Digging into the History of Housing Affordability: John van Nostrand

Black and white historical photo showing houses and dirt roads.

John van Nostrand, Founding Principal of SvN, was a presenter in our event this week, Innovations in Housing Affordability. A planner, architect and developer of many decades, he is highly aware of the causes of our current housing affordability problem, and is actively working to provide solutions through his company, JvN/d Developments.* We spoke with John recently about his commitment to affordability and his work on the OAA’s recent task force report, Housing Affordability in Growing Urban Areas.

John van Nostrand wants people to be able to own their homes, if that’s what they choose. As the CEO of JvN/d Developments, his vision is to give middle-income earners an opportunity to become homeowners and manage the ongoing development of their homes independently.

His company’s planned real estate development in Hamilton proposes small lots of 250 square feet each, which can be bought and sold individually or combined as needed. The company is also ready to provide co-investment financing to bring down the cost of purchasing and offer unfinished units to give owners the opportunity to complete their space on their own terms and timeline. By providing flexible options and reducing costs, JvN/d Developments brings the minimum annual income required to own a home down to about $25,000. (Source: http://www.jvnd.ca/)

  • Read more: find our case study of JvN/d Developments in Rethinking the Tower, our 2019 report on innovations towards housing affordability
Rendering of JvND proposed development

JvND Developments’ small “lots” can be combined or divided to tailor spaces to changing needs.

Van Nostrand’s focus on affordability and knowledge of local history in architecture and planning earned SvN the role of lead consultant on the Ontario Association of Architects’ latest report, Housing Affordability in Growing Urban Areas. The report delves deeply into contextual factors that have produced our current housing affordability problem, including household income, shortage of supply, and immigration driving population growth.

“In preparing this report, we wanted to provide the genesis of the problem, to help people better understand the situation,” says van Nostrand.

Explaining the history of the current affordability issue in a nutshell, he says, “until the advent of the city’s 1945 urban plan, nearly 50% of households had built their homes, informally, and upwards of 90% had a lodger. They constructed their homes, including rental suites and additions, on their own, and when they were able to make improvements. Laneway housing was commonplace. People managed their own housing process. But after this time, we [the British, who controlled our planning] got into the idea of razing informal neighbourhoods and building new garden suburbs outside the ‘old’ City, which were only affordable to 35% of the population. Next came the construction of these isolated high-rise towers for displaced residents, and workers (the other 65%) who couldn’t afford to live in places like Don Mills.”

Two historical photos side by side demonstrating the difference between unplanned and fully planned communities.

Page 12 of the OAA’s report, Affordability in Growing Areas.

“That’s when the city started seeing rising income disparity across neighbourhoods and our housing market started to stratify significantly. The inequality has only deepened since the 1970s. Now we’ve got a system where rich people own [their homes] and poor people rent. It’s not fair.”

When viewed through an historical lens, van Nostrand’s strategy with JvN/d Developments is rooted in a more informal way of developing property and growing household economy.

“Because of the high cost of housing today, many people are priced out of housing altogether,” he says. “We want to make housing self-determination accessible again in central neighbourhoods, using a mid-rise model that fills the ‘Missing Middle.’ Home ownership is the largest personal economy one can have as an individual household, and people should be able to choose this option if they want it.”


Note: JvN/d Developments was recently renamed PARCEL Development; information remains available at www.jvnd.ca.

This interview has been edited and condensed.