Canadian cities are enacting transformative policy shifts away from exclusionary zoning to embrace density and limit sprawl—by greenlighting affordable, multifamily housing and bridging amenity gaps in neighbourhoods with new shops, parks, and schools.
A country-wide housing crisis is driving the sea-change under way in housing markets from Vancouver to Halifax, with urgent climate concerns also at stake. Spurred by incentives and pressure from the federal government to develop “missing middle” housing, city councils are changing zoning bylaws to allow more low-rise apartments, duplexes, and row houses that form the middle ground between single-family dwellings and high rises.
Ottawa Pushes ‘Missing Middle’ Densification
In Calgary, a city known for its embrace of the “single-family home-and-a-yard dream,” city council in September approved a “game changer” housing strategy, allowing missing middle duplexes and senior-friendly backyard suites to be built anywhere in the city, reports CBC News.
Councillors voted 12-3 in favour of the new strategy and unanimously adopted a further amendment by Mayor Jyoti Gondek to dedicate two parcels of city land to modular housing, to be built in time to house homeless people through the winter. That population includes 242 unhoused families, writes the Calgary Herald.
The near unanimity for multi-family dwellings came after Calgary’s housing needs assessment, released earlier in September, found that 20% of households were struggling to cover their mortgage and rent payments in 2021. “Based on the current market housing conditions, it is expected that the numbers in 2023 are even higher,” the report authors wrote.
Another galvanizing factor was a letter Gondek received days before the council vote, and published public on social media, from federal Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Sean Fraser.
The letter dealt with Calgary’s application to Ottawa’s C$4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund, which was set up in 2022 to help address the national housing crisis and “promote the development of affordable, inclusive, and diverse communities that are low-carbon and climate-resilient.”
In the letter, Fraser expressed support for Calgary’s proposal to legalize middle housing and thus end exclusionary zoning—which in North America has historically favoured single-family homes on large lots, preserving high land values and excluding low-income residents. Calgary’s plans for investments in affordable housing near transit also got the thumbs up from Fraser.
But he warned Gondek he would not approve funding for Calgary unless the city followed through with its rezoning plans. “I am eager to approve Calgary’s application,” Fraser wrote, “but I will not be able to do so before you make good on these commitments.”
Halifax received a similar letter from Fraser last week, and largely went along with Ottawa’s push for multi-family housing, reports CBC. Fraser wrote to Mayor Mike Savage with some suggestions on the city’s application for roughly $79 million from the housing fund. Halifax must allow up to four units per lot on properties city-wide and four-storey buildings in the regional centre, Fraser said. He also called on the community to develop an affordable housing strategy, boost density, and add student rentals.
In Ontario, London has already secured $74 million from the fund, “the most significant housing and housing-related infrastructure investment in London’s history,” said Mayor Josh Morgan. The money will allow the city to approve high-density developments without the need for rezoning, CBC says. The federal dollars will encourage home building by allowing four units per property in low-density neighbourhoods, facilitate the development of city-owned land, and create partnerships with non-profits, according to a federal statement.
The policy shift favouring multi-family dwellings has been happening across Canada and the United States, reports The Globe and Mail. “The most commonly cited example is Minneapolis, which eliminated single-family zoning citywide in 2019.” California did it in 2021 and British Columbia is headed in the same direction. “Edmonton effectively dropped single-family zoning in 2019.”
Edmonton Floats ‘Substantial Completion’
Now, Edmonton’s city council is moving to address sprawl by considering a “substantial completion standard” which would require all developing areas to “be built-out with appropriate amenities like retail stores, parks, and in some areas schools, libraries, and recreation centres, before the city approves further developments,” CBC reported in August.
The standard will keep the city’s budget in line as it struggles to provide basic services, supporters said.
“Sprawl has big price tag—and doesn’t solve affordability,” said Steve Winkelman, executive director of the Ottawa Climate Action Fund (OCAF), in a presentation on land use policy shared with The Energy Mix. Winkelman explained that compact development—with greater density and mixed land uses—results in lower overall infrastructure costs than sprawling development patterns, as more people can be served by the same infrastructure, with less need for paving roads and parking lots. Those higher costs—the kind Edmonton is keen to avoid—stress municipal budgets and get passed on to taxpayers, Winkelman added.
[Steve Winkelman is a member of the community sounding board for The Energy Mix’s Cities & Communities Digest.]
A substantial completion standard also aligns with Edmonton’s plans to embrace the 15-minute city development model. The idea is that most or all amenities must be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from residents’ homes—a concept in “high demand” in Edmonton, writes the Edmonton Journal.
OCAF says 15-minute walkable, bikeable cities can reduce driving by 20 to 50% compared to sprawling, car-oriented development, with a proportional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Focusing development in existing built-up areas also protects agriculture lands and preserves natural habitat and open spaces.
If it is approved by Edmonton councillors, the substantial completion standard will be finalized in 2024, CBC says.
Housing Solutions Still Fall Short
Back in Calgary, city councillor Jasmine Mian told the Herald that while she supports the newly-approved housing strategy, the zoning changes would create only 1,500 new homes in two years—a far cry from the 50,000+ that are actually needed.
Mian’s concerns about the yawning gap between proposed solutions and real needs are shared in Vancouver by councillor Christine Boyle. Her city moved in September to allow up to six units—eight if they’re rentals—on single-house lots in neighbourhoods where only detached homes have previously been allowed. But Boyle said that plan doesn’t go far enough, even if it’s the city’s biggest land use change in decades.
Boyle said she remains worried the 200 multiplexes projected to be introduced each year will not be enough. “This is not the serious response that our housing crisis requires,” she said in a statement.
Peter Waldkirch of Abundant Housing Vancouver agreed. The city will need “thousands of multiplexes annually to restore affordability,” he told CBC.
Boyle continues to push for policy changes to encourage greater density. Where the new local law caps multiplexes at three storeys, city staff are exploring the possibility of allowing four- to six-storey rentals everywhere in the city, per a motion the councillor introduced during the last term of council. A report on that work is expected this fall, CBC says.