HousingUrban Development

Rethinking our Way to Home Affordability

By February 14, 2019 No Comments
Rendering of a building in cutaway showing people living and working inside

The City of Toronto is moving forward with its Housing Now program to build more affordable community housing. This plan seeks to deliver much-needed below-market housing, but it is unlikely to not solve the broader housing affordability challenge being experienced by working and middle-class people in Toronto who do not already own homes–urban residents somewhere between social housing and million-dollar homes.

If we don’t solve the problem of housing “attainability,” we risk losing our workforce fabric–nurses, teachers, sales and service workers, all people necessary for Toronto to function–and young families will continue leaving the city in search of affordability. Simply building more houses in increasingly distant subdivisions will not solve housing affordability here in Toronto.

Innovations for “attainable” housing

Around the world, even close to home, there are models of development aiming to deliver lower-cost “attainable” housing for a range of income levels through innovations in construction, typology and financing. We surveyed some of these options in order to determine how they might fit Toronto, and this week, we announced the release of our latest research report: Rethinking the Tower: Innovations for Housing Attainability in Toronto.

In this report you’ll find over 20 case studies of projects from large and mid-sized cities, and a range of innovations that lower monthly renting costs and reduce home purchase prices. Of the strategies covered, we point out what works and what doesn’t. Efficient design? Check. Co-living? Maybe. Modular construction? Absolutely. We also survey a variety of equity-building schemes.

In our research, we uncovered several strategies that could work in Toronto, if tailored correctly to our city and market. Here are some highlights.

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Rethink inside the box: micro units

In the US, efficiently designed “micro units” (typically 250 to 400 square feet) can be rented at 20% to 30% below market rates, as price scales to unit size. With smart, energy efficient design and modest finishes, micro units have the potential to offer savings in rent and utilities costs, paired with the opportunity to live in central locations and getting around on foot or two wheels, saving further on transportation costs. But beware luxury micros with all the fancy finishes–they can be more expensive per square foot than a conventional apartment.

Pre-fab the box: modular construction

Off-site factory construction of housing components assembled at the development site reduces construction time and costs. Pocket Living in the UK delivers modular ownership homes are assembled at one floor per day on site. The savings result in prices 20% to 40% below market. In Toronto, PCL Construction’s factory production of components for a not-for-profit seniors’ residence in Scarborough reduced costs by 25% and resulted in a 50% faster construction timeline. Other benefits of factory construction include steady (i.e. non-seasonal) employment, safer working conditions, and a controlled environment to produce energy efficient components.

Because off-site manufacturing minimizes disturbance to neighbourhoods such as noise, dust and duration of construction time, greater community support for modular construction could result. Without all the heavy machinery, on-site assembly makes it possible to utilize smaller and sites that are difficult to access to build housing that otherwise would be challenging and expensive, and makes smaller-scale Missing Middle, gentle-density housing more cost effective.

We predict a “MIMBY” movement: modular in my backyard.

Flexible affordability: upsize and downsize in place

Housing modules and components offer flexibility to accommodate various budgets and changing needs. With a proposal in Hamilton, JvND Developments makes 250-square foot “lots” that can be purchased individually or combined, fully or partially completed, with the option to shrink or grow space over time, aimed at middle-income households. This approach could save people money on the steep transaction costs involved with selling, buying and moving to a new home when families/households change in size.

Unbundle the box: go modest on finishes and amenities

It is now common practice in Toronto for developers to unbundle parking spaces or storage lockers, allowing homebuyers to purchase these separately, saving tens of thousands, even up to $60,000 if foregoing a parking spot. What if amenities, finishes and other home elements were unbundled or made optional?

Naked House in the UK offers basic, energy efficient units that are 20% to 40% cheaper than market. Owners add their own walls, fixtures, countertops, faucets, etc. Koehler Architects’ “Superlofts” in Amsterdam outfit a fixed building structure with flexible modular lofts that are individually designed according to need and budget, which can be adapted over time. Costs are saved on finishes, modest design and unit size.

Share outside the box: co-living

While micro dwellers may be willing to trade off space for a walkable central location, small-sized living not for everyone, especially families. That’s why co-living is emerging as a housing trend in expensive cities. In co-living, the size of units (one-, two- and three-bedroom units) is reduced and traded for shared amenities and spaces like large playrooms, maker workshops and outdoor space, i.e. the types of leisure and work spaces that make single-family homes attractive. Not replicating amenities and spaces across units drives down unit size and price.

However not all co-living is cost effective. There is a growing trend in luxury, turnkey co-living for young professionals, whereby the units are fully furnished and include housekeeping services, dog walkers, lounges and social programming. The result is not improved affordability but rather convenience and a built-in social network.

Both micro units and co-living were supported by New York City in response to a growing number of smaller household sizes and lack of smaller apartments to accommodate them. Toronto faces the opposite problem. We know that 100,000 condo units are in the pipeline here and most of these are one-bedrooms; we need more two- and three-bedroom units that are actually affordable and attainable. Done right, co-living could be one means of addressing our specific housing needs by providing smaller more affordable, larger units with livable shared spaces.

For the full story, read our report.