By: Jean-François Obregón January 30, 2023
Cities like my hometown Vaughan, Ontario, Canada are defined by single-detached homes with backyards. An increase in condominium construction in recent years has changed the skyline but, there is little in-between. Many young people move to exurban municipalities because that is where they can afford a house. Given a real choice of housing options in Vaughan, many would have loved to stay closer to home – even it meant renting. What if the City of Vaughan implemented a missing middle housing strategy that could provide these options? When I deputed to the City of Vaughan’s Special Committee of the Whole (Budget) on January 18, 2023, I asked what the city’s plan was for missing middle housing.
What is the Missing Middle?
Coined by Daniel Parolek, Missing Middle Housing (AKA the missing middle) is defined as “house-scale buildings with multiple units in walkable neighborhoods”. They include duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, and townhouses. It is the category of housing in between detached homes and mid-rise apartment buildings. (Figure 1) These can be rental or sale units. The City of Toronto has the Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods program and a pilot in the Beaches. The City of Vaughan’s Urban Design Guidelines incorrectly considers the missing middle as mid-rise form (six to twelve stories). Vaughan should consider redefining the missing middle as housing less than six stories and allow it in low-rise areas called Community Areas, the yellow areas in Figure 2.
Figure 1: Illustration of the Missing Middle
Credit: Opticos,2020 via MissingMiddleHousing.com
Figure 2: City of Vaughan Urban Structure Map
Credit: City of Vaughan
No More Development Charges
Bill 23, or the More Homes Built Faster Act, was passed by the provincial government in November 2023. It incentivizes low-rise construction by reducing the role of conservation authorities and making it easier to build on wetlands. It also reduces how much money can be raised by municipalities through development charges (DCs). Municipalities like Vaughan depend on DCs to fund core services, e.g. waste, fire, parks, etc. They also fund off-site infrastructure (e.g. sewers, roads, lighting) to support these developments.
The more low-rise developments are built, the more upward pressure on property taxes. Why? On-site infrastructure for these developments is paid for by developers, however their maintenance is paid for by property taxes. (NRU TORONTO, Oct. 26, 2022) You have more kilometres of roads and sidewalks to salt in winter, but lower population densities. Thus, low-rise housing becomes harder to support financially over the long-term. Hence, high-rise condominiums are being built because higher population density yields higher property tax revenues. This helps to pay for services across the city, including low-density areas.
The Missing Middle’s Use of Existing Infrastructure
A major benefit to Missing Middle Housing is that it takes advantage of existing infrastructure. Such compact development (p.27) is more cost-effective (cheaper) to service than greenfield development over the long-term. The City of Vaughan can mitigate the increasing costs of servicing new sewers, streetlights and parks by prioritizing construction in low-rise neighbourhoods to support the missing middle. Many properties in Vaughan’s low-rise neighbourhoods (Community Areas) are on sizeable lots with large setbacks (space between the sidewalk and the garage). These lots can support a duplex, triplex or quadplex’s square footage.
The Missing Middle’s Environmental Benefits
Building Missing Middle housing would put less development pressure on the Greenbelt and Vaughan’s increasingly scarce farmland. Since 2020, the fragility and costs of global food supply chains was exposed. Restaurants like Toronto’s Momofuku location have prioritized sourcing locally. Southern Ontario has some of Canada’s most fertile farmland, which includes Vaughan. See area in the north in Figure 2. Plus, one of the Greenbelt’s main goals is to protect farmland. Allowing for duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes to be built in Vaughan’s existing neighbourhoods avoids having to build on the Greenbelt and help to preserve farmland. It also weakens the case for the proposed Highway 413.
The Missing Middle in Vaughan
The missing middle in Vaughan’s neighbourhoods would provide housing options for many situations. Elderly parents who want to downsize and live independently while being close to their families. People who do not want to have the carrying costs of homeownership, but still live in a (sub)urban area with proximity to amenities.
The missing middle could inject new life into neighbourhoods as it opens up who can afford to live in them. Artists and young professionals can be attracted to Vaughan. They may even launch innovative new businesses in Vaughan. Small neighbourhood retailers would have new customers. Public transit would see higher ridership. Libraries and recreation services may have more usage, which translates into higher user fees revenues for the city. In the January 17th episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin, Toronto Councilllor Brad Bradford mentions how some of the most interesting neighbourhoods (e.g. the Annex) have a variety of housing like duplexes and triplexes.
Changing Hearts and Minds
Bringing the missing middle into Vaughan’s neighbourhoods will meet pushback. This is no excuse to avoid an overdue conversation. Buying a house and affording its carrying costs are out of reach for many. Homeowners who push back against the missing middle may want to imagine themselves in first-time homebuyers’ shoes.
Suburban communities like Bathurst Manor in North York and Richmond Hill have Missing Middle housing next to bungalows and detached homes. (Figure 3) Richmond Hill is studying how to build more of it. Why doesn’t the City of Vaughan study this, too?
Figure 3: Triplexes in Richmond Hill
Credit: Google Maps via Gladki Planning
The missing middle won’t be a silver bullet for Vaughan’s housing affordability issues, but it can go a long way to help in the long-term. With losses to DC’s, there is an opportunity to rethink how and where municipalities like Vaughan build housing. The missing middle makes better, cost-effective use of existing infrastructure. It can help also to relieve development pressures on the Greenbelt. We should not avoid the missing middle conversation any longer in Vaughan.
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