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Diving into some housing terms
You can’t read the news these days without seeing articles about housing affordability. And, with a provincial byelection happening soon in Kitchener Centre, I suspect the issue of housing will definitely be a hot topic of discussion as the candidates knock on doors. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to take a closer look at some of the many terms that arise in these discussions.
Official Plan: A document that outlines a city’s long-term vision for land use and development.
These documents are reviewed and updated regularly. In fact, the Region of Waterloo has just completed a two year process to approve the current Official Plan (although recent provincial decisions may impact its implementation).
Zoning: Bylaws that regulate a city’s land use.
how land may be used;
the types of buildings that are permitted and where they can be located;
and, many details on lot sizes, parking requirements, setbacks, and height.
“Many municipalities have a comprehensive zoning bylaw that divides the municipality into different land use zones, with detailed maps.” Click to learn more about Kitchener’s comprehensive zoning bylaw (also known as CRoZBy).
One concern I hear around zoning is that no one follows the rules so why do we even have zoning regulations? However, a property owner can not simply make any changes they want to their property - there is a specific process that is followed when anyone wants to make changes to, or ‘rezone’, a property. While that process may look different across municipalities, it usually involves an application process, one or more public meetings, and either Committee of Adjustment or Council approval. (Click to view Kitchener’s process.)
Committee of Adjustment (CoA): A quasi-judicial committee that makes decisions about minor variances for zoning bylaws and land severances.
Under provincial rules, a CoA can: allow changes to legal, non-conforming land uses; give consent to divide a parcel of land into more than one lot; grant minor variances; and more.
I recently wrote about a surprising Cambridge Council decision regarding the Chair of their Committee of Adjustment.
Infill: Building upon empty or underused land.
Infill development is essentially the opposite of sprawl (or greenfield development) and encourages communities to build up, not out. “This type of development is meant to encourage density and accommodate environmentally sustainable urban growth by making use of existing utility and transportation infrastructure.” We want to avoid sprawl as it negatively impacts air quality, worsens traffic congestion, and lengthens commutes. Plus, it is far more costly to expand outwards, instead of densifying.
As-of-right: When a new development conforms to all zoning and building codes, it is automatically permitted ‘as-of-right’. “A development qualified for by-right approval must still acquire the necessary permits to proceed, but an entitlement is much more easily acquired by-right than through a discretionary approval process burdened with legal expenses and political uncertainty.”
When some residents demand developments ‘stick to the plan’, they are often referring to what is currently allowed as-of-right. However, if many variances or zoning changes are being requested, it may suggest that existing zoning regulations don’t align with current housing demand. Click to learn more about ‘as-of-right’ development.
Exclusionary Zoning: Planning regulations that exclude various types of buildings or housing.
In many North American municipalities, the majority of land is designated for single-family housing. This is slowly beginning to change as some cities are updating their zoning policies to allow gentle density housing ‘as-of-right’, such as triplexes or four-storey multiplex units. Many ‘Yes In My Backyard’ (YIMBY) groups advocate for ending exclusionary zoning by encouraging policies that allow for more housing in every neighbourhood.
Inclusionary Zoning: While the name sounds like it would be the opposite of exclusionary zoning, it’s actually different. “Inclusionary zoning allows cities to require private developers to include a certain percentage of affordable units within new, multi-unit housing developments.”
Currently, the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge and the Region of Waterloo are investigating how this tool can best be used locally. Learn more here. While I understand the appeal of inclusionary zoning, it needs to be implemented thoughtfully if it is to succeed in providing more housing as a whole and affordable units specifically. I shared some of my thoughts on inclusionary zoning in a previous post.
Are ‘definition’ posts like these helpful? Are there other terms you’d be interested in learning more about, like: floor space ratio, market rate vs affordable housing, or NIMBY and YIMBY perspectives? Feel free to post a reply in the comments!
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