It’s increasingly difficult for younger people and new families to find an affordable place to call home. We have Places to Grow legislation, which is intended to rein in urban sprawl and preserve a ‘greenbelt’ around Southern Ontario’s built-up urban area. At the same time, provincial growth projections mandate all municipalities to actively plan for more growth with specific population targets. One estimate suggests 3.5 million people will move to the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region in the next 25 years. But so far, this has only led to more suburban developments starved of employment opportunities; a choice of either lower paid local employment or more costly and lengthy commutes, road congestion, and poorer quality of life. Meanwhile in major cities the size of an average high-rise condo continues to shrink. Neither housing option serves existing needs well. (In New York, ‘micro apartments’ are about 275 to 300 square feet).
The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation called on the provincial government to freeze all urban boundaries for two years until new population projections can be made, based on the latest 2016 census data. The Foundation says the province is already projecting lower population growth than it was four years ago. “There’s enough of a question now about the population forecasts that we shouldn’t be bringing any more land in until the 2016 census is released.”
According to the Foundation, the method of assessing how much land is needed for development also must be standardized.
“Many planners have looked at past housing trends to predict future needs. If patterns show there will be a desire for low density detached houses, the municipality then expands its boundaries to provide space for those homes, even though it may already have the capacity for higher density townhomes or apartments.” (Freeze urban boundaries for two years says Greenbelt group, Tess Kalinowski, Toronto Star, August 17, 2016)
The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) blames Places to Grow legislation and its intensification requirements for rocketing real estate prices. But data shows that other cities without intensification requirements have experienced just as much, or more, volatility in housing prices. “In 2014, the Royal Bank of Canada teamed up with the non-profit Pembina Institute to investigate what is driving house prices up. Their evidence-based study found lower interest rates and favourable mortgage rules were the primary culprit.” (More sprawl won’t solve affordable housing shortage, Tim Gray, Toronto Star, May 25, 2016)
Here in Innisfil, new housing prices seem to have galloped higher right along with Toronto prices and only offer ‘relative’ value, i.e. more space for the price. It’s debatable whether they are, all factors considered, more affordable. (We complain about the cost of everything just as much as anybody else, so where are the savings?)
Following an independent review of the legislation (Crombie Report) the province has announced further policy changes to limit sprawl:
- Requiring “pre-zoning” along transit corridors to guarantee dense development if cities want to get future transit funding.
- Ensuring that at least 60 per cent of all new residential developments in municipalities are in existing “built-up” areas. [formerly 40%]
- Substantially increasing employment density so greenfield spaces within cities can’t be eaten up by things such as sprawling warehouses. [80 people & jobs per hectare, formerly 50]
- Requiring municipalities to provide “transparent” calculations to show how they are properly using land to meet smart growth targets.
(Ontario setting new rules to end era of suburban sprawl, Sam Grewal, Toronto Star, May 10, 2016)
It’s interesting that builders’ response is to still look for the biggest plot of vacant land they can find:
“But in recent years, the city’s hot housing market … has turned sprawling GTA golf courses into lucrative real estate investments. World-renowned Glen Abbey in Oakville and Copper Creek in Vaughan are among a half-dozen other GTA courses that have recently confirmed plans to eventually replace their fairways with subdivisions.” (GTA developers targeting golf courses, Noor Javed, Toronto Star, March 27, 2016)
It seems to me that we haven’t exploited all of the possible options to create more ‘affordable’ housing.
- We could be building more smaller homes with a better use of space instead of the 2,000+ square feet that’s typical now. [The “Tiny House Movement” (architectural and social movement that advocates living simply in small homes) is an interesting niche phenomenon.]
- We could make far better use of prefabricated building components to reduce inefficient and slower on-site construction. Many interesting approaches exist elsewhere. Why not here?
- Adding some low-rise buildings to the development mix might increase affordable family-sized living spaces and still achieve a reasonable density.
The supply of available land continues to shrink while the number of people wanting to occupy it continues to increase. That sounds like an impossible policy dilemma. Following the builders’ mantra of focusing on what they say people ‘prefer’ – based on what they have always built – is no solution. Builders have to contribute to affordability with practical, creative innovations of their own – in design, and technology.