HousingUrban Development

House Divided: Foreword by Cherise Burda

By June 7, 2019 No Comments

Forthcoming from Coach House Books, House Divided is an exciting new title for the urbanist library, edited by Alex Bozikovic, Cheryll Case, John Lorinc and Annabel Vaughan. Cherise Burda, Executive Director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, wrote the foreword, which we have permission to post below.

From the publisher: “A citizen’s guide to making the big city a place where we can afford to live. Housing is increasingly unattainable in successful global cities, and Toronto is no exception – in part because of zoning that protects “stable” residential neighborhoods with high property values. House Divided is a citizen’s guide for changing the way housing can work in big cities. Using Toronto as a case study, this anthology unpacks the affordability crisis and offers innovative ideas for creating housing for all ages and demographic groups. With charts, maps, data, and policy prescriptions, House Divided poses tough questions about the issue that will make or break the global city of the future.

Foreword

by Cherise Burda

Toronto’s skyline circa 2019 bears witness to the largest condo boom in the city’s history – a record 100,000 units rolling out over the next few years, with almost every one sold before a shovel hits the ground, many to investors.

Yet thousands of people cannot afford a home.

Drive to the fringes of the region and low-rise con
struction still muscles its way over farm fields. We have
 not run out of land, nor are we bumping against the
Greenbelt, and we cannot seem to sprawl our way to affordability.

Scarcity in a city of abundance: affordability is not simply a supply problem. Rather, it’s an issue of the right supply in the right locations – missing middle (i.e., duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, walk-ups, etc.), purpose-built rental, mid-rise, and innovations in financing and construction that improve affordability for residents – with progressive reforms to zoning and policy that will make the type of supply we need more cost-competitive.

Removing red tape for development, as some propose, will merely result in more of the ‘tall and sprawl’ varieties of housing we already have. And this approach will only make the type of housing supply we really need that much scarcer and more unaffordable. Already, mid-rise has become boutique, with two-bedrooms starting in the $700,000s; townhouses are luxury properties, fetching over a million. We need to be careful about what we ask for.

Housing-affordability solutions are also marginalized by the proven model of real estate financing and development, around which policy tools merely tinker. For instance, inclusionary zoning – which requires a developer to set aside a certain share of units in a new development as affordable housing – can produce only so many units. Subsidized housing is limited by a municipal budget in a crisis of its own and can’t begin to sniff at the challenge of ‘attainable housing’ for middle-income residents. Even some high-wage earners have found themselves on the wrong side of Toronto’s timeline, the one that separates homeowners who got in before prices detached from reality and those who came up behind: house divided.

Removing red tape for development, as some propose, will merely result in more of the ‘tall and sprawl’ varieties of housing we already have. And this approach will only make the type of housing supply we really need that much scarcer and more unaffordable.

As the authors in this anthology illustrate, outdated or entrenched planning rules further divide and protect ‘stable’ neighbourhoods from the stratification, gentle density, and mid-rise development that yields more modest-sized, multi-unit homes in walkable and transit-connected locations. Despite the reality that an influx of new residents helps to populate neighbourhood schools and sustain the bakeries, cafés, and amenities desired by local homeowners, town-hall consultations reveal emotionally charged community opposition to height, density, increased traffic, and competition for street parking.

The housing divide is further widened and worsened by transit inequity. The residents of Toronto’s low-income, high-density north- east and northwest shoulders would be riding LRTs today if it were not for political interference. Those who need transit the most stare down a mutually reinforcing housing and transit divide. Two hours of riding buses to service jobs in downtown Toronto, wages not earned, time not spent with family. Meanwhile, a visitor travelling the York subway extension to stations at Pioneer Village or Highway 407 and the adjacent hydro field would believe transit was planned by drunken sailors with money to burn.

Most transit trips are local, so I worry that not only will the prioritization of regional service deprive investment in local transit, perhaps unintentionally, but it also risks normalizing and codifying bizarre commute patterns and extreme distances, such as living in Oshawa and working in Mississauga. Doesn’t it make better sense to double down on the right policies, planning, and investment to deliver housing for a range of incomes and family sizes near employment centres? Transit-oriented development, yes, and housing-oriented planning.

At the time of this book’s publication, we’ve seen a beachhead of new innovations in how housing is built: modular design, factory-manufactured components, the unbundling of fancy amenities and finishes, allowing DIY interiors. All hold promise for reducing home prices or rents by 20 to 40 percent. What first sold me on factory manufacturing was the speed with which homes could be assembled on the development site – in one example, a floor per day, saving a bundle of time and money, not to mention radically reducing the disruption associated with endless months of cement trucks and excavators, noise, dirt, and boarded-off sidewalks.

Meanwhile, a visitor travelling the York subway extension to stations at Pioneer Village or Highway 407 and the adjacent hydro field would believe transit was planned by drunken sailors with money to burn.

Many of these modular developments are predicated on no underground parking, as they are in walkable, transit-accessible locations. These innovations offer energy efficiency to further reduce costs as well as new opportunities for safer construction-related employment in controlled environments. But they also require scale to be successful.

Finally, we need to confront the reality that an entrenched, self- fortifying system of planning, development, and financing is difficult to disrupt and sidelines urgent solutions to places where affordable housing is possible, namely public land. I cringe at the practice of selling public land and air rights, both provincial and municipal, to developers, especially at below market value, for a one-time cash influx and a quantum of affordable units. It’s not a sustainable approach and it squanders the opportunity for public agencies to leverage these assets for long-term revenue while developing the land for the public good.

Other cities and states have created partnerships between public agencies and developers (profit or not-for-profit) whereby both parties share in revenues from the sales, rents, and leases of mixed-use, mixed-income developments. All that revenue can be reinvested in more affordable housing, transit, or other services in perpetuity.

If we keep doing the same things, we will keep churning out the same product. House Divided can help us understand why and how we need to do things differently if we are to build a more equitable, less divisive city.