Residential Fourth Density Zoning Review

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R4 Zoning Review Amendments Are Now In Effect

On October 14th, Ottawa City Council adopted By-laws 2020-290 through 2020-295 which amended the R4 zoning in the inner-urban area. As of November 9th, the appeal period has ended and no appeals are outstanding. Accordingly, the changes brought through these amendments are in effect as of October 14th.

The online consolidation of the Zoning By-law and geoOttawa will be updated shortly to reflect the changes.

R4 Phase 2 Planning Committee Report Now Available

The report for the R4 Phase 2 zoning proposals is listed on the Planning Committee Agenda for August 27, 2020. However, in recognition of the length of the report and the summer vacation schedules of stakeholders, the Chair of the committee has let the committee members know that it is expected that the report will be deferred, by motion, to the September 10th Planning Committee meeting.

The R4 Phase 2 zoning proposals will be presented to Planning Committee on August 27, 2020.

Please note: the planning report ACS2020-PIE-EDP-0015 contains an error. Document 2b, which lays out the zone standards for different building typologies in the new R4 zones, is missing the rows governing stacked dwellings, low-rise apartment dwellings and Planned Unit Developments in the new R4-UD zone. A motion will be presented at the August 27 Planning Committee meeting to restore the missing rows when the report is considered. The missing rows read as follows:

Sub-Zone Prohibited Uses Principal Dwelling Types Min. Lot Width (metres) Min. Lot Area (m2) Max. Building Height (metres) Min. Front Yard Setback (metres) Min. Corner Side Yard Setback (metres) Min. Rear Yard Setback (metres) Min. Interior Side Yard Setback (metres) End-notes (see Table 162B)
R4-UD     Stacked 14 420 11 4.5 4.5 [Per Infill 2] 1.5  
R4-UD     Low-rise Apartment, maximum of 8 units 10 300 11 4.5 4.5 [Per Infill 2] 1.5  
R4-UD     Low-rise Apartment, 9 or more units 15 450 14.5 4.5 4.5 [Per Infill 2] 1.5  
R4-UD     PUD NA 1,400 as per dwelling type 4.5 4.5 [Per Infill 2] varies [1]

April 2020: Revised Recommendations

Five low-rise apartment buildings

Following feedback on Discussion Paper #3 from November 2019 through February 2020, we have produced a set of revised recommendations for comment.

April 2020 Zoning Proposals [ 296 KB ]

Schedule A to April 2020 Zoning [ 1.24 MB ]

Link to Newspaper Ad published April 3, 2020 [ 225 KB ]

The deadline to comment on the April recommendations was May 22, 2020. We expect to deliver a report and recommendations to Planning Committee on August 27, 2020. If you would like to receive notification of the Planning Committee meeting, please contact us 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
Tel: 613-580-2424 ext. 13944
Fax: 613-580-2459 or

Discussion Paper #3: Draft Recommendations circulated November 2019 through February 2020

Discussion Paper #3 was circulated in November 2019 and proposed 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 ]

Old Schedule A to Discussion Paper #3 (November 2019)

As We Heard It From Apartment Hunters

As We Heard It: Responses to Discussion Paper #3

Frequently asked questions

More Frequently Asked Questions: Affordability (April 2020)

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

[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?
Well the rent just goes up…
[balloon inflating]
and up… and up.
[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]



As We Heard It from Apartment Hunters - Spring 2020

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)

As We Heard It: Responses to Discussion Paper #3

After posting Discussion Paper #3 in November 2019, we asked everyone to send their comments by February 21. Here is a summary of what we heard. For detailed responses to some of these points, please see our updated Frequently Asked Questions section. Some are addressed in the revised proposals circulated in April 2020. In any case, all comments will be answered in the Staff Report to Planning Committee.

Comments range from strong support for all the proposed changes (including suggestions that they should be applied more widely) to support for the overall goals of the changes tempered by questions or skepticism that they are necessary or sufficient to achieve the desired results.

Geography of proposed changes:

  • Should apply these changes to all R4's in the city, not just the inner-urban ones.
  • Need to raise densities in all zones, not just current R4. Should expand the R4 zoning to areas currently zoned R1-R3.
  • Should prohibit rooftop terraces in all R4's, not just Sandy Hill as proposed in DP#3.
  • Some areas should remain single-detached houses.

Size and affordability of units:

  • There is no guarantee that the units enabled by these changes will be affordable, particularly to the 30th income percentile and below.
  • The sample apartments shown seem quite small.
  • Having no limit on number of units could result in lots of very small units in a building. By extension, this might cater to a more transient or unstable population, and/or discourage families. Any new low-rise apartments should accommodate a range of tenants; one-, two- and three-bedroom units to accommodate singles, couples and families.
  • Any apartment of this density must contain a ratio of accessible units with rent based on income.
  • Concerned that these changes will incentivize the demolition of existing affordable rental stock.

Changes to development standards:

  • Concerned/object to removing the 30% landscaping minimum and/or amenity area calculations. It's not enough to say that everything that isn't walkways, garbage management etc. has to be greenspace; we need to see a number.
  • Concerned/object to allowing exit stairs to project into rear yard, due to the effect on privacy for neighbours and massing.
  • Real solutions to waste storage at the rear of R4 properties need to be developed; not convinced that Site Plan Control is enough.
  • If there are narrow side yards, prefer to see garbage stored inside buildings.
  • Not convinced about dropping the current requirement for a 6m side yard after 21m depth.
  • Require trees and enough space for them to thrive.
  • Should have limits/controls on lot consolidation to mitigate the effect on character of the street.
  • Four-storey (14.5m) building heights should not be permitted in any circumstances where they are not already allowed.
  • Balconies will help make buildings interact better with the street vs. balconies will constrain design freedom, remove floor area and won't necessarily make buildings interact better with the street.
  • Balconies create thermal bridging issues and make energy efficiency more challenging.
  • Recessing 20% of the facade is tricky on a narrower site, eats up a lot of floor space and messes with the interior layout.
  • Reducing the minimum lot size will allow more lots to become apartments; some concern about how much of the neighbourhood will become eligible for apartment buildings (A quarter? Half? Eighty percent?)
  • Harmonizing lot width and size for triplexes and low-rise apartments won't close the door on sequential applications: the cost and time savings of building a triplex, getting it rented and then getting permission for the fourth unit are substantial.
  • Would like to see mandatory fenced-in and covered bike parking for rental units. Should divide bike parking into smaller fenced-in units.
  • The current prohibition on retirement homes in some R4 zones should be reconsidered.
  • Suggest requiring elevators in 4-storey buildings.
  • Suggest requiring underground parking for 3- and 4-storey buildings.
  • Front-yard parking must not be allowed.
  • Rooftop patios must be conservative.
  • Front-yard setbacks must be respected so as not to crowd the sidewalk.

Interpretation of proposed requirements/standards:

  • Will bay window provisions allow additional floorspace? Previously the answer was no; is this intended to change?
  • At two square metres, a bay window could extend 0.3m into the yard and be about 7m wide. Is this the intent?
  • Will there be limits on the size of accessory structures (if not, they could end up crowding out greenspace.)
  • Does soft landscaping preclude stone patios?
  • Need clarity w/r meaning of front facade.
  • Parking excluders: where the curb to the building is more than 5.2m, would the developer be expected to extend planting or retaining wall onto the boulevard?

Site Plan Control:

  • Don't water down or remove Site Plan Control for low-rise apartments.
  • Don't leave waste storage and removal to SPC
  • Not convinced about the effectiveness of SPC in controlling air conditioning units or waste management.

Committee of Adjustment:

  • Much uncertainty, conflict and frustration about how minor variances are currently processed.
  • Concern that new standards will simply be a starting point for more variances.
  • Need for policy clarity so that the minor variance process is not abused.
  • Zoning regulations for infill in R4 should explicitly exclude the possibility of variances for more than 4 storeys.


  • Prohibition on parking may not always be appropriate e.g. what if there's a back lane?
  • Need to consider impacts on street parking etc.

General/big picture:

  • Need more clarity on what context-sensitive design means.
  • Need cycle lanes, more parks, more services, grocery stores etc.
  • Dense communities need shops; the zoning should allow cafes, restaurants, other commercial services in R4 zones.
  • Increase in traffic due to taxis, ridesharing, parcel and food deliveries and commercial waste removal trucks.
  • Act rather than react to redevelopment plans for Ottawa Community Housing properties in Overbrook.
  • Need to address the diversion of housing from long-term to short-term rental (e.g. AirBnB)
  • Support the proposals. Ottawa desperately needs more rental stock. It is a source of constant anxiety wondering what you'll do if you get evicted and thrown into bidding wars with ten other couples for one vacant apartment. People objecting to these proposals are mostly homeowners who, all due respect, haven't had to find rental accommodations in several years and don't know what it's like now.
  • Is there an upper limit to intensification? Is there a point at which the City says a given neighbourhood has seen enough intensification?
  • The only apartments allowed should be subsidized housing.
  • Suggest that sewage facilities be re-assessed whenever new multi-unit buildings are being approved for construction
  • Happy to see these changes. Look forward to new neighbours and more affordable housing.

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.

More Frequently Asked Questions: Affordability (April 2020)

The November 2019 Discussion Paper drew some more questions and comments about housing affordability. We address some of them in detail here.

"The $1677/month given in the Discussion Paper #3 example doesn't seem particularly affordable. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) data, the average rent of a two-bedroom unit in 2018 was $1,297/per month in Ottawa area.”

The single biggest systemic threat to affordability is scarcity of rental units; looking at individual numbers in isolation may obscure that fact.

Average rents in the inner-urban neighbourhoods where the R4 changes are proposed, are generally higher than the city-wide figure.

But even those average rents are much lower than what new tenants pay in today's market. CMHC averages include newly-occupied units but also include many more units that have been occupied for years and have benefited from rent control over that time. If you sign a lease today, you won't be paying the CMHC average; because of the scarcity of units, rents on anything that’s available will be much higher.

Census data from 2016, where we compared rents paid by people who hadn’t moved recently to that paid by people who moved in the past year. In other words, pretty close to the difference between “average” and “current market” rents. We found that the difference generally ranges from 12% to 17%, and in some places higher.

The City of Ottawa Strategic Plan notes that market rents on two-bedroom apartments are closer to $1900, more than $600 higher than the CMHC average!

Rental construction has lagged demand for years.

About one in three households in Ottawa rents, but only 7% of housing starts since 2000 have been purpose-built rentals. That is a recipe for a rental shortage that is now becoming apparent. Ottawa added 9,500 tenant households from 2001 to 2016, but only 6,400 rental units over the same period. That gap of 3,100 units is the equivalent of 2.5% of the rental stock; it's the difference between the current 1.7% vacancy rate and a comfortable, tenant-friendly 4.2%.

Scarcity drives up the rents on existing, previously-affordable units.

The root cause of rising rents is the lack of units, which allow landlords to charge whatever they want. This is the greatest threat to affordability, including to existing tenants who may be paying less. The imbalance of supply and demand creates a strong incentive for some landlords to "renovict" existing tenants, since the temptation to get a long-term tenant paying $1,300 out and fix up the place and rent it out for $1900 is enormous.

In short, the main benefit of R4 Phase 2 to affordability is to increase the supply of units. Even if the new units may not be directly affordable the best we can do is minimize unnecessary costs. Their real benefit is in adding desperately needed supply to limit the pressure on rent on all the others units-units that until recently were affordable, until a rental housing shortage made them not.

"Just because the unit could rent for $1677, doesn’t mean it will; landlords will charge whatever the market will bear. Why did the City show us this figure?"

You’re absolutely right. New units would be built into a market where rents have been driven very high by scarcity. No matter what we do, rents will stay high for several years. But implementing the proposed changes will help take pressure off of vacancy rates and rents.

The cost of construction, and its inevitable effect on rents and prices, has been largely absent from planning consultations. We produced those numbers mainly to illustrate just how expensive housing is to produce under the best of circumstances. If $1677 seems expensive, the current zoning regime systematically drives housing that is even more expensive than what we’re proposing here.

The rental housing shortage we now face has been decades in the making. It will not be fixed overnight. A major contributor to this problem has been zoning that, for decades, has prevented the most affordable (in relative terms) apartment construction, instead driving housing demand into luxury semis, concrete buildings, or the gentrification and bidding-up of old housing.

"How do we know these changes won't hurt affordability, by encouraging developers to demolish existing rentals and replace them with more expensive apartments?"

We were asked this question by the Hintonburg and Mechanicsville Community Associations. We examined the recent permit data in those neighbourhoods, including demolition and construction permits, and found the following:

  1. Most of the buildings that are demolished are owner-occupied detached dwellings, not affordable rentals.
  2. Zoning cannot prevent people from demolishing buildings and replacing them with new ones. However, it can influence what goes up in their place. Under the current zoning regime, the most likely replacement is very expensive semi-detached or even detached houses. (In some neighbourhoods, the usual pattern may be to replace a house with three or four large, expensive rental units.)
  3. While affordable rental units are being lost, it is due to forces other than demolition. The single biggest contributor is the scarcity of units that drives up rents in bidding wars. Demolitions account for the loss of one rental unit in a thousand each year.
  4. Development charges are based on the number of units being built. The redevelopment allowed by the current zoning in Hintonburg/Mechanicsville resulted in $1.8 million less in development charges over four years, compared to what would have been permitted under the changes proposed by the R4 Review.

The details may differ in different neighbourhoods, but the overall effect is almost certainly the same. The zoning status quo produces fewer units; the units that are built, are unaffordable to most households; and the City misses out on millions of dollars for parks and services.

We agree that the City is losing affordable rentals. However, demolitions and infill are at most a minor contributor.

The main culprit is a scarcity of units that allows landlords to charge higher and higher rents for the few available units. When there are not enough apartments, the vacant ones go to the highest bidder.

The City is also aware that some landlords engage in activities that seek to increase turnover of rental units for higher value or demand higher rents than may be specified by provincial guidelines.

Short-term rental platforms that divert housing stock away from long-term use likely make things worse. (The City has been taking steps to curb this.)

These forces are independent of any demolition and replacement trend, and are exacerbated by the shortage of rental units that systematically places tenants in a vulnerable position.

We must re-iterate that the changes proposed through the R4 Review are necessary, even if not by themselves sufficient, to address the root cause of rental unaffordability, both in Hintonburg, Mechanicsville and Ottawa as a whole.

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