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Roman Mars [00:00:34] Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. As you fly into Pearson Airport in Toronto, you can see Canada’s largest city take shape beneath you. Downtown, there is a dense core of tall, glassy buildings along the waterfront of Lake Ontario. Outside of that, short single-family homes sprawl out in every direction. This is the view reporter Jay Cockburn saw on his window as he moved to Canada in 2019.
Jay Cockburn [00:01:34] In my head, I knew exactly where I wanted to live–a real big city apartment, like the classic brownstone walk-ups you might see in New York or the three-story stone apartment buildings with iron staircases you see in Montreal. I had this romantic notion of living in one of those early 20th century apartments. You know, great lighting, a little exposed brick, maybe even a nice fireplace. Is that really so much to ask for?
Roman Mars [00:01:58] But at first, Jay struggled to find anything like that dream apartment in Toronto.
Jay Cockburn [00:02:02] Instead, as a renter, I found myself looking at a lot of 400 square foot condos, high up in some shiny and soulless towers, and some dank basement apartments under some rich person’s house. All of these options were really expensive. I kept wondering, “Where are all the low-rise apartment buildings?” The kinds of buildings you find in abundance in Montreal or New York or Chicago.
Roman Mars [00:02:26] Jay was looking for a middle ground and not finding it–something in between the extremes of single-family homes and big generic condo towers. But there just weren’t a lot of middle-sized rental buildings in Toronto.
Jay Cockburn [00:02:41] Lots of cities are in the same boat as Toronto–places like Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and Vancouver. All of these cities have a pronounced lack of mid-sized buildings. Right now, this is one of the big issues for urban planners. They even have a name for it: “the missing middle.”
Roman Mars [00:03:05] The term missing middle can be confusing. It does not refer to middle class housing. The missing middle is strictly about architectural scale. The middle in this case refers to a huge swath of housing options–duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, courtyard buildings and low-rise apartment buildings. Buildings of this size have an outsized effect on the city. Cities with these medium density housing options have a lot of benefits.
Jay Cockburn [00:03:31] For starters, they are less expensive to live in. Cities with lots of middle housing just have more choice in the housing market. The options are more diverse. They have more robust neighborhoods and options for families.
Roman Mars [00:03:44] By contrast, cities without middle housing tend to be harder for pretty much everyone except for the wealthy, and they tend to be more segregated. So, it’s easy to see why there’s some conflation between the missing middle and the lack of middle-income housing options; the two are absolutely related.
Jay Cockburn [00:04:01] Toronto’s missing middle is pretty extreme, and the main culprit for this is–I hope you’re excited–early 20th century zoning laws.
Roman Mars [00:04:11] In the late 1800s, there was a big wave of immigration to cities across North America. In Toronto, there was already an established population of British immigrants. But this new wave included a lot of Eastern European immigrants. New multi-unit tenement buildings cropped up to house these new people. But there was a backlash against these new immigrants. And in 1912, Toronto banned apartment buildings in most of the city.
Jay Cockburn [00:04:34] This ban was an early version of exclusionary zoning–the kind of residential zoning where large swathes of urban centers are reserved for single family homes and only single-family homes. Cities across North America were passing these kinds of zoning laws, and they were driven by a false perception that apartment buildings were dens of inequity.
Richard Dennis [00:04:56] They were often referred to as “French flats.” There was a kind of association of Frenchness with dubious morality.
Jay Cockburn [00:05:07] This is Richard Dennis. He’s professor emeritus at University College London, and he’s kind of the historian of apartments in Toronto. Developers at the time were trying to associate their buildings with the European class and luxury. Instead, they were met with unhinged accusations of immorality. Richard Dennis says this distaste for apartment buildings in the early 20th century was based on racist and sexist attitudes that were reflected in the media.
Richard Dennis [00:05:36] The editor of the Canadian Architect and Builder wrote successive editorials where he condemned them. And he condemned them on these grounds that women would have nothing to do, and they would kind of go off the rails.
Jay Cockburn [00:05:52] The newspaper articles about apartments at this time are wild. I dug up a bunch and there are lots of references to how apartments are unsanitary and poor for the morals of the city. There’s this quote here from The Globe newspaper in 1912.
Roman Mars [00:06:06] Quote, “Toronto must look to our building laws or she will be overrun with a plague of disease breeding tenements and apartment houses.” End quote.
Jay Cockburn [00:06:15] At the time, Canada’s elites were largely British. Toronto’s puritanical WASPs were scared these apparently filthy apartments would be too tempting for nice British families.
Richard Dennis [00:06:26] And they also alluded to the idea of race suicide. And the fear was that if people went and lived in an apartment, well, they’d never become parents because they’d find that life was on the one hand so comfortable, but also spatially relatively constricted. They would never start a family. And that’s where you would get this idea of race suicide. The birth rate would decline, and British families would be overtaken by immigrant families.
Jay Cockburn [00:06:59] To be clear, these articles don’t reflect the reality of what apartments were like in Toronto. Early apartment buildings were actually aimed at the city’s elite. The first two were built around the turn of the century and were so luxurious that in a lot of the units, they didn’t have kitchens. You were expected to order meals from the building’s restaurant. They were often called “apartment hotels,” and they were marketed to the great and the good.
Roman Mars [00:07:26] But apartment living was at odds with how Toronto wanted to be seen.
Richard Dennis [00:07:30] Well, on the one hand, it had this view of itself as a city of homes. And a city of homes meant single family dwellings and home ownership.
Jay Cockburn [00:07:43] Toronto was growing rapidly. It went from 200,000 people at the turn of the century to half a million in 1920. With that, developers started buying up land to build apartments, but they faced fierce resistance from the city–including smear campaigns.
Richard Dennis [00:07:59] They tend to stress, you know, that either the architect or the developer has got links to either the United States or to Montreal.
Roman Mars [00:08:12] Which if you’re from Toronto, are some incredibly slanderous accusations.
Richard Dennis [00:08:16] So there was a kind of tension between the people who saw the future of the city as being that kind of metropolitan center, which would attract people who wanted luxury housing–perhaps not just luxury suburban housing, but a downtown apartment where they were close to things, to entertainment, and to those kinds of activities.
Jay Cockburn [00:08:41] So apartment builders had one vision of an urban center, but it was at odds with another vision of Toronto as a city of homes.
Richard Dennis [00:08:50] Tension between those people and the people who saw Toronto as a nice, suburban, domestic paradise, where everybody would have their own little plot out in more and more distant suburbs.
Roman Mars [00:09:04] These attitudes prevailed across North America and led to a whole bunch of cities banning apartment buildings in wealthy neighborhoods. This movement was driven by the chief planner of St. Louis, a man named Harland Bartholomew.
Jay Cockburn [00:09:18] Bartholomew was the architect of single use zoning in Saint Louis, and he was hired by cities across North America–like Memphis, Chattanooga, Rochester and even Vancouver–to design restrictive zoning policies. When explaining his policies, Bartholomew was explicitly racist. This is a direct quote–Bartholomew said his plan in St. Louis was to “preserve the more desirable residential neighborhoods and to prevent movement into finer residential districts by colored people.”
Roman Mars [00:09:50] Bartholomew had a big influence on urban planners across the continent. But one city went above and beyond with restrictive zoning–Toronto. In 1912, the city passed Bylaw 6061, which banned all apartment buildings in residential areas. At the time, most apartment buildings were a few stories high–the kind of buildings we would call “middle housing” today.
Jay Cockburn [00:10:13] The bylaw included a list of streets where apartment buildings were forbidden. And that list included pretty much every street in Toronto except for the largest commercial avenues. On those streets, all you could build were detached single-family homes. Lots of clever developers actually found a way to profit off Toronto’s fancy apartment hysteria, including one man named Alfred Hawes. Hawes bought a plot of land in downtown Toronto and basically threatened to build apartments there until the neighbors bought it from him.
Richard Dennis [00:10:46] And this is a characteristic which happened several times after 1905 in other buildings, where basically developers threatened to do a development. And then they persuade the other local residents that they’ll buy the land instead–and of course they buy it at an inflated price. So, you make your money without having to do anything at all. Having done this once, he then promptly buys the lot on the other side of the road, which was also a vacant corner lot.
Roman Mars [00:11:21] It was on that lot that Alfred Hawes made good on his threat to build an apartment building in Toronto, which he called Spadina Gardens. It was only the fourth apartment building ever constructed in the city, and it received real pushback. The city denied Hawes a permit and even rushed through a bylaw in an effort to stop his construction. But Hawes didn’t care. He started building Spadina Gardens without a permit. He ignored the bylaw, and somehow, he got away with it.
Jay Cockburn [00:11:48] In fact, Hawes’ apartment building is still there, and it’s now the oldest end use apartment building in the city. I actually had a chance to check it out, and it’s an incredible historical artifact. A low-rise apartment built in Toronto before the city banned these types of buildings. It’s the kind of place that could have been everywhere in Toronto if it weren’t for exclusionary zoning.
Charlotte Mickie [00:12:12] Hi. Nice to meet you.
Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:12:12] Nice to meet you.
Jay Cockburn [00:12:15] The building is four stories high with reddish brown brick. It’s got that classic pre-war look with bay windows, elegant detailing, and this unusual striped effect in the stone on the ground floor.
Charlotte Mickie [00:12:28] I don’t know if you want to go up the stairs or if you want to take the very ancient elevator.
Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:12:31] I mean, I kind of want to see the ancient elevator. Is there room for two in it? It’s one of the really old school ones.
Charlotte Mickie [00:12:39] Yeah. Yeah. And it is the original one.
Jay Cockburn [00:12:41] This is Charlotte Mickie, and she’s kind of the unofficial historian of Spadina Gardens. And she kindly let me put my nose around the building.
Charlotte Mickie [00:12:49] It’s just down the hall. I’ll show you something–first of all–because we were talking about the glass. So, this is, I think, one of the most charming…
Jay Cockburn [00:12:56] This is more like the kind of place I wanted to find when I moved here. It’s a low-rise apartment with character and community.
Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:13:04] Do you feel like you have a sense of community within the building?
Charlotte Mickie [00:13:07] Yes, we do. Absolutely. No, we all help each other out, and we all know each other, which is really nice.
Jay Cockburn [00:13:13] It’s thoughtfully designed. It’s airy and bright. Not at all the pit of amorality and disease that those newspapers depicted. In fact, this building was marketed to the city’s more privileged residents. That’s still true today. It’s more than a little out of my price range.
Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:13:29] And where does this go back here? So, this is stepping off the back side of the kitchen. There’s a little back corridor.
Charlotte Mickie [00:13:36] So, you can come through there, or you can come through here.
Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:13:38] Oh, and it loops right round to the entrance hall?
Charlotte Mickie [00:13:43] Yeah. You see what I mean now about this sort of circular flow?
Roman Mars [00:13:46] Spadina Gardens is not affordable housing. In fact, it’s pretty expensive to rent there today. Middle housing doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper housing, but one of the reasons that it’s so expensive is because there’s not enough middle housing to go around.
Jay Cockburn [00:14:01] Toronto could have had similar buildings across the city. This building would not be so remarkable in many other cities like Chicago or New York. But the apartment ban of 1912 stopped developers from building all kinds of apartments. The nice, expensive places like this for the city’s wealthy and fashionable residents, but also the kind of middle housing that’s affordable for middle class families.
Roman Mars [00:14:25] Spadina Gardens didn’t kick off a trend of rogue developers defying the bylaws and putting up apartment buildings everywhere because after Bylaw 6061 passed, city planners weren’t finished with their war on apartment buildings.
Jay Cockburn [00:14:38] As Toronto expanded outward in the ’60s, city planners designated residential neighborhoods as “inviolate,” meaning they couldn’t be touched by new development. The only thing you can build there are single family homes. It was a real statement of “Do not mess with our neighborhoods.” On the city land use map, these inviolate neighborhoods were colored in yellow.
Roman Mars [00:15:01] That’s why for years Toronto has had something called “the yellow belt,” a sea of neighborhoods where new development was limited to detached single family homes. According to House Divided, a book about Toronto’s missing middle, the yellow belt in Toronto is more than twice the size of Manhattan.
Jay Cockburn [00:15:16] This yellow belt zoning stops Toronto from building more middle housing. That’s why we don’t find a duplex or a low rise walk-up on every corner. And that missing middle in Toronto has real consequences for the city.
Roman Mars [00:15:29] Urbanists say the lack of middle housing in Toronto has led to a divided city. If all you build are single family homes, that makes lots of residential neighborhoods unaffordable. Historically, middle housing has been disproportionately useful for immigrant families and single women.
Cheryll Case [00:15:45] Apartments provided women with the opportunity to access affordable housing more independently. So, with single detached housing or even semi-detached housing, a woman will only be able to access that if they were living as a domestic servant or they were a wife.
Jay Cockburn [00:15:59] Cheryll Case is one of the editors of the book House Divided. She says the missing middle has led to economic but also racial segregation in Toronto.
Cheryll Case [00:16:08] So the missing middle has always been a race issue. So, for evidence of this, you can actually look back into Thorncrest Village, which is an exclusively detached neighborhood that was built in Etobicoke.
Jay Cockburn [00:16:19] The neighborhood Cheryll is talking about was one of the first real suburban communities, built in Toronto in the 1940s. But it could be almost anywhere in the yellow belt. It’s large, single-family homes, surrounded by trees and greenery. You wouldn’t know you’re in a huge North American metropolis.
Cheryll Case [00:16:37] And so in this neighborhood, people had to apply to buy housing there. And the people who were applying explained why they were applying to buy housing there. And they very directly explained that they were buying that housing so they could escape the diversity of the other neighborhoods.
Jay Cockburn [00:16:54] Zoning might have been designed to protect these neighborhoods from change, but Cheryll says that even they suffer. While the city as a whole grows, these neighborhoods are actually losing population.
Cheryll Case [00:17:07] It’s a part of a broader picture about living healthily and having healthy communities. So right now, in the city of Toronto, you have schools closing all across the city because these are neighborhoods that haven’t seen any growth happening in them.
Jay Cockburn [00:17:21] You might assume a lot of the city’s housing woes could be explained by a lack of new construction. But anyone who lives in Toronto knows the city is building lots of giant condo towers. In fact, between 1996 and 2016, Toronto built housing at one and a half times the rate of population growth.
Roman Mars [00:17:41] In theory, these condos should provide more housing and bring prices down. And I have to think that that helps a little, but these new condos haven’t fixed the city’s housing woes. Toronto is still way behind in terms of housing availability, and the legacy of banning most buildings that would have made up the missing middle is partially to blame. A report found that in 2020, Toronto had 360 housing units for every 1,000 residents. That’s well below the average for cities in G7 countries, which is 471 units for every 1,000 residents. And those units that do exist in Toronto aren’t bringing prices down. A one-bedroom apartment there rents for over $2,000 a month, and that number keeps going up. These units are not putting downward pressure on the price of a detached house either, which is around $2 million.
Jay Cockburn [00:18:30] For me, a big problem with these new condo towers is this–they only really serve a very narrow range of people. Most of the new residences being built are “luxury”–I hope you can hear the air quotes there–“luxury” condos that only have one bedroom and are totally unsuitable for families. They also come with hefty monthly fees that makes them unaffordable for lots of people. Those small units only serve one type of market–young single professionals who want a clean, low effort place to live. Anyone else is kind of crowded out. And in the current market, that’s all that gets built. I spoke to Naama Blonder. She’s an architect and a planner, and she runs a company called Smart Density. She’s all about the missing middle. She wants the city to be filling in those density gaps.
Naama Blonder [00:19:20] I do believe condos belong in the city. They belong next to expensive infrastructure, such as transit. I have nothing against them–yet it seems like we are building a lot of units, and they don’t reflect the diversity that is currently needed in the city.
Jay Cockburn [00:19:43] When Naama says “diversity” here, she’s referencing the types of units that are built. I’ve been scouring floorplans for proposed and in-progress developments, and they’re largely tiny one bedrooms or bachelors and studios. I want to call it misguided, but it’s not really guided at all. Developers just can’t build much else.
Roman Mars [00:20:06] The thing is, there are developers who want to build middle housing. But in most places, it’s still illegal to build anything except for single family homes. And in the places where you can put up taller buildings, all the incentives push you in the direction of giant condo towers.
Jay Cockburn [00:20:22] Jason Allen John is a mortgage broker and a developer in Toronto. He wants to build affordable housing in communities he cares about, like Toronto’s Little Jamaica neighborhood.
Jason Allen John [00:20:33] You know, like, my personal vision would be kind of cool if it turned into a massive, like, business commerce hub for, you know, Black individuals–significant missing middle towers, a mix of condos, affordable ownership, commercial space, office buildings, all on that strip.
Jay Cockburn [00:20:52] Jason bought a site in Little Jamaica a couple of years ago. He wanted to kick start the process of revitalizing the area by providing affordable, mid-rise apartment buildings.
Jason Allen John [00:21:03] So I wanted to say, like, “Oh no, you can do a project that could service the middle. And you can make some money. You could provide jobs for individuals and then also inspire people to do this themselves.”
Roman Mars [00:21:17] But Jason’s dream may never become a reality. Jason says every time he tries to get financing for a low-rise apartment complex, he’s told by investors to build condos or single-family homes instead.
Jason Allen John [00:21:32] I’ve had to do a lot of convincing on the project itself because, you know, most people would tell me, “Just do a nice single-family dwelling, build it, and sell it for 2.5 million or something, right?” So that’s kind of where everybody wants you to go. So, it’s like no matter where you turn, in a sense, people will be like, “Oh no, why don’t you just do this?”
Jay Cockburn [00:21:51] Even if you do get the financing, the approval process can take years, and there are incredibly high development fees. In fact, the city just proposed an increase to those fees of 49%. If it takes the same amount of time to get a 100 unit building approved as it does a ten unit building and there are huge fees associated with it, either way, that destroys the already narrow profit margin on the smaller building. A bigger project has a bigger margin and can swallow the fees and delays more easily. Politicians in Ontario have done almost nothing to address this. The provincial government, led by Doug Ford, recently introduced a housing bill, but it ignores single-family zoning entirely. That might change. City planners have just drafted an amendment to allow up to a fourplex in protected neighborhoods. But it’s a pretty conservative plan with lots of caveats, and it’s a long way from reaching the City Council for approval.
Roman Mars [00:22:51] Of course, Toronto isn’t the only city with this missing middle problem. In fact, other cities with a missing bill have tried to take concrete steps to fix it. Cities like Portland, Oregon, which in recent decades have tried to make the city more livable for renters.
Jay Cockburn [00:23:06] Camille Trummer worked with the mayor of Portland to pass zoning reform. And in the process, she became public enemy number one for NIMBYs, the people who don’t want new apartment developments in their neighborhood.
Camille E. Trummer [00:23:18] There were campaigns cropping up in different neighborhoods across the city that were really, if we want to be transparent, kind of firmly rooted in NIMBYism–Not In My Backyard.
Jay Cockburn [00:23:30] What do you think they were scared of?
Camille E. Trummer [00:23:33] To be honest with you, Jay, I think they were scared of low-income people moving into their neighborhoods and whatever stereotypes or narratives they’ve built through media consumption, lack of education, and lack of interaction with people that are different than them about who they believe those people are and what they would do to their neighborhoods.
Jay Cockburn [00:23:55] Camille says Portland used to have the same exclusionary zoning laws as Toronto and changing them was a real uphill fight for Mayor Charlie Hales.
Camille E. Trummer [00:24:05] And what was so ironic is that many of Charlie’s neighbors were the ones–and the people most vocal–in terms of the NIMBYism group. So that was really challenging for Charlie–to be unable to even talk with his neighbors about his vision. And so, we saw a lot of kind of manifestations of narratives and small campaigns advocating for status quo.
Jay Cockburn [00:24:34] To change the law, Camille had to build a coalition of people herself–people who weren’t wealthy homeowners. So, she went out in the community and gathered herself a steering committee that looked a lot more like Portland.
Camille E. Trummer [00:24:47] It was such a visual kind of challenge for me to be in that room and see so clearly, “Yes, there are older white folks with privilege sitting on one side of the room. There are developers huddled in the corner, scheming. And then there’s these housing advocates that represent such a diverse kind of illustration of Portland.”
Jay Cockburn [00:25:10] It took a lot of work and a lot of politics, but the bill passed in 2020. It ended single family zoning and allowed things like cottage clusters and small apartment buildings almost everywhere. If you want to tear down an old relic of a house and turn it into a fourplex, you can do that now. Congratulations! Where there used to be one home, now there are four. You’ve created some density, made some money, and today, Portland is an oasis of affordable, missing middle housing. Right, Camille?
Camille E. Trummer [00:25:40] I wish I could say that, Jay.
Jay Cockburn [00:25:42] Well, damn. Never mind. So why not? What’s the hold up? Where’s Portland’s missing middle?
Camille E. Trummer [00:25:47] The problem, I think, with our process is, yes, zoning codes go into effect, but the interpretation of that zoning code by developers–even nonprofit developers, community driven developers–means that there’s a lot of calculations at play. How much is the cost of land? Can we actually create these things? And so, what I would have loved to see is more incentives to actualize what is being proposed or what was proposed.
Roman Mars [00:26:18] While zoning reform isn’t a silver bullet for a housing crisis, it is a big first step. American cities like Minneapolis and Seattle have also recently banned exclusive single-family zoning to address this problem head on.
Jay Cockburn [00:26:32] There is a different way of planning a city like Toronto. Naama Blonder has a vision–one that more closely resembles the European cities I’m familiar with.
Naama Blonder [00:26:42] I moved to Toronto eight years ago, and one of my first strongest impressions of the city was I took the subway, I got out, and steps away from the subway, there are neighborhoods of single-family houses–sea of single-family houses. And for someone who, you know, I wasn’t born in North America, it’s a strange feeling. You just don’t get it. You’re in the downtown, you’re steps away from the subway, and you have this suburban feeling instead of an urban feeling, right? And it’s not just about height. It’s not just about housing stock. It’s also about opportunities for families–the missing middle of income or the missing middle of the units that currently don’t exist.
Roman Mars [00:27:36] Even with different zoning laws and a lot of political will, it will still take years of planning and development to create new apartments for renters like Jay Cockburn.
Jay Cockburn [00:27:46] Though at this point in the story, I have to make a confession. Against the odds, when I moved to Toronto, I actually did end up finding a walk-up. I’m on the second floor of an apartment building–no exposed brick, but I do have high ceilings and a beautiful view of a beer store parking lot. I even know all of my neighbors. Sometimes we sit on the porch and drink wine. Heather deserves a special mention for feeding my cat when I’m away. There’s just enough space for me–about 450 square feet. But I can step out my door without having to take an elevator. And immediately I’m next to a deli and some cute shops. It’s not perfect, but I love living here, and I wish everyone could find a place that suits them.
Roman Mars [00:28:27] Jay’s apartment is in one of the historic neighborhoods of Toronto–part of the yellow belt. But there are hints of how the city could have looked without these zoning laws. It’s an area where the Victorian and the early 20th century buildings have been preserved.
Jay Cockburn [00:28:42] I live in the Cabbagetown neighborhood. It has this kind of toy town vibe–lots of red brick houses with steeply sloped roofs and ornamental stained-glass windows. It even has a few walk-up apartment buildings like mine–some actual missing middle. These were all built before the ban. And my building was finished in 1912, right under the wire. My place is kind of odd because from the outside, it looks like a regular detached house. But I checked, and it’s always been apartments. It’s almost as if the builder was trying to hide its true nature. The walk-up entrances are even hidden around the back.
Roman Mars [00:29:21] Walking through the residential streets of Jay’s neighborhood. You can see tiny examples of what the city might have been like without exclusionary zoning. Adding middle housing in residential neighborhoods can help make a city more functional. It allows for a bigger diversity of housing stock and for families and middle-class people to stay in town and add to the character of a neighborhood. But there needs to be political will and real effort to make it possible. When middle housing is effectively banned for 100 years, a lot of deliberate and careful planning is necessary to undo that damage to the city’s ecosystem.
Jay Cockburn [00:29:59] No amount of zoning can freeze a place in time. The choice is how neighborhoods in Toronto will change–not if. Does the city tackle its housing crisis and create a vibrant place where lots of different kinds of people can live? Or does it become a suburban sprawl–on and on–paving over the landscape forever?
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Jay Cockburn [00:35:01] Yeah, the most exciting topic there is.
Roman Mars [00:35:03] Well, it’s exciting in that it’s important and it shapes our lives.
Jay Cockburn [00:35:08] I think it’s exciting, and that’s why I’ve just spent half an hour talking about.
Roman Mars [00:35:12] I totally agree.
Jay Cockburn [00:35:13] And actually, I wanted to talk about one of the most insane examples of Toronto city planning. I found out about this from an article in the Toronto Star by their affordable housing reporter, Victoria Gibson, who just does really great work, by the way–just amazing coverage of housing in this city where it’s really important. But this story is dumb–not because she wrote it, but because of the content. It’s written very intelligently, but the story itself is depressingly dumb. And it really just makes you feel like, “What’s going on in this city?”
Roman Mars [00:35:45] Okay, tell me more. I’m prepared to be depressed by something so dumb.
Jay Cockburn [00:35:49] So there’s a 17-unit apartment building in the Forest Hill neighborhood that the city insists is actually just two semi-detached houses.
Roman Mars [00:35:57] Okay, well, you sent me a picture here, and it’s–yeah–a beautiful prewar building. It has these little bay window pop outs. It’s made of brick. It’s lovely. You could totally imagine a bunch of people living there–17 families, to be exact.
Jay Cockburn [00:36:09] So a previous owner decided they wanted to turn this apartment building into two semi-detached houses, and the city approved it. But they never finished converting it to houses. So, it’s an apartment building, but legally, nobody can actually live in the apartments. It’s just empty, boarded up, and derelict. It has been for over a decade. The owners just aren’t allowed to use it for what it was intended for, which is as an apartment building. But, like, it’s definitely an apartment building. There’s no way you can look at this and think it’s anything other than an apartment building. Like, if you look at it–it is four stories high, has individual balconies for individual units–this is not two semi-detached houses. It’s only ever been used as apartments. And it was used as apartments from when it was built all the way up until 2006.
Roman Mars [00:36:57] Why exactly can’t they use it as it was intended to be built? Like, is this the zoning thing from the 1912, you know, anti-apartment laws?
Jay Cockburn [00:37:06] Well, kind of. The street it’s on wasn’t included in the 1912 apartment ban. So, it was built sometime around 1923ish. We don’t know exactly; it’s kind of vague when you look at the records. This is a really small area around these apartments, by the way–just a few streets wide. But because it got there pre that ban, it had this thing called “legal non-conforming status,” which means that as long as it’s continually in use, it could continue to be an apartment building in a place that doesn’t allow apartment buildings.
Roman Mars [00:37:38] Oh, so I see. So, it’s the continually in use part that’s really the issue here. Like, the previous owner wanted to change it into two houses. The tenants left or were evicted. And at some point, the building was technically not in use because no one was in it.
Jay Cockburn [00:37:52] Yeah. And this is part of why a lot of the city is actually getting less dense, by the way. This isn’t the only project like that. The zoning and bylaws do allow for removing housing options. And just reading over this Star article, it looks like initially they wanted to do the opposite and nearly double the number of units to 31. But they changed their minds after a public consultation, which I don’t even know how to respond to.
Roman Mars [00:38:16] It means that they had a big meeting and a bunch of people yelled at them.
Jay Cockburn [00:38:19] That’s exactly what it means. Yeah. A lot of people who already owned houses didn’t want other people to live in apartments. So, they got approval to convert it to two huge houses–knock down some internal walls. I’m not sure exactly how much work they actually did inside, but they never finished the job. Instead, they sold the property. And now this building is technically two ridiculously big, boarded up, empty houses.
Roman Mars [00:38:43] So the people who bought that property–did they intend to turn them into apartments or houses?
Jay Cockburn [00:38:50] Well, the new owners didn’t like the two-house thing, so they applied for a minor variance in the bylaw to turn it back into apartments. So, they were going to go through the really lengthy process of consultations and city approvals.
Roman Mars [00:39:02] I see.
Jay Cockburn [00:39:03] Like I mentioned earlier, it takes a really long time. And as house prices have risen really fast, they’ve instead decided they can just sell the property and make their money that way instead. There’s this quote in the Star article from the owners: “I’m an apartment guy. I like having apartments. And if we wanted to do things like the houses, which I could start on tomorrow, it’s starting to make more sense that we should just stop fighting and beating our head against the wall to get apartments.”
Roman Mars [00:39:30] Well, it’s reminiscent of that person you interviewed, Jason Allen John. You know, at a certain point, it just stops making sense–trying to build apartments–because all the incentives are pushing people to build either high rise condos or single-family residences. And in this case, they can only build single-family residences. But what’s particularly tragic about this is because there’s already an apartment building there. You know, just let it be an apartment.
Jay Cockburn [00:39:57] Yeah, it’s nuts. And that’s kind of why I wanted to highlight this one particular case. You can’t look at this building and expect it to be anything other than apartments. But a combination of Byzantine municipal nonsense and economics means there are 17 potential units just sitting empty in Forest Hill. Who knows what the property will end up actually being used for? It’s on the market for $10.5 million right now. As far as I can tell, it was bought for $4 million 10 years ago. That’s not a bad return without really doing anything. And it’s kind of depressing that this turned out to be the best way for an investor to make their money. The building’s just an asset, not housing, right? But it’s taking up really valuable space in a city with an acute housing crisis.
Roman Mars [00:40:41] Yeah, well, it’s just another reminder that the incentives are all pushing the wrong behavior in people. Like, we should be building housing, and all the economic incentives and municipal bureaucracy should be pushing people in that direction. And it’s really a shame when it doesn’t happen.
Jay Cockburn [00:40:55] Yeah, it’s not just pushing them in the wrong direction, it’s prohibiting them from going what we might call the “right direction.” They’re literally not allowed to make this apartment building into apartments, and it’s infuriating.
Roman Mars [00:41:07] It really is. Well, thank you for that dumb, depressing story, Jay. And the whole thing is really, really eye opening. And I think it will apply to a lot of people’s vision of their own cities and how to make them better. So, thank you.
Jay Cockburn [00:41:20] Well, thank you, Roman. Thank you for listening to my dumb, depressing story.
Roman Mars [00:41:27] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Jay Cockburn. Our researcher was Anne Benaroya. Edited by Chris Berube. Music by our Director of Sound, Swan Real. Mix and tech production by Ameeta Ganatra. And fact-checking checking by Graham Hacia. Our executive producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Martín Gonzalez, Joe Rosenberg, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Lasha Madan, Jayson De Leon, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Charlotte Mickie and Jennifer Franks for their warm welcome at Spadina Gardens–and to John Lorinc, editor of the book House Divided, a great resource if you want to know more about this issue. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.
This article is getting circulated amongst a few social media groups on urban life in Toronto, particularly as a response to the ongoing grief of NIMBYism that continues in full force here. But what it also does is spell out the consequences of a vacuum of intelligent critical writing on the urban environment and architecture generally here in Toronto.