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What is Meant by "Missing Middle Housing” and How a Greater Vancouver-Based Study Proposes to Rectify It

By: Diana Petramala with research assistance provided by Jodee Ng
September 20, 2017


Where does the term “missing middle” come from and what does it mean?

The “missing middle” is a term coined by a well known American urbanist and architect, Daniel Parolek, to define a North American phenomenon of little to no new construction of low-to-mid sized housing in major metropolitan centres. Parolek defines the missing middle as a type of a house that is somewhere between a single-detached home and an apartment in a high-rise building. True to his definition, the missing middle includes multi-plex homes, courtyard bungalows and apartments, townhomes and stacked townhomes. Construction in major urban centres is often concentrated in the more expensive single-detached segment of the market or high-rise apartments. But the “missing middle” helps balance housing affordability and density objectives.  

For the purpose of this blog, we define the “missing middle” using Census of Canada definitions of the occupied housing stock, which includes semis, townhomes, duplexes and apartments in buildings that are under five floors.

Is there a missing middle problem in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)?

The answer to this question is loaded, as that depends on what the housing stock should look like for anticipated demographics and incomes. CUR plans to explore this question in an upcoming research report. The existing research does show, however, that more mid-density housing types helps improve housing affordability, for both renters and homeowners.  

A recent CUR report has explored the topic of declining townhouse construction in the GTA area. The construction of single-detached homes has declined over the last decade, and its been replaced with more high-rise construction rather than townhomes. However, rising townhome resale activity and ballooning prices over the decade suggests there is still robust demand for many of these housing types if they were built.

What’s more, the GTA has lagged behind its major counterparts in Canada in creating the “missing middle.” The 2016 Census suggests that 30% of the occupied housing stock in the GTA is of the “missing middle” variety. The housing stock, however, is more tilted towards the “missing middle” in other major regions, like Montreal and Vancouver, where over 50% to 60% of the housing stock is in the missing middle category.

The Greater Toronto Area is also building less of the missing middle than most other metropolitan areas across Canada. 20% of completions in 2016 were in the missing middle in the GTA, compared to near 30% in both Calgary and Vancouver and 43% in Montreal. That’s not to say that the rest of Canada is building enough of mid-density units themselves, but it does highlight that the GTA is falling behind. 

How can we encourage more construction of the missing middle?

The first step would have to be for governments to make building the missing middle a policy objective. And, the Ontario government did make supporting mid-density housing a priority in its update to Ontario’s growth plan in 2017 (Places to Grow Act). The next step is then to improve the economics of such projects, which is no easy feat given high land prices and an onerous land use planning system.

The most obvious solution would be to significantly expand the supply of “ready to go” land specifically zoned for mid-density housing. The next easy target would be to address time lags and uncertainty in the planning and permitting processes. Many “Missing middle” projects have to go through multiple stages of approvals, including rezoning and site plan control, steps that can add years to project timeline. For example, a recent joint report with CUR and RESCON highlighted that the building permit process alone can take up to 12 months in the GTA, compared to 4 to 6 months in Vancouver. The GTA has one of the longest building permit processes in Canada. Other permitting stages that a housing project can face include potential for re-zoning and development permitting, but the process will depend on whether the land is in a greenfield or an already built up area.

We came across a recent Greater Vancouver Board of Trade Policy report which offered what we thought to be interesting recommendations targeted directly at encouraging more of the missing middle for the Vancouver Region, by reducing costs and uncertainty.

Some of the more enticing report recommendations included:     

  • Collecting data on permitting timelines to identify where the gaps and delays occur. Indeed, the City of Calgary has already started doing this and the results have been made public: http://www.calgary.ca/PDA/pd/Pages/Urban-Development/Calgary-Approvals-Coordination.aspx. The charts show that since the collection of data began, the city has increased the amount of times it meets its target review timelines.

  • Pre-Zoning within 800 meters (or a 10-minute walk) of transit-friendly areas. Zone for the type of development you want to encourage. The report highlighted that while the Vancouver growth plan targeted development in transit friendly areas, most of these lands were zoned for high rises. Pre-zoning also eliminates the fear or uncertainty around Nimby-ism, by removing the need for neighbourhood consultations through multiple stages of the permitting process. 

  • Streamline the permitting process, or have concurrent processing. Right now, Vancouver region projects must go through three stages of permitting – re-zoning in built up areas, the development permit process and receiving the building permit –all of which is done in sequential order. The report suggests allowing the permits to be submitted simultaneously because often 1) the approval of each permit doesn’t necessarily require the approval of the others and only adds to longer waiting periods; and 2) often each stage creates duplications in the process. For example, under the current system, neighbourhood consultation can occur at each stage of the permitting process, when it should only occur once.

  • Fast track desirable projects, by implementing a regional certified professional accreditation. The report suggests creating a “NEXUS-like” accreditation that would fast track applications from developers who have a proven track record for making high quality submissions.  
     

Where to from here?

We will be exploring some of these options and how they could be used to encourage the construction of the “missing middle” in the GTA in our upcoming research. In particular, the pre-zoning recommendation must be examined in more detail. For example, the re-zoning process in the city of Toronto can account for 50% or 60% of the permit approval time. The idea of “fast track” for applications submitted by developers with proven track records is also intriguing.

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Diana Petramala is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development (CUR) at Ryerson University