Dissecting Southern Ontario’s Affordable Housing Crisis

spendingAnother month, another milestone. March 2017 marks yet another polarizing uptick in Toronto’s home sales statistics. The latest release from TREB notes a startling 33.2% increase in average GTA selling prices year-over year. When asked for comment, a “deeply troubled” John Tory remarked: “The dream of home ownership has to be kept alive”. With Ontario’s young people earning below the national average for full-time work, even distant dreams are dying.

Amidst a vast field of speculation, many look at foreign investors as the culprit. This is a particularly misguided sentiment, as statistics across the board contradict its very foundation. A poll among TREB members found that “only an estimated 4.9 per cent of GTA transactions, in which TREB members acted on behalf of a buyer, involved a foreign purchaser.” Within this small percentage, 80% are used either for personal residency or rental tenancies. Further, any established agent will attest that these buyers are primarily interested in expansive luxury homes or condos.

If the problem cannot be fixed by staring angrily overseas, perhaps it is time to direct our gaze inward and address the fundamental shortage of supply. We must first acknowledge that, inherent to our geographic location, there is limited space to work with. Greenbelt preservation may be a difficult consideration, but its environmental and economic benefits are essential to our future and should not be marginalized. Therefore, we must make better use of what land we do have.

Prevailing development models navigate this land shortage with mind-boggling inefficiency. A bizarre standard of two-storey residences has swept over the Golden Horseshoe, square kilometer by square kilometer. Where the square will not fit, towering condos are erected to fill the gap leaving cold, empty spaces between.

A change in attitude is necessary, from both the developer and the purchaser. The dreams of the young homeowner-to-be, born out of a past economic climate, must adjust to their densely populated surroundings. Historic European cities such as Paris, Frankfurt, and Vienna have bolstered their communities successfully with 5-8 storey apartment buildings. Such buildings provide density without the high-rise sense of detachment from the underlying streetscape.

In 2006, an attempt at this style was imagined in the form of Cathedraltown, Ontario. European-style streets were to be constructed around the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, a striking Byznatine Revival cathedral. What could have been a unique, moderately dense community was marred irreparably by Southern Ontario’s infatuation with two-storey townhomes. With rows of semi-detached houses in place of traditional architecture, the final product has done little to increase supply, and now resembles a dystopian compound.

To help developers break the current mold and increase supply, policymakers must do their fair share. The dire shortage of rental properties can be mitigated immediately by removing bureaucratic roadblocks to their construction. Development of new, unique projects can be encouraged by reducing the looming risk of exorbitant realty taxes upon completion. The inflation of prices on existing supply may also addressed, by ceasing the artificial lowering of interest rates. By effecting development-friendly policy, encouraging different architectural styles, and promoting financial realism, we create potential for not just affordable housing, but unique and healthy communities.