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“Our previous zoning laws excluded people based on race and income. Multiplexes will help fix that”: A Q&A with chief planner Gregg Lintern

Here, the city hall veteran explains what NIMBYs really mean when they talk about the “character” of a neighbourhood, where he expects multiplexes to pop up and the potential death of the white picket fence

"Our previous zoning laws excluded people based on race and income. Multiplexes will help fix that": A Q&A with chief planner Gregg Lintern

This spring, after years of hemming, hawing and heated debate, city council finally approved the construction of multiplexes in every corner of the city. Until that moment, a whopping 70 per cent of Toronto’s residential land was zoned only for detached single-family homes—an impractical holdover from the Mad Men era in a city desperate for housing. Among the recent policy change’s long-time supporters is Toronto’s chief planner, Gregg Lintern, a self-professed “planning nerd” who says multiplexes will give Torontonians more options and help fill in the missing middle between high-rises and detached homes.

Multiplexes aren’t a silver bullet, though, and they’re certainly not without dissenters. Just last week, Mississauga city council voted against a plan to allow fourplexes. And affordable-housing advocates maintain that more systemic changes are required to end the housing and homelessness crisis. Meanwhile, opponents of density continue to come up with objections in a bid to preserve their historic neighbourhoods. Still, Lintern remains undeterred. Here, he explains what NIMBYs really mean when they talk about a district’s “character,” how density can often save neighbourhoods and why multiplexes may make Toronto more beautiful.


We’ve been facing a housing crisis for a long time. Can you explain why the previous zoning laws were so restrictive? The old policy was mostly the result of rapid expansion after the Second World War, when the city grew from downtown out into subdivisions across Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. All of that undeveloped land was marked for detached single-family homes, probably because that’s what people wanted and valued at the time. It’s not that there were no apartment buildings, but they tended to exist in clumps in higher-density areas. Toronto’s population has grown by close to five times since then, but until May, 70 per cent of residentially zoned land was restricted to one unit per lot. The result has been a growing amount of exclusivity in a lot of neighbourhoods, where the only way to live there is to buy or rent an entire house. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with the alternatives, such as condo living. The question is: How can we make housing in Toronto more inclusive by giving more choice to more people?

And the answer is multiplex units? That was our pitch when we first started this conversation, in 2019. At that point, you had a record number of cranes in the sky building condos—mostly in Old Toronto—while in some neighbourhoods you would have a smaller house being replaced by a larger house, which was still only one unit. This is what we mean when we talk about a missing middle. Based on a recent study, we have projected the need for 4,200 low-rise units over the next 30 years, so multiplexes will be a way to help us meet those targets.

Who is the target market for multiplex units? If we think about the life cycle of a Toronto resident across demographics, when they are starting out, they’re usually looking for a relatively small place: one or two bedrooms. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, aging residents don’t need the space or the expense of an entire home—but they want to stay in their communities with their friends, their doctors and their favourite shops. Multiplexes give more people the opportunity to age in place while simultaneously increasing housing supply and affordability. Maybe you’re someone who has bought a home but needs extra income to carry the mortgage, so you build one or two new units. And then you have a range of family situations: parents living in a main unit with adult children, granny suites, nanny suits, etc. 

What about people who have been forced out of the GTA based on affordability? This new policy helps them too. There’s a saying in real estate: when you’re looking for housing, you “drive until you qualify.” In other words, because of market forces, you have to go farther and farther from the city centre, either to buy or to rent. I think about people currently commuting into and out of the city for work. My mother, for example, had personal support workers who were taking a 90-minute bus ride to her long-term care home. If we can’t accommodate diverse people and lifestyles, quality of life in Toronto will suffer.

It has been several months since this new policy took effect. What has the uptake been like? So far this year we’ve received 135 applications, compared with 100 in all of 2022. The interest has come from all over the city. My office is also seeing a steady stream of calls and emails from people wanting to know what they can do on their property and how to get started. Some inquiries are from professionals, like small design or construction firms, and many are from the homeowners themselves. 

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How does it work, exactly? Multiplexes are allowed, but presumably you can’t just start building. If you can design a multi-unit building within the zoning regulations, you can go straight to the building permit stage, which can save up to six months of uncertainty. And because city council has lifted development charges for those additional units, it removes a significant cost.

Ten years from now, what does a multiplex-era Toronto look like? There may be hundreds of new multiplexes, but our goal is to preserve the general scale and character of all neighbourhoods. We want more intensification, but we don’t want residents to notice the difference too heavily.

Right. Why, then, is there so much hand-wringing over how multiplexes could destroy the character of the city’s existing neighbourhoods? Is that just code for “let’s keep the riff-raff out”? As I said, we have seen the way that previous zoning laws lead to exclusion based on factors like income and race. They were also not favourable for renters. Certain neighbourhoods have developed in a way that is homogeneous, and that is something we have to move past. Part of doing that is being honest: our old way of developing the city left many out. Certainly, this is a heavy topic, and we are used to hearing coded language in arguments against multiplexes. As planners, when we say “character,” we’re talking about the rhythm of development in a neighbourhood—things like number of stories, height, how far homes are set back from the street, how much street parking there is, how many trees.

So it’s not about preserving a tasteful red-brick in Rosedale or building more post-war strawberry boxes in the Queensway. Some of those things do relate to building code, but no, we don’t police taste. We’re hoping that all these new multiplexes will also fuel conversation in the architecture and design community. We’ve seen it already with laneway and garden suites, where so much creativity and really beautiful and purposeful work has come from building within certain parameters.

That sounds exciting, but also expensive. Does it matter if multiplexes are mostly pursued by wealthy developers and investors? We don’t get to pick and choose who gets to do this. I predict that we are likely to see a rise of citizen developers—people who hire an architect and an engineer and are able to take this on—so that we may end up seeing a cottage industry emerge.

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Affordable-housing activists say multiplexes are not the way to solve the current housing crisis. And I agree with them. Multiplexes are not a perfect solution. Though I would also say that increasing housing supply across the board has great potential to further cool the market.

Critics, especially in the suburbs, say the new rules will mean the death of the cozy bungalow. Is that true? Does the cozy bungalow even make sense in a city like Toronto? Well, it’s funny because we already changed the zoning in a lot of those suburban neighbourhoods to allow for taller single-family homes, so the same people who were complaining to us then about McMansions are now complaining about multiplexes. Over the past four or five years, my office has spoken with thousands and thousands of Torontonians about what’s missing. We find people who may not normally weigh in on civic issues by going door to door, soliciting online feedback and targeting marginalized groups who may not feel comfortable showing up at the church-basement town hall to talk about their housing challenges.

When you say “housing challenges,” you’re not talking about outrage over these new multiplexes, right? You’re talking about affordability and livable neighbourhoods. Right, though I’m really not trying to pit people in this city against one another. I want to focus on the actual effects, things like parking, trees, light and privacy.

Street parking is already such a nightmare. Are you concerned about a lack of infrastructure and resources if a neighbourhood’s population spikes? Again, this is about incremental change. We can see some clues in the way laneway suites have been adopted, which started with a trickle and has increased over time. So, if we’re looking at a single neighbourhood, you might see four multiplexes going up over the next four years. 

Meaning, not enough to require new infrastructure, like public schools and that sort of thing? No. And in fact, the density may be enough to save the existing public school. That’s something people may not realize: there are a number of neighbourhoods in Toronto where the population has either plateaued or is declining. Multiplexes present an opportunity for revitalization in areas that need it. Trinity-Bellwoods is an example where you might see multiplexes pop up on streets that have only detached single-family homes.

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There has been a lot of talk about how home ownership is no longer an attainable dream for people in Canada. Could the introduction of multiplexes have any effect on this? I think it’s a culturally narrow comment to say that home ownership is the dream in Canada. What’s more important, and what I’m focused on, is housing as shelter.

So you don’t much care about preserving the white picket fence? To me, the white picket fence smacks of idealistic post-war social engineering. I want to advance societal benefit. I’m thinking about supporting growth and how we can accommodate more people in our existing footprint. Good planning can make neighbourhoods more viable over generations. It can help keep the cost of municipal services down. And it can help the climate. If I can do those things, then I’ve done my job. If you want to build a white picket fence on your property, that’s up to you.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

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