more collaboration between communities and the government to build middle density housing,” says Petramala. “People recognize the economic benefits of living in complete, mixed-use neighbourhoods with good transportation.”

The government also provides subsidies to developers willing to build missing-middle housing. But Petramala says that one of the biggest differences between Tokyo and Toronto are zoning rules.

“They have zoning for residential units, and it’s very flexible — it doesn’t matter if you’re building townhome, single-family residential units, or apartment buildings, the only restrictions they have are height,” she says.

In contrast, a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis found that 45 per cent of GTA residents live in low-rise homes, while 35 per cent live in apartment buildings. That leaves just 20 per cent of the population living in middle density housing.

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Toronto’s zoning rules makes it almost impossible to build other housing types in low-rise neighbourhoods. These make up 38 per cent of the city’s land mass, and 60 per cent of its residential areas.

“If you look at the numbers, Tokyo has almost six times the amount of density of the GTA,” says Petramala. “But they have far less high rises than we do, as a share of their overall stock.”

The missing middle matters, because living in Toronto is becoming increasingly unaffordable to many residents. Homeownership now accounts for 37 per cent of the average Canadian income, and Toronto’s home prices are well above the national average.

“These housing types present a way to introduce gentle density to Toronto, and provide more affordable options for homeowners,” says Petramala.

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