HousingOp-EdRegional Planning

Op-ed: Affordable homes for a priced-out generation

By September 15, 2016 No Comments

This op-ed was published by the Toronto Star on September 14, 2016 as Affordable homes for a priced-out generation.

By Cherise Burda and Mike Collins-Williams

Toronto housing prices have reached heights that would give most homebuyers vertigo. And governments are staggering to find solutions to improve affordability.

So what would happen if we already had a fix?

Ontario’s Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, currently under review, could result in building a greater supply of family housing in neighbourhoods where most buyers currently can’t afford homes.

While home prices are rising throughout the region, it’s the hottest markets where a lack of affordable supply is outpacing demand and pricing out homebuyers in urban and suburban centres. This is especially true in amenity-rich walkable transit-accessible neighbourhoods.

Residents increasingly face the choice of living in a highrise condo or “driving till they qualify” to the suburban frontier where family-sized houses are more affordable and most new supply is constructed.

What’s needed is a “missing middle” housing supply in urban and suburban centres. This includes multi-unit homes such as townhouses, stacked flats or midrise buildings that are generally more affordable than semi- or single-detached houses.

The Growth Plan would require municipalities to plan for a greater density of housing and workplaces in urban and suburban growth centres, particularly around transit lines and GO and subway stations. In most locations this would not manifest in tall highrises like we see in downtown Toronto, but rather “gentle density.” This gentler approach to density consists of mixed-use commercial, residential and retail buildings, including missing middle housing that supports transit and businesses at a more human scale and village feel.

The Growth Plan is the sister policy to Ontario’s celebrated Greenbelt Act. While the greenbelt protects critical agricultural lands, the Growth Plan helps direct population growth to urban areas. By building “in and up” instead of out, this plan aims to house the 100,000 new residents that join the GTA every year, while curbing sprawl.

Critics of both the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Act are worried that these two policies have constrained land supply and are responsible for the increase in housing prices. Indeed, it can be more cost-effective to build houses in greenfields, so restricting access to this supply of land will have an impact on the price of this type of housing supply.

By comparison, building missing middle housing and mixed-use gentle density most often drags developers though a lengthy, onerous and costly approval and construction process, not to mention the cost of buying and assembling pricey land in urban areas, especially near transit.

However, an effective and well-implemented Growth Plan could actually unlock much needed housing supply in locations where people want to live. But it requires complementary policies to make building gentle density, multi-unit housing and mixed-use development cost competitive.

For starters, rezoning for multi-unit mixed-use development would save developers and therefore homebuyers time and money. Reducing parking requirements could eliminate $40,000 dollars per housing unit, and retooling development charges and other pricing policies can reward denser development. Some municipalities, such as Kitchener, Mississauga and Hamilton, are already rezoning their new LRT corridors for greater density, mixed-use development and more missing middle housing.

Large, yarded houses in the suburban fringes will always have a market, but families with three children or more are one of the fastest shrinking demographics. A growing generation of young home-buying families want housing options closer to good jobs and transit. Living close to transit enables a family to get rid of one car and save $10,000 per year, further increasing affordability.

Right now two of the region’s biggest challenges are mobility and housing affordability. At this intersection lies an opportunity for the province to create the conditions for optimizing residential and commercial development in our urban and suburban centres, particularly around new transit infrastructure.

Ontario is investing $32 billion in new rapid transit and electrified GO rail throughout the Greater Toronto region, offering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build more homes where people want to live and maybe can afford.

Missing middle solutions are presented in a new report called Suburbs on Track by the Ryerson City Building Institute and the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.

Cherise Burda is the executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute and Mike Collins-Williams is the director of policy with the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.