Editorial: Finding the Missing Middle

From coast to coast, Canadian cities are showing increased interest in so-called “missing middle” housing. The term encompasses a range of typologies—from laneway homes and secondary suites, to duplexes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings—any housing larger than a box-in-the-sky condominium, but smaller than a single-family detached home.

The missing middle covers a spectrum of housing typologies, from row houses to mid-rise apartments. Image courtesy City of Edmonton

Building more of these types of housing, say advocates, will help to increase affordability by providing new ownership and rental opportunities. And building more densely, particularly in established neighbourhoods, will also contribute to the sustainability of cities, by putting people within walking and cycling distance from workplaces, schools and other day-to-day needs.

The need for missing middle housing is especially apparent in Toronto. The recent book House Divided: How the Missing Middle Will Solve Toronto’s Housing Crisis points out that some 200 square kilometres of the city—an area twice the size of Manhattan—is zoned exclusively for detached single-family residential dwellings. This so-called “Yellowbelt,” named for the colour in which it appears on zoning maps, is 1.8 times larger than all other areas zoned for housing in Toronto. Even more low-rise residential areas are shielded from change by the City’s Official Plan, which expects development to “respect and reinforce the existing physical character of the neighbourhood.”

While Toronto as a whole is growing, Yellowbelt neighbourhoods are actually losing population, as baby boomers hold on to houses after children have moved out, and affluent professionals (living singly, or with relatively small families) snap up available properties. “The average household size has fallen from 2.8 people in 1986 to 2.4 in 2016. And yet we each expect more space to live in,” writes Alex Bozikovic, one of the book’s co-editors. In his west-end neighbourhood, the schools, parks, and pools—created from 1945 to 1970, when the average home contained 3.5 to 4 people—now have plenty of spare capacity.

Meanwhile, there’s a scramble to provide amenities for new apartment tower neighbourhoods, built in the tiny sliver of space (about five percent of the city’s area) to which all new intensification is being directed.

Things are starting to change, albeit slowly. Edmonton recently hosted a competition to design and construct missing middle housing on a city-owned parcel. Vancouver has, since 2017, allowed some lots with laneway houses to be severed into separate strata titles. Toronto’s city council recently voted to explore new housing options in the Yellowbelt—a first step toward finding the missing middle.

What would a city with more missing middle be like? Maybe like Montreal, suggests co-editor John Lorinc, who writes about the three-storey walk-ups, with an apartment on each floor, that side shoulder-to-shoulder in vibrant areas like the Plateau.

Here in Toronto, I live opposite a block of three-storey social housing, where large families live in relatively small units. There’s sometimes a sense of division to the two sides of the street—the homeowners versus the renters. But it’s the Toronto Community Housing kids who are outside playing in all weather, and their parents and grandparents who sit on their porches throughout the day, providing the “eyes on the street” that add to the safety and life of the street.

As the next generation contends with the climate emergency, it will be critical to reduce our society’s carbon emissions, especially by targeting transportation and buildings, says Bozikovic. A powerful tool will be creating more middle-density housing in existing, walkable neighbourhoods.

Living more densely will have its challenges, but also its pleasures. “More neighbourhoods that are dense with people, dense with different kinds of activities, rich in amenities, and served with transit,” writes Bozikovic. “This is what Toronto needs now, and it is what the planet now demands from Toronto.”