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Preserving family values in the Yellow Belt

March 22, 2018

Did everyone see Shane Dingman’s excellent article in last Friday’s Globe and Mail?

Under the headline, “Toronto’s low-rise neighbourhoods losing density as ‘overhousing’ spreads,” the article presents new findings showing that – at a time when Toronto is rapidly growing — 52.7% of Toronto neighbourhoods have become less dense, losing about 210,000 people between 2001 and 2016.

These neighbourhoods look much as they have for the past few decades. But instead of houses full of children, many houses have only one or two occupants. The result: despite an acute affordable housing shortage Toronto has over 2 million spare bedrooms.

How can this happen?

Chalk it up to Toronto’s zoning regime. Two-thirds of Toronto’s residentially-zoned lands permit only single-detached houses or, in a few neighbourhoods, semi-detached houses. It’s called “the Yellow Belt” – a name coined by planner Gil Meslin referring to the colour in Toronto’s zoning maps — and it covers most of Toronto’s inner suburbs.

These neighbourhoods were designed for the typical families of the 1960s, when the average household size was 3.9 people.  By 2016, the average household size in Ontario was 2.6 people, and 58.7% of households were one- or two-person households. Yet duplexes, triplexes, laneway houses, townhouses, small apartment buildings – in fact, any homes that reflect Toronto’s shift to smaller families — are not allowed in the Yellow Belt. Neither are co-housing or other arrangements that would allow singles and couples to share bigger houses.

Preserving a way of life

Why hasn’t Toronto’s Official Plan kept up with changing demographics? And why might Toronto’s new Official Plan continue to protect “the prevailing building type” in these neighbhourhoods?

The obvious answer is that the people who live and vote in the Yellow Belt like it the way it is. For many who live in Scarborough, Etobicoke, East York and North Toronto, the detached home is the cornerstone of family life, a reward for prudence and hard work, and an oasis from the messiness of urban living. And who can gainsay the privacy and independence that one’s own house offers, the quiet of little-used roads, and the pleasures of one’s own garden and those of one’s neighbours?

Many have been willing to make sacrifices to preserve this way of life. Sometimes the sacrifices have been personal: working two jobs, living in debt, foregoing holidays. Sometimes they are civic: accepting poor public transit or going without local services because their neighbourhood doesn’t have the density to support a subway, a community centre or even a corner store.

Sacrificing our own children to the “single-detached lifestyle”

I appreciate the sacrifices many have made to own their homes, and their desire to stay where they are as long as they are physically able. But as Toronto grows, house prices escalate and even rental housing is increasingly out of reach, we may be in danger of sacrificing the next generation — and the very family values that inspired the suburbs – to the “single-detached lifestyle.” Let’s start by looking at the prospects for children in the Yellow Belt.

  • Are we willing to sacrifice their schools? According to Cheryll Case’s fascinating Protecting the Vibrancy of Residential Neighbourhoods, 105 of the TDSB’s schools are under review for low enrollment. Should they close, 48% of Toronto neighbourhoods would be less family-friendly than they were before.
  • Will we ask them to forego the college of their choice, simply because they can’t find an affordable place to live? Thirty years ago, sharing a big house with other students made my own enrolment at UofT’s downtown campus affordable. Today’s students do the same. But how do students at UofT’s Scarborough campus, or York, or Humber, or Seneca find an affordable home near campus when shared living is illegal in nearby neighbourhoods?
  • Will we expect them to defer creating a family? And are parents of adult children willing to forego seeing their grandchildren, either because the next generation is being forced out of Toronto for more affordable towns, or because young adults can never afford to leave home to start a family.

And what about empty nesters and others without children?

Should seniors have to leave the neighbourhood they know when they can no longer manage on their own? Will immigrants be shut out of the very districts where shopkeepers, neighbours and agencies speak their language – simply because they are single?

And are we actually going to chase out suburbanites when they are down on their luck, just because there are no affordable place for single people to live? In her invaluable study of Toronto’s suburban rooming houses, Lisa Freeman notes that rooming houses in Toronto’s inner suburbs are home to immigrant seniors nudged out of their children’s homes, life-long suburbanites who didn’t want to leave and former downtowners looking for a quieter alternative to downtown living.

More choices for the inner suburbs

There are many policy reasons to gently intensify Toronto’s Yellow Belt: to take the pressure off the agricultural lands surrounding our city, to reduce sprawl, to provide effective public services, and to increase our tax base.

But it’s also about fulfilling the promise of suburban communities: a better life for ourselves, and for the next generation. So let’s permit small apartment buildings for seniors who want to stay in the neighbourhood they know, but are through with clearing eavestroughs; co-housing for those who want to keep their independence but don’t want to become isolated as they grow older; duplexes and triplexes to allow young couples to buy their first home while they rent out the rest of their house; backyard houses that would allow adult children to stay close to parents, but still have space of their own; shared houses for students, newcomers and other singles seeking a family atmosphere at a price they can afford.

The picket fence atmosphere, and all that is delightful about the suburbs, will stay. But so can our kids.



One Comment leave one →
  1. homelessguide permalink
    March 26, 2018 1:00 pm

    Love the article. Your recommendations are most practical in passing the suburbs we love and live in to our kids.

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