Making a Home, Making a Move

“Affordable” housing is an urgent issue right now especially in our largest cities. We hear about rental accommodation scarcity in Toronto and the under-handed practice of ‘reno-viction’ by landlords attempting to circumvent rent controls.

An Affordable Housing Investment program in Ontario commits $800 million over 6 years – an average of $133 million per year. According to CMHC, the federal government invests over $238 million annually, (through March 2019), to help Canadians in housing need. The provinces and territories match the federal investments with contributions of their own. Nevertheless, these efforts take several years to register any impact while we continue to slip behind.

Across Canada the rental vacancy rate has shrunk to 2.4%. Some provinces with the highest vacancy rates also happen to have the highest average rental costs. This skewed market is another indication that our economic system is seriously broken. Conventional dogma says that the “market” will respond to fill a demand. But the ‘market’ builds to maximize profit, not necessarily maximize benefit for people in need.

“Transparency International Canada studied all residential property transactions in the GTA since 2008 and discovered more than $20 billion in anonymous money entered the real estate market without any oversight or due diligence. During this period, more than 50,000 homes were purchased by corporate entities …” (Toronto Star, March 21, 2019)

We seem to have an abundance of low-wage earners stuck in high-cost urban centres. Yet more remote areas are losing young people but still have a need for new workers. I was interested in a pilot project started by the federal department of immigration based on an earlier trial in Atlantic Canada. It attempts to match skills of immigrants with job vacancies in smaller communities.

“Immigrants will be chosen for the pilot project based on matching their skills to the local needs of their communities. Their professions could come from a variety of ones, such as truck drivers, teachers, lab technicians, etc.”

“What we’re looking for is communities that have two things; jobs to offer newcomers, and a welcoming infrastructure,” [Minister] Hussen said. “What I mean by that, is people who are willing to help in the process of settlement and integration, but also organizations that could do the work in terms of language training and employment support for newcomers.”

“Between 2001 and 2016, the number of potential workers in rural Canada has decreased by 23 per cent, while the number of potential retirees has increased by 40 per cent … Rural Canada faces particular challenges when it comes to labour market growth and labour market participation,” Hussen said. (Program to bring newcomers to Sudbury, the North, Sudbury Star, January 25, 2019)

If this program is successful, couldn’t it be expanded to all young people who are ambitious enough to make a new start in a new location? Couldn’t a small group of new, and other, Canadians move together to a smaller town with some settlement assistance, providing some social support to each other as they start out?

It seems to me that it would be a benefit to move several thousand young people per year (of all backgrounds) out of crowded, over-priced cities to smaller communities with appropriate job opportunities. “This is a common, common ask — municipal leaders are saying, ‘Please, we need more people, more workers, more families’, [the Minister] said”. A coordinated effort could help to address several urgent problems at once.

Communities chosen to participate in the immigration pilot program will be announced this spring.


Poverty and Affordability

We hear a lot these days about the need for ‘affordable’ housing. A recent opinion piece from the building industry talked about an Ontario inclusionary zoning regulation introduced in April 2018. It allows for municipalities to “introduce planning requirements for the inclusion of affordable housing in new residential developments.” It goes on to say, “The basic premise is a partnership between developers, builders and municipalities to encourage the construction of affordable housing units that would not otherwise be built.” (emphasis added) And finally, the climax: the cost of creating ‘affordability’ is actually achieved through a subsidy from taxpayers – “Inclusionary zoning can only work as a remedy or solution for affordable housing when an equitable cost-sharing agreement is in place between the building industry and municipalities.”

I was suddenly struck by a basic question: Why is the development industry building unaffordable housing? Why do we need a planning regulation to require ‘affordable’ housing? How has the vaunted ‘free market’ gotten so twisted out of shape that a ‘cost-sharing’ subsidy is needed to provide a basic necessity like shelter? Really, the housing issue is just a symptom of a much, much bigger problem. Inclusionary zoning is an ineffective band-aid solution.

We have a peculiar situation where globalism has pitted societies against each other, sending jobs to low wage countries, cutting corporate taxes and making other concessions to keep what jobs remain. It has created enormous income disparities within and between countries, increasing poverty and the unaffordability of everything, while a small international elite controls the bulk of global wealth. According to Oxfam, in 2017, just eight individuals control wealth that exceeds the wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population, i.e. – 3.6 billion people!

Governments, like the current Ontario government, help to magnify the risk of poverty by stifling social reforms like minimum wage, basic income, and labour organizing. They magnify the negative impact of corporations by reducing their taxes, and financial, labour, and environmental oversight.  (Canadian banks save $60 million per quarter from Trump’s U.S. tax reduction which cost the US treasury about $1.5 trillion).

It doesn’t have to be this way. But our societies need a major overhaul. Muhammad Yunus, Nobel prize winner, founder of micro-credit and ‘banker to the poor’, has written a new book, A World of Three Zeroes – The new economics of zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero net carbon emissions. At the core of his philosophy is a requirement to free ourselves from the oppressive idea of greed as the sole objective of corporations. He is counting on the next generation of youthful leaders to turn things around. Let’s hope he succeeds.

Seven Years Later

After writing this blog for more than seven years, I was a little disappointed to read a recent article in the Innisfil Journal with the headline, “Realtors see future at opening of Barrie association’s headquarters”.

It really indicates how little has changed regardless of any advocacy for more moderate expansion, preservation of agricultural land and greater emphasis on sustainable development. The designation of Barrie as an ‘Urban Growth Centre’ under the provincial Places to Grow Act seems like little more than a license for sprawl. The province allowed Barrie to annex 2,300 hectares from Innisfil in 2010. At the time there was an hysterical campaign claiming that Barrie had “run out” of industrial land, implying some sort of economic crisis without annexation. Now, the justification has been reversed, saying it is to accommodate a population growth from 147,000 to 210,000 in 2031 within a pattern of development that is already familiar to Barrie residents.

So, from their new headquarters at 676 Veterans Dr., Barrie realtors were admiring the view of their future profits:

“You couldn’t find a more appropriate place … where realtors gather — right on the edge of Barrie’s future growth in the city’s south end. The location didn’t escape [Barrie] Mayor Jeff Lehman at the official opening … Pointing south to a fence and an open field you can see from the headquarters conference room, Lehman said the future lies just beyond the state-of-the art headquarters… “It’s symbolic. That fence was the south boundary of Barrie before annexation,” he said. “It’s awesome. You are literally looking at the future.”

Here’s what the future looks like: “The city [Barrie] is currently (January 2018) processing 18 applications and site plans in the Hewitt’s area. If built as planned, those developments will contain a total of about 5,000 lots.
 In Salem, three applications have been submitted, totalling more than 1,500 lots.
“On the Salem side, we also have employment lands,” Barrie’s building services director said. “That’s a really important balance to the residential.”

An 86 acre parcel at the northwest corner of the intersection of McKay Road West and Veterans Drive will be developed into 839 residential units. It was rezoned from “agricultural to neighbourhood residential and mixed use, institutional education and open space”.

“… the Salem and Hewitt secondary plans are now complete and staff are currently working through 11 active development applications for the area, [Barrie’s] growth planning manager said. … Those applications cover more than 440 hectares and include about 7,560 residential units, as well as employment lands, mixed-use, natural and open space… [This] is how we’re going to manage growth applications and infrastructure planning for 30,000 people over the next 20 years,” Mayor Jeff Lehman said. “It’s basically how you’re planning … development for a small town.”

“Beginning in 2019, [Barrie’s] building department expects to process about 800 to 1,200 permits for new units annually for the next few years”

Apartments Construction

Not everyone passes through Alcona that often and some visitors to Innisfil Beach Park might also be curious about some current construction in the area. Apogee Apartments is  being built as part of Simcoe County’s effort to create more affordable housing in the county.  It is currently under construction on Innisfil Beach Road at the 25th Sideroad. The project is privately owned and operated. Under an agreement with the County, the units must be rented at ‘affordable’ rates for a minimum of twenty years. CMHC describes “affordable” as less than 30% of a household’s pre-tax income.


This building consists of a mix of 55 apartments on six floors. The ground floor will be allocated to retail spaces fronting on Innisfil Beach Road. Residents will have access to indoor and outdoor “amenities” spaces.  Construction was delayed until the OMB (now called the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal or LPAT) ruled on the builder’s request for altered lot setbacks and a reduced number of parking spaces. These changes were approved.

Floor plans and other information are available on the builder’s website,



How to BILD?

The housing builders association (BILD) regularly lobbies for easier access to more land for more single-family housing in the GTA. They expect an average of 115,000 new residents per year over the next 20 years – a total of 2.5 million more residents in the region.

That will require 55,000 new homes every year according to BILD. They have put forward a four-point plan that includes:

“Fair & equitable fees, taxes and charges”

BILD says these make up 25% of the cost of an average new home. These types of development charges are applied by municipalities to recover the cost of installing basic infrastructure – i.e. water pipes and sewers. Development charges can also be levied by school boards and the county.

“The revenue pays for increased capital costs related to hard and soft services that come as a result of more people and businesses moving into the municipality. For example, the revenue could go toward the construction of new sewer and road systems that might not have been required before. The revenue could also be put toward soft services like new municipal recreation centres and libraries.” (A brief explanation of development charges, Toronto Star, March 2013)

These development charges can vary substantially by municipality. Each municipality decides what’s right for them. I don’t think ‘one size fits all’ is a workable approach. The development charges are collected as housing is built. Municipalities foot the initial infrastructure cost. Historically though, municipalities never catch up with cost recovery.

“Fund & build critical infrastructure”

By that they mean municipalities (i.e. – you) should foot the bill to add new infrastructure over greenfields now without the limitation of sprawl-limiting intensification regulations. Doug Ford’s accidental admission that he was thinking of opening up the Greenbelt to development is an example.

“Cut bureaucratic red tape”

BILD wants a uniform “service standard” to speed up permits and inspections for “building and renovations”.

Adopt new housing solutions

Specifically, BILD refers to laneway housing and secondary suites as ways to “unlock the potential of current neighbourhoods”.

Is that it? I have to wonder if there aren’t more ways to provide more affordable housing? For instance, I have walked through a few local model homes and felt they were really inappropriate to the market. Like the oversized homes, for instance, with “luxury” features, and wasted unusable spaces that were priced around the million dollar mark. Are builders really building for the market? Or building to maximize profit?

Maybe we should (in no particular order):

  • Encourage more relocation to smaller communities
  • Require a better mix of smaller housing
  • Require a better mix of low-rise housing options (I still fondly remember my old walk-up apartment)
  • Research more live/work design possibilities (like the huge residence that was built over a small factory in Toronto)
  • Ban the demolition of existing usable (livable/convertible) buildings
  • Prevent housing speculation through new sales conditions
  • Examine new technologies for basic (water/sewer) infrastructure
  • Examine new technologies to lower construction costs
  • Remove the cost of land from housing developments (I know, think about it)
  • Just wait for us of the ‘boomer’ generation to exit stage left?

Feel free to share your ideas too.

Passive Design, Active Results

We are slowly learning that we have the knowledge and technology to eliminate a lot of today’s conventional home energy use. The latest example is a passive solar home built in Innisfil. The outstanding feature is that it is built without the need for a conventional furnace. The south facing home is very highly insulated, sealed and uses passive solar gain. It’s no surprise that the builder and owner formerly worked with the Kortwright Centre for Conservation.

I first wrote about passive solar and net-zero energy construction a few years ago so it’s encouraging to know that the concept is finally attracting wider practical application and real world experience under our local conditions. Importantly, municipal authorities are learning to recognize this certification standard.

We’re able to learn about some of the technical details from a recent news article at (Home builder lives without furnace in passive house, July 13, 2017). The home’s ‘raft’ foundation has a styrofoam base below concrete and the walls are “double stud” allowing for an R65 insulation factor. Notably, the owner says they have “come up with a wall [insulation] system just as efficient without adding significant cost.” Certainly the budgeted cost of ducting and furnace could be applied instead to this use.

An energy recovery ventilation (EVR) unit runs continuously to ensure a proper air circulation and stable temperature within the airtight building envelope. Surprisingly, energy-efficient windows came from Ireland. The article didn’t indicate what distinguished them from so many possible local window suppliers. Solar panels are being added to the home as well.

This type of approach continues to be a ‘pay now or pay later’ proposition. The builder suggests it could be offered as a “luxury option” in subdivisions with a pay-back over 20 years. Otherwise, potential home-buyers could just opt for conventional construction and take a chance with future energy prices or ‘move up’ later when energy efficient techniques become more widely adopted. Passive solar design and ‘net zero’ energy technology makes even more sense for multi-unit construction where the benefits are likely to be more easily achieved.

There is another option. Builders could consider a better trade-off between home size and efficiency. I walked through a builder’s ‘luxury’ model home recently out of curiosity. My wife remarked, “I could be happy with half of this house!” to which another couple immediately responded, “Great! I’ll buy the other half!” Maybe an enterprising builder can recognize an opportunity to make ‘less’ equal ‘more’.