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.
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.