By Cherise Burda
I recently participated in a number of panel discussions all devoted to one troubling issue: housing affordability in the GTA. If the discussions among housing developers, researchers, and policy-makers are any indication, talk of supply is shifting to building the right supply, including lots of references to “missing middle” housing.
Stats show that Ontario’s housing construction is keeping up with the region’s growing population and there are a record number of new units being built in the GTA. But if it’s not the right supply we need, then Ontario has a problem.
Currently, prospective home buyers face the difficult choice of living in a small high-rise condo which might not be suitable for their family or “driving-to-qualify” in distant greenfields where most affordable detached houses are constructed.
According to data from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), since 2012 there have been 192,000 housing starts in the GTA, and 57 per cent (or 110,000) are apartments or condo units. But how many can accommodate families in locations close to transit, schools, and employment?
The Province’s Fair Housing Plan, introduced in April, had the intended effect of putting the brakes on runaway housing prices. The rapid shift in market psychology has landed a bounty of resale inventory and reduced prices as this week’s TREB data demonstrates. This is quite a change from the way things were just three months ago, when there was a shortage of homes for sale.
Our newfound situation creates an opportunity for us to pause and take stock in the hurry-up-and-build supply cry and consider the right housing that we need to build as the region continues to grow.
The province’s Fair Housing Plan calls for a provincial Housing Supply Team to identify barriers to creating more regional housing supply and streamline the approvals process. It’s critical that this team doesn’t simply streamline the construction of any supply for supply’s sake, but focuses on solving the economic and policy barriers to building more family-friendly missing middle housing in proximate locations. If the process results in a pipeline of mostly high-rise one-bedrooms, the proportion of family-friendly housing supply will decrease and affordability will further deteriorate. A lack of appropriate housing supply in proximate locations will also continue to force builders to develop family homes in greenfields in the suburban fringes, making it challenging for municipalities to comply with the province’s new Growth Plan and exacerbating existing urban sprawl and traffic congestion.
The Missing Middle
Ontario needs more missing middle homes. These row houses and stacked townhouses can be infilled in low density neighbourhoods predominated by single family homes, while 6- to 8-storey mid-rises are suitable for avenues served by transit with ground level retail. Well constructed architecture and thoughtful ground-level retail in mid-rises can also ensure this housing fits the neighbourhood character and activates the public realm.
As the chart below shows, different types of missing middle and mid-rise housing types are generally more affordable than semi- or single-detached houses and more proximate to jobs, amenities, and, transit. Most importantly, they’re suitable for a range of family sizes and budgets and can also be targeted at end-users instead of real estate speculators.
Building family-friendly housing in location-efficient neighbourhoods is expensive, and many of the costs stay the same whether developers build a 7-storey mid-rise or a 37-storey high-rise. Other factors such as outdated zoning, slow approvals processes, community opposition, and infrastructure upgrade costs often make intensification and missing middle housing cost-prohibitive. As a result, it’s more affordable for municipalities and developers to build high or build out in the suburbs where land and infrastructure are cheaper.
The good news is that municipalities across Ontario are taking measures to support more missing middle housing. Toronto is re-zoning its avenues to accommodate mid-rises and is making headway in allowing laneway housing. Other municipalities such as Hamilton are zoning for housing along new LRT routes while Waterloo is implementing alternative development charges.
Building on changing preferences
Barriers to missing middle housing don’t just exist in the policy realm but in the public imagination as well. Many people mistakenly associate high density living with tall condo high-rises. But thoughtful planning and different architectural forms for missing middle homes can help communities increase density and improve the quality of life for all residents, regardless of the housing type they own. Two- to four-storey walk-ups, for example, can be tastefully designed while stacked townhouses can replace parking lots with family-friendly infill housing.
A recent survey of young professionals found that 51 per cent of GTA residents would prefer to live in a detached house and 81 per cent don’t want to live in a condo. This isn’t surprising if housing preferences are presented in a binary way, pitting a detached house against a condo tower, as was done in the survey. (Who wouldn’t want to live in a detached house with a yard that’s within walking distance to work and next to a subway station and great restaurants?!)
Interestingly, the same survey found the majority of respondents wanted to live in Toronto rather than the rest of the GTA. But it’s not physically possible to build more detached houses in the city. There are no fresh greenfields in the 416 to build more houses and yards. But there is lots of room for fantastic infill and multi-unit mixed-use communities.
A similar 2014 survey conducted by RBC and the Pembina Institute also found that the majority of GTA residents would prefer a detached house. However, when presented with different types of housing options, the results were quite different.
More than 80 per cent of respondents would trade a large house and yard in a car-dependent location for a multi-unit home close to transit, work, schools, and services. This preference spanned ages and family sizes. The survey found that only families with three or more children would opt for a large house in the distant car-dependent suburbs, if all costs were equal. The RBC/Pembina survey was also conducted in 2012 and the results were almost identical to the 2014 results.
It’s estimated that by 2041 Ontario’s population will grow by as much as 30 per cent. We are at a crossroads in Ontario when it comes to housing supply that will determine how residents will live in the future. We can continue on the path that forces families to make difficult choices, or we can explore innovative family-appropriate developments that improve our communities. It’s time to put our housing in order and get our supply right.