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Toronto's expanded multiplex era is coming. But how much housing will it actually provide?

A file photo shows a sign advertising a triplex unit being offered for sale in Toronto, back in December 2021. In May 2023, Toronto council voted to allow to allow construction of multiplexes — including triplexes — across city neighbourhoods. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters - image credit)
A file photo shows a sign advertising a triplex unit being offered for sale in Toronto, back in December 2021. In May 2023, Toronto council voted to allow to allow construction of multiplexes — including triplexes — across city neighbourhoods. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters - image credit)

Housing advocates have welcomed a recent Toronto council decision to allow construction of multiplexes across city neighbourhoods which had been dominated by single-family homes.

In Toronto, multiplexes are defined as low-rise housing containing two to four units within a single building. Until recently, zoning bylaws had restricted their presence in many parts of the city, but that changed after a May 10 council vote.

With a growing population, Toronto is embracing multiplexes as a tool to increase the housing supply in Canada's largest city.

Yet questions remain as to how much new housing will actually emerge from this policy change and how affordable it will be — even if a greater supply and diversity of housing is sorely needed.

"We need a wider variety of housing types to accommodate diverse kinds of households," said Valerie Preston, an urban housing expert at Toronto's York University.

And while multiplexes may help deliver more varied housing options for larger families or others who need it, that doesn't mean they'll be inexpensive to develop, rent or buy.

"It will do nothing directly for affordability," said Preston, who expects multiplex development to have limited impact on the city's overall housing supply due to the costs of acquiring and developing property.

Toronto is expecting at least 700,000 new residents by 2051 and many complain of being unable to afford a place to live, with the average home costing more than $1 million.

Demand and land

Increasing density, outside of condo towers which typically offer smaller units, has been welcomed by many housing advocates.

The approach of adding a gentle level of density is one that other jurisdictions are exploring, both in Canada and elsewhere.

In British Columbia, the provincial government intends to bring forward legislation this year, which would allow three to four units on a single-family lot. Similar housing strategies have been enacted in some U.S. cities, and New Zealand.

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But putting more housing on existing lots could drive up the value of the land below.

"Obviously, the more units you can put on a piece of land, the more it's worth," said Jane Londerville, a retired associate professor of real estate at the University of Guelph.

But she points out that not every suburban lot or structure will be appropriate for this type of development.

Sabine Ghali, a Toronto real estate broker, said economics will largely determine where multiplexes get built — and they may be less likely to be developed in some upscale neighbourhoods due to the costs involved.

Investors and homeowners seeking additional income will move ahead "when the numbers make sense," Ghali said via email.

Gregg Lintern, Toronto's chief planner, has acknowledged it's unclear if the provision of more "missing middle" housing including multiplexes, laneway houses and garden suites will create much affordable housing.

"It's private-market housing," he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning last year. "Whether it creates housing that is more affordable, only time will tell."

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James White, a professor of planning and urban design at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, is skeptical that multiplex development will deliver rent or price relief.

"Who is going to own this housing and rent it?" asks White. He expects private investors are most likely to have interest in building multiplexes, as opposed to institutional investors or public-housing providers.

These "hobby landlords" may be interested in developing property in this manner, but White said their involvement may not be that beneficial for tenants, who will be reliant on those landlords' choices and managerial capabilities.

He said these concerns raise questions about whether such development will impact rents and house prices "in a positive way."

Complexity and costs

Ronald De Coteau, co-founder and CEO of Property Pathways, works with clients who want to convert their homes into multiplexes.

He said these projects are more involved than some people think, requiring significant investments.

"It's really going to be cost-prohibitive for a lot of people," De Coteau recently told Metro Morning, pointing to costs associated with turning a single-family home into a multi-unit structure.

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Cherise Burda, the executive director of City Building TMU, a think tank in Toronto, said the scope of work involved in adding a unit to a home can vary greatly, depending on the extent of the construction required.

She wants governments to do more to encourage such development and to make it simpler for people to pursue.

"If we're expecting homeowners to figure it out themselves, it's not going to get it done," Burda said.

Despite the challenges, some people are already contacting construction professionals about building multiplexes— including those at Toronto's BVM Contracting, a family-run company providing home-building and home-renovation services.

Ryan Meagher, BVM's business development manager, said the company has been hearing from both real-estate investors and families about possible multiplex projects.

The transition to larger low-rise buildings will be "a learning curve for everyone involved," he said, as more people seek to build them and more designers and builders tackle them.

Meagher noted such projects can take months to years to finish, suggesting multiplexes won't provide much impact on Toronto's housing supply this year or next.

A more vibrant Toronto

Burda, Londerville and Preston see a lot to like about increased multiplex development — even if there are limits in what they can do for affordability.

"Is it going to solve the affordable housing problem in Toronto? No," said Londerville, who believes multiplexes can nonetheless help make certain neighbourhoods more affordable.

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Burda said the residential parts of Toronto where such types of housing have been more scarce are also the areas that have the most land available for this kind of use. Multiplexes can address the imbalance.

"Most of our density is being crammed into small areas of land," Burda said of downtown neighbourhoods full of high rises. "The rest of the city is kind of like a sea of low-rise housing" that is ripe for change, she said.

For De Coteau, the potential that comes with multiplexes is easy to see.

"I call it the Sesame Street effect," said De Coteau, describing a transformation of under-used lots on Toronto's suburban streets and a shift toward more intertwined community living. "Essentially, you'll get much more vibrant communities."

With more families occupying the same footprint, you'll see more kids playing and more life unfolding nearby.

"That is really what is going to bring back life to Toronto, after the pandemic," De Coteau said.