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Residential Fourth Density (R4) Zoning Review

Project Status: 

Discussion Paper #3: Draft Recommendations Now Available

Five low-rise apartment buildings
We have produced a set of draft recommendations that would amend the Zoning By-law to encourage quality, affordable and context-sensitive low-rise apartment buildings in the R4 zone.

The zoning changes proposed in Discussion Paper #3 [ PDF 1.06Mb ] balance the urgent need to enable more affordable urban housing with the need for good design, compatibility, trees, proper garbage management and other concerns.

Discussion Paper #3 [ PDF 1.06MB ]

Schedule A [ PDF 723KB ]

As We Heard It From Apartment Hunters

Frequently ask questions

We want to hear from you! The deadline to comment on this Discussion Paper has been extended to February 21, 2020. You can send us your comments or questions at:

R4 Zoning Review
c/o Tim J. Moerman
Ottawa City Hall, mail code 01-15
110 Laurier Avenue West, 4th floor
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 1J1
Fax: 613-580-2459

After we’ve heard from everyone, we’ll produce some final zoning proposals and circulate them in early 2020, and then present our final recommendations to Planning Committee in the spring or summer.

Overview and explainer video

For almost a decade now, Ottawa's inner-urban neighbourhoods have faced persistent low rental vacancy rates. Census data suggest that rents on newly vacant units are rising by 12%-17% per year.

To help improve housing affordability, the R4 Zoning Review will explore zoning changes to enable a wider range of low-rise, multi-unit infill housing in R4-zoned neighbourhoods, while respecting compatibility and context sensitive design. In doing so, it will seek to fill a "missing middle" range of affordable mid-density infill housing suitable to a wide range of household types, incomes and tenures, as directed by the Official Plan.

Learn more, watch our video


As we heard it

As We Heard It from Apartment Hunters

In the meantime, here's what some recent apartment hunters have told us. We want to hear your story; email us at

  • "I’m currently a middle-aged prospective renter and or condo buyer with a child, with a healthy enough income, that is sharing the same struggles as we would have first setting out away from our parents place when I was 16 years younger." (Keith)
  • "I live and work in downtown Ottawa. I have considered moving and have changed my mind due to lack of availability and the sheer cost of a one bedroom rental for a single person." (Christina)
  • "I am a single 50 year old woman and I am so concerned about finding affordable housing that I am considering applying for subsidized housing despite earning $40k a year. I simply cannot afford $1500+ for rent and there aren’t many options for single professionals. Knowing the waiting list for subsidized housing for a single person with a salary is almost 10 years, I feel it would be short-sighted of me not to get ahead of the problem now because in 10 years, I won’t have the time to wait for a decent unit. I was raised in Ottawa and love it here, but if I can’t afford to live here, I will have to leave. That’s a pretty sad thought and doesn’t really give me much hope for a future here." (Lora)
  • "Hey, I'd like to be kept in the loop when public consultations happen, as most of my friends and I live in centretown and have been affected to varying degrees by these issues. Thanks!” (Gabrielle)
  • "I am replying to to this ad as I am desperately looking for a 2 bedroom apartment to accommodate my family of 4 people (2 adults and 2 children). We are newcomers to Canada as Permanent Residents. I have preceded the family to find a house before they follow me, but it is really getting hard, as the rents are very high. I want to know more about your ad." (Christelle)
  • "It’s impossible to find housing that doesn’t cost a fortune." (Natalie)
  • "I retired early a few years ago for medical reasons. I would ideally like to have an affordable 2 bedroom unit because I need to store carts and other items that help with day-to-day life. I currently rent a 1 bedroom unit in a well kept building near Elmvale Acres. The location is great for bus accessibility and amenities. The unit is older and does not have proper kitchen and bathroom storage... I am afraid that in another 3-5 years, rent increases will put this place beyond my budget. I have applied to the social housing registry and also to some coops around the city to get on the waiting list. I am grateful that my housing need is not immediate but I am looking towards the future and what options may be available." (Sultana)
  • "My husband and I have both lived in multiple apartments around Centretown and the Glebe over the past ten years. We had a place on James together that we lived in for 3 years, before work took us away for one year. And so we gave up that apartment. Now we are trying to move back and are faced with much higher rental prices and viewings that turn into "open houses' with 30-some-odd people turning up. We don't yet live in the city, making it hard to look for a place and have drive the 6+ hours from London 3 times now, and have put in applications for every apartment we can happen to get a viewing for. What's more, we are dismissed by landlords for having two cats. They continually site allergies, but I don't remember there being such a ban on pet-ownership in my past apartment searches. We want to live centrally, because we both want to walk/bike to work. We've never had a problem before. We're in our late 30s, we have a high household income and we can't find an apartment." (Emily)
  • "Hard time, yes. I'm on disability and nothing. How about more affordable rent? I can't even get my own place. I'm 38 had to start over." (Amanda)
  • "I hope that Ottawa U will be able to add affordable family housing on/near campus. There are a number of families who moved to Ottawa to pursue academics and we are the forgotten ones. We don’t qualify for student housing, nor is there a place where it would be appropriate to have kids. This leaves us spending over $15,000 for housing which is extremely burdensome." (Sandra)
  • "Finding apartments is very hard right now and all the new builds tend to be quite expensive. I am in the middle of this as I’m on the hunt right now and expect to be renting for some time. I’d be interested anytime there’s a proposal to increase supply and choice." (Devyn)
  • “I’m looking for a two-bedroom. It’s not easy at all. It’s too expensive. Three years ago the ceiling fell in on my head. Today I find myself in another that’s likely to fall down. We’re desperate as we want to get out of here before there’s another accident. Help us find a safe place.” (Marlene)
  • "It's impossible to find anything decent unless you want to live really far from downtown or with roaches. Almost all apartment buildings have insect problems and the city does nothing to force the owners to fix it. The owners ignore you, the city takes a year to reply and when they finally contact the owner nothing really happens. The owner pretends and the city forgets about you. So much to say. Ottawa is not for poor people." (Faridath)
  • "I have been looking for an apartment for 4 months now. Can you suggest something I can afford." (Kathy)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is "missing middle" housing?

Modern cities tend to get most new housing in either very low-density (usually suburban), or very high-density buildings. In Ottawa, most new units are either detached, semi-detached and townhouse units, or else condo apartments in high-density high-rise towers. The mid-density stuff in between tends to be harder to produce.

Which part of that middle is missing, depends on the city. In Ottawa's context, the missing middle refers to the kind of small walk-up apartment buildings and stacked dwellings that can be built on urban infill lots. This range of mid-density infills, of up to three full storeys and containing perhaps eight or twelve apartments, can serve a wide range of household types. They are more cost-effective to build, and so can be made more affordable to residents, than both lower- and higher-density forms.

What is R4 zoning?

Zoning is the main tool that cities use to guide land development. Zoning establishes how big and how tall buildings can be, where they can be located on the lot, and what uses buildings and land may be put to. The City of Ottawa is divided into different areas or "zones," where the City allows different kinds of development. The so-called Residential zones, where only housing is allowed, is further divided into several classes of residential zone (R1, R2, R3, R4 and R5,) depending on what kinds and densities of housing are intended to be allowed. The R1 zone allows only detached houses (single family homes); the R5 zone allows mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings; and the others allow stuff in between.

The R4 zone is the main zone intended to allow low-rise buildings (i.e. no more than four storeys) and with four or more units: in other words, walk-up apartment buildings.

What does the R4 zoning have to do with the missing middle?

Ottawa's R4 zones are intended to allow walk-up apartments and stacked dwellings. However, the details of the R4 zoning rules have made it very difficult, and in many cases impossible, to build a viable walk-up apartment building in real life. In particular, inappropriate caps on the permitted number of units, and unreasonably large minimum lot sizes, effectively prohibit apartments in the zones where they are intended to go.

Computer programmers talk about de-bugging: going through the program to find little errors or "bugs" that make the program not do the thing it's supposed to do. The purpose of this review is to "de-bug" the R4 zoning to enable appropriate, compatible and affordable multi-unit housing to be built in these inner-urban neighbourhoods.

Why is the City doing this study now?

Ottawa is facing a housing crisis, especially in the inner urban area, and zoning is part of the problem.

A generation ago, there was plenty of affordable housing in the city. Most people chose to move to the suburbs, leaving a large supply of old, pre-war housing behind. There was plenty of housing downtown for anyone who wanted to live there. That situation prevailed for so long, from the end of World War II to the end of the century, that we came to see it as normal. Downtown seemed to be a place of perpetual cheap rent, abundant (if sometimes creaky) old housing, and no need to build much more of it.

But a lot has changed. People are coming back to the city, and that growing demand for urban housing has put relentless pressure on supply.

As a result, for the past decade, rental vacancies have been well below 3%. Scarcity has driven rents have higher and higher, and people have to settle for overcrowded or unaffordable housing. It's reached the point where, when a unit does become vacant, the rent for the new tenant increases by 12%-17% or more. And this has been happening for years.

The lack of new supply, especially in established neighbourhoods where the missing middle is most needed, is driving runaway gentrification. Among the hardest hit are lower-income people and young people who are already dealing with a changing economy and student debt.

Will R4 Phase 2 review bring more families into downtown neighbourhoods?

The R4 Review will encourage a wider range of housing types than is practical under the current zoning. Doing so will meet the needs of a broad range of household types and budgets, including families. In particular, the new rules will encourage two- and in some cases three-bedroom units, at a cost that more families can afford.

People choose where to raise families based on their own needs and preferences, but the R4 Review will provide more housing options and make it easier for families to stay in the city if they wish to do so. At the same time, it’s worth noting that there is a shortage of urban apartment units in all sizes of unit, not just family-sized units.

How is this going to help housing affordability and rental vacancies? We've been building and building for over a decade, but prices and rents are higher than ever and vacancies are still low. How do we know the R4 Review isn't going to just result in more high-priced condos?

It has become clear that affordability and rental supply isn't just about building more housing: it's about enabling more of the right kind of housing. The current zoning actually makes it very hard to build affordable rental units; instead it encourages the kinds of urban housing that are inherently expensive to build and aimed at buyers rather than renters.

In most infill neighbourhoods, including the ones zoned R4, current zoning will allow you to build two or three principal units on a lot. Given land costs in the city, that means a builder has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit just on land, before they've even built anything. So if you allow too few units on a lot, the end product is necessarily expensive, and often aimed at a luxury market.

On the other hand, high-rise condo buildings do make more efficient use of land, and the economies of scale make it worthwhile to go through re-zonings to build them. But high-rise buildings also have to be built in steel and concrete, with elevators and other expensive systems, and that makes each unit much more expensive to build than a low-rise unit in a wood-frame building. It especially makes larger, family-size units very expensive.

And in most cases, the builder will find it more profitable to sell these units rather than to rent them. Semi-detached houses can easily be sold as freehold, while high-rise buildings can be efficiently turned into condominium tenure.

The R4 Review will address this by allowing more small, low-rise apartment buildings on infill lots. By putting eight or twelve units on each lot instead of three or four, the same land cost is spread across more units. By using wood frame construction instead of steel and concrete, the building itself is more affordable to build. And most builders will find that it makes more sense to rent out the units, since making a condominium out of a small building is trickier than for a big one, and buildings without parking are much more attractive to renters than to homebuyers.

When you talk about land costs and construction costs, it sounds like this study is meant to help developers make money, not about affordable housing.

Our urban housing crisis needs action on many fronts, but we cannot address housing affordability without considering how much it costs to build it. Part of the solution is making it easier to build a wider range of housing types, as affordably as possible, in the neighbourhoods where people want to live.

Old buildings are where the most affordable housing is. Encouraging more infill implies removing old houses and replacing them with new buildings. Isn’t this counterproductive?

It is true, up to a point, that older housing can be more affordable than new construction. This is because old buildings have paid for themselves long ago; they are often less up-to-date, with old wiring and insulation, and need more maintenance. All other things being equal, old buildings command less rent than new ones with modern amenities and fixtures.

But when housing becomes scarce, that stops being true. If there's more demand than supply, any potential savings from the building being old are completely offset by too many people bidding up the price. Preventing a builder from replacing an old house with (say) an eight-unit building means one family gets to live there, instead of eight—and the household that gets to live there is the one who can afford to pay the most.

For the past ten years, that's exactly what has happened. That's why newly-vacated units often see their rents go up by double-digit percentages.

Whatever rules you set in the zoning, builders can still go to the Committee of Adjustment for variances, and past experience shows they usually get approved. How will you ensure that the new rules don't just become a starting point for more variances?

This study will set zoning that allows, as of right, the kind of desirable development that shouldn't have to seek a variance; but it will also make clear that further variances from those standards are generally discouraged.

The Committee of Adjustment can only grant variances if they meet a set of tests. One of these tests is, "is the variance consistent with the intent of the zoning?" We agree that in the past, a lack of clarity around what that intent actually is and is not has hampered the Committee's ability to uphold it.

That is why, in recent zoning reports, we have begun including more explanation and guidance as to the intent of the zoning as amended. For example, in the R4 Phase 1 report, we included explanations around intent, meant to discourage sequential variances and other abuses of the variance process.

The R4 Phase 2 report, whatever it recommends, will also include such guidance to set much clearer boundaries on what is and is not consistent with the intent of the zoning.

Project Scope:

Where will this zoning study apply?

The R4/Missing Middle study will review the existing R4 zoning that applies to inner-urban neighbourhoods. That includes most of New Edinburgh, Sandy Hill, Lowertown, Vanier, Centretown, Chinatown, Hintonburg and Mechanicsville. It will also affect small parts of Old Ottawa East, Overbrook and Westboro.

My neighbourhood isn't zoned R4. Will this study change that?

No. This zoning review will ONLY affect lands that are currently zoned R4. If your neighbourhood is R1, R2 or R3, these changes will not affect those areas, nor will this study propose rezoning any lands to R4.

Will the R4/Missing Middle review result in bigger or taller buildings being allowed in my neighbourhood?

No. Building heights are not under review, and the front and rear yard setbacks established through Infill 1 and Infill 2 are not proposed to change. Whatever is permitted as a result of the R4 Review, it will be restricted to the building envelope that's already permitted on a given lot.

Will the R4/Missing Middle review remove heritage protection from designated neighbourhoods?

No. Any existing heritage protection through the Zoning By-law and the Heritage Act will remain in place and will not be changed as a result of this study.

Will the R4/Missing Middle review result in apartment buildings being allowed on smaller lots, or with more units in them?

This is the main change we expect to bring through this study. The minimum lot sizes and/or maximum permitted unit counts for low-rise apartments and stacked dwellings are expected to change to the extent necessary to enable compatible, cost-effective and context-sensitive buildings to be built.

Will the R4/Missing Middle review affect existing rules around landscaping, amenity area, projections and garbage storage?

The purpose of this review is to enable compatible, context-sensitive and practical low-rise apartments to be built without resorting to variances. Requirements for landscaping, outdoor amenity areas and garbage storage are essential to meet these goals; however, the current standards may be modified where appropriate.

Summer 2019: Technical Review Committee Work

Two illustrations of low rise apartment buildings

We are still on track to begin public consultations in the fall. Look for updates to this website in September or October. In the meantime, technical work is continuing over the summer.

This technical work will consider low-rise apartments and stacked dwellings of between eight and twelve units that may be feasible within the currently permitted building envelopes in the R4 zone, subject to the following constraints:

a) The existing lot fabric and land economics of Ottawa's established urban neighbourhoods;

b) The limitations imposed by the Ontario Building Code;

c) The minimum functional requirements for site plans as specified by the City and the Planning Act; and

d) The need to produce affordable solutions to housing needs suited to a range of household types, and particularly the need for more units in the two- to three-bedroom range.

We have engaged two consultants to help us take a holistic look at the functional requirements for low-rise apartment dwellings, including the Building Code, Fire Code and accessibility standards, and the need for garbage and recycling management, bicycle parking, tree protection and promotion, and meaningful amenity spaces. These are all being examined together to ensure that new zoning rules promote affordable, practical and context-sensitive low-rise apartment infills.

We have also assembled a small Technical Review Committee with representatives from inner urban Community Associations, architects, infill developers, and City Building Code and Planning staff to review this technical work over the summer.

Older Materials

The R4 Zoning Review began in January 2016 in response to the continued development of buildings in the inner urban area containing unreasonably large dwelling units that operated as unlicensed rooming houses, commonly known as bunkhouses. The project is proceeding in two phases. R4 Phase 1 concluded in June 2018 with a zoning amendment that closed zoning loopholes, clarified definitions. As a result of these zoning changes, further bunkhouse development is now illegal city-wide. R4 Phase 2 will address the broader housing pressures affecting the inner urban area, of which bunkhouses were merely a symptom.

Discussion Paper #1, November 2016

The first Discussion Paper [ PDF 808 KB ] was released in November 2016 and explored the issues and intent behind the R4 Zoning Review, as well as some possible solutions for consideration.

Discussion Paper #2, March 2017

A second Discussion Paper [ PDF 684 KB ] containing draft zoning proposals was released in March 2017.

As We Heard It: Comments on Discussion Papers #1 and #2, September 2017

Following the release of Discussion Papers #1 and #2 and an extended comment period, we posted a summary of the comments we received in an As We Heard It [ PDF 613 KB ] report.

R4 Zoning Review Phase 1: Report to Planning Committee, June 2018

Planning Staff delivered a zoning amendment to Council in June of 2018 in co-ordination with changes to the Rooming House By-law and with collaboration of By-law enforcement, Licensing, Committee of Adjustment, Building Code and Development Review Staff. The R4 Phase 1 report [ PDF 423 KB ]   [ PDF corrected clear and pressing weaknesses in the Zoning By-law in order to close the door on excessive-bedroom bunkhouse buildings and address some of the more pressing performance issues associated with intensive low-rise in established neighbourhoods. The zoning amendments adopted by Council included:

  • Clarifying the distinction between a rooming house and a dwelling unit, to ensure consistency in permitting and by-law enforcement
  • Prohibiting further development of dwelling units with unreasonably large bedroom counts in multi-unit dwellings
  • Appropriately balancing the rare need for oversized dwelling units (ODUs) (i.e. for statistically unusual households) against the need to effectively plan for and regulate density; and
  • Ensuring that large residential buildings provide adequate space to store and manage garbage and recyclables

Video transcript

  • [jazz music]
  • If you've looked for an apartment in Ottawa recently, you know how hard it's gotten.
  • Vacancies have been low for a decade.
  • [sad sigh]
  • And when something does become vacant?
  • [gasp]
  • Well the rent just goes up…
  • [balloon inflating]
  • and up… and up.
  • [pop]
  • [disappointed sigh]
  • Land in the city is expensive, and that adds to the cost of new housing.
  • But, if you put more units on a lot, each of those units can be more affordable.
  • Small, walk-up apartments are a low-cost way to add to a neighbourhood in a way that respects the local character.
  • And they're a great choice if you don't need a whole house, or can't afford one, but you don't want to live in a tower either.
  • But Ottawa's R4 zoning actually makes it hard to build low-rise apartments in the places we need them most.
  • [cat hiss]
  • It's not meant to.
  • But the way the rules are written, usually they act as a kind of force field that keeps affordable housing away.
  • [unintelligible magic spell]
  • That’s left a missing middle in our new housing stock and it’s making life harder and harder for anyone who just needs a place to live.
  • [dog howling]
  • The R4 Zoning Review will fix those rules and encourage more Missing Middle housing close to downtown.
  • That way, we can build more housing, for more people, one building at a time, while still protecting what made the neighbourhood great in the first place.
  • Ottawa is growing and we need to make room for everybody.
  • We want to know what you think.
  • [cat meowing]
  • [cat disappointed meow]
  • [jazz music]