Cities must be creative in fixing the housing crisis
Urban centres have made it hard to find solutions amid strict zoning rules
GAVIN SWARTZMAN Gavin Swartzman is CEO Peerage Realty, one of Canada’s largest residential resale companies. Peerage is parent company to Baker Real Estate, Chestnut Park and Sotheby’s International Realty Canada.
Throughout the prolonged uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been one constant: new records in the volume and sales price of residential properties, especially in Canada’s largest cities.
Lockdown and the sudden stillness in our once-bustling cities gave us all a rare opportunity to reflect on what and who matters most to us as communities. Now, as we gradually approach the return to a more familiar way of life, it’s increasingly clear that the time has come for a serious conversation about what Canada’s largest cities want to be as they grow up.
Early on, the disruption caused by the pandemic led some experts to read the last rites for large cities. But while the trend away from urban centres to the suburbs and beyond was accelerated over the past year, the demand for homes in and around cities — especially Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — has continued to soar far beyond supply.
There is already abundant evidence that Canadians are willing and eager to return to the many attractions of city life. But whatever you believe about that future and wherever you choose to live, we are all stakeholders when it comes to the cities where Canada’s population and greatest need is overwhelmingly concentrated.
On a strictly practical note, our urban centres remain economic engines as well as powerful magnets for all immigrants to Canada. For example, the federal government has committed to welcome 400,000 new Canadians a year over the next five years and, historically, one out of every three will arrive and stay in Toronto, followed by Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton.
If we want to attract, retain and disperse top talent, we have to give the thought and do the work to ensure our cities provide an attractive and affordable destination for them and their families. If we want to want to build world-class hubs of commerce, innovation and entrepreneurship, we have to cultivate the people and provide the infrastructure to support those who generate that economic activity. That includes fostering an openness to diversity in housing, mixed retail formats and integrating heritage into new built forms, not just protecting crumbling assets from a bygone time.
To increase the housing supply and successfully reimagine an inclusive and dynamic future for Canada’s cities, the first step is challenging our own expectations and entrenched thinking. Change is always a challenge and we have a visceral and very human desire to protect our homes and our perceived “territory.” As a result, we also tend to elect those who will protect those interests and biases. That reality is at the heart of NIMBY-ism, a formidable and durable obstacle to urban evolution that needs to be, at the very least, acknowledged as a first step to addressing it.
Another way to frame this process is a strategic review of the weak spots in our portfolios of urban housing. At the top of that list would be the “missing middle.” This is the growing gap between highrise condos and detached, single-family homes, a middle ground of townhomes, lowrise multi-family buildings, laneway developments, triplexes and duplexes that are affordable and accessible to a larger group of people.
Creative development in this “middle” can introduce new renters and buyers to established neighbourhoods, bringing the vibrancy and diversity that gives cities their distinct character. It also allows those who can’t afford expensive single-family detached homes to move into established communities and take advantage of the existing municipal amenities.
In Toronto, for example, regulations have long protected the “yellow belt,” a 200-squarekilometre area of the city (70 per cent of Toronto’s residential area) designated exclusively for single-family residential dwellings.
That has, quite intentionally, made it almost impossible to find creative housing solutions in Canada’s most populous and fast-growing city. In addition, the TOCore plan, new heritage listings and downgrading mixed-use areas to smaller developments only restrict the availability of suitable land to accommodate a growing population.
There are very limited municipal incentives for developers to construct any new, more affordable housing. In cities across the country, the same costs, approval timelines, regulatory requirements and project cycles apply to lucrative highrise condo projects as to lower-margin midrise structures.
Neither is there much encouragement for infill development, which entails repurposing older residential or commercial structures and fully leveraging the existing infrastructure, including public transit. Making it easier to acquire small plots of land and assemble them into a larger one creates the potential to increase mixed-use density and, in part because of the requirements for parks and public art, revitalize entire neighbourhoods.
But probably the single most important way to move toward urban affordability is to use recent events as an opportunity to reset entrenched adversarial relationships and foster collaboration through common purpose. As for the discussion we all need to have about the future of our cities, the best conversations involve listening as well as speaking. We also need to have open minds to the ways we can meet cities’ need to change, grow, mature and diversify.
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