Politicians love telling voters that the next election is the most important one of their lives. But when it comes to the 2022 municipal elections in Toronto and Vancouver, they might actually be telling the truth this time. As the housing markets in both cities continue to spiral out of control, the opportunity to elect new councils and mayors next October may also be the last chance voters get to save some semblance of affordability for future generations.
To do that, they’ll have to take on the most powerful force in local politics: homeowners. Witness the recent pushback from the denizens in Deer Park, one of Toronto’s leafier urban neighbourhoods, to a proposed development that would have seen two houses on large lots replaced with 12 homes. “We started working on this in 2018; we’re three years into the process and it is still nowhere,” RAW Design architect Roland Rom Colthoff told the Globe and Mail. “I have much larger buildings that sailed through approvals. And you wonder why we have a housing crisis.”
Alex Bozikovic, the newspaper’s architecture critic, certainly doesn’t. As he wrote in a 2017 piece about Margaret Atwood’s noisy opposition to a similar project in her own similarly leafy neighbourhood, “It's always something. Whenever affluent neighbours oppose a development, they cite problems with sunlight, or privacy, or traffic – and somehow, the city planner, despite paying attention to such things, is never being sensitive enough.”
The net effect, Bozikovic wrote, is obvious in places like Toronto and Vancouver, where the stock of available land is limited and the demand to live there continues to grow. “If you constrain the supply of a commodity, it gets expensive. Yet, this practice continues, because homeowners hold all the political cards. Never mind the needs of younger or less privileged city-dwellers, or those who want to move in; any new development has to be endlessly measured for ‘impacts’ on those who already live there.”
He wrote this long before COVID-19 injected even more helium into the housing markets in Canada’s major cities. In Toronto, the average home now checks in at $1.16 million, with detached homes averaging $1.54 million, a 28 per cent increase from a year earlier and 36 per cent bump since October 2019. In Greater Vancouver, meanwhile, the price tag on the average home increased by 10 per cent over the last year to $1.22 million, while the number of homes listed for sale actually dropped by 35 per cent. This isn’t just unsustainable; for anyone looking to get into these markets now without the assistance of house-rich relatives, it’s practically suicidal.
Affordability is not the only problem caused by choking off housing supply, either. It’s also terrible for the planet and our effort to address climate change, which becomes more urgent with each passing day. Single-family homes, and the car-dependent lifestyle they enable, have a far bigger carbon footprint than apartments or townhomes. As a recent piece in The Guardian noted, “Low-density developments produced nearly four times the greenhouse gas emissions of high-density alternatives, with research finding that doubling urban density can reduce carbon pollution from household travel by nearly half and residential energy use by more than a third.”
Ironically, it’s often erstwhile progressives who stand in the way of density. As the Toronto Star’s Shawn Micallef wrote in a recent column, “For people who fashion themselves as progressive, they often say ‘we support housing’ but not here, or not this kind, or another in a long list of reasons why the objectionable project is an exception to their otherwise benevolent, pro-housing view.”
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From San Francisco to Seattle, and from Vancouver to Toronto, proponents of greater density have run up against this same sort of hypocrisy and been forced to engage in the urban equivalent of trench warfare, often fighting for years over the same tiny piece of terrain. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the supremacy of the single-family home remains largely intact. In Toronto’s coveted west Annex, Seaton Village, and Christie Pits neighbourhoods, for example, the number of residents dropped by nearly one-third between 1971 and 2016.
It’s time for young people, renters, and everyone else who doesn’t have a vested financial interest in protecting the status quo to band together and start winning some bigger battles.
Buying a house doesn’t entitle you to ownership of your city’s political apparatus, and it doesn’t give you the right to block progress or impede change. Yes, homeowners may want their neighbourhoods to remain as they were when they bought into them decades ago, but preserving a community in amber is a good way to suffocate the life out of it. The world is changing faster than ever, and the unwillingness of the average NIMBY homeowner to change with it has real costs for the rest of us — ones that politicians should demand they pay.
That has to begin next year in the municipal elections in Canada’s most expensive cities. Every candidate running for office, whether that’s for a seat on council or the mayor’s job, should be asked to explain how they’ll take the fight to the forces of NIMBYism — and how they intend to defeat it. If they don’t, or can’t, they aren’t worthy of your vote. For too long, the political conversation around density and development in our biggest cities has been dominated by a relatively small group of privileged homeowners. It’s time for the rest of us to speak up and be heard.
The author speaks of lower
The author speaks of lower urban density as if it's the central problem here. As opposed to too many humans on a planet where space is organized by global imaginary capitalism.
So we need to trade "leafy neighbourhoods" for higher density, presumably less-leafy, ones? Interesting how "leafy" is a symbol of problem neighbourhoods for the National Observer?
This war on leaves suggests the container ship could be the new environmentally-friendly model of the most efficient human habitat as organized by global capitalism for maximum profitability and affordability.
Given the billions of super-rich dollars sloshing around the imaginary planet of disruptive global capitalism, it's not surprising that mass human migration has become priced out of 'leafy' foreign markets.
I gather the federal government's immigration policy of welcoming 400,000 newcomers per year isn't based on filling up empty sleepy 'leafy' neighbourhoods?
So the 20th century working-class dream of home-ownership needs to be replaced by a 21st dream of sharing a high density cozy closet in a neighbourhood of stacked cargo containers? Book your cruise now on your ship to nowhere. Wave goodbye to those leafy dreams, say hello to your six walls of freedom, where affordability and urban density find their perfect equilibrium!
Is building density really the primary issue for livability in human habitats or is it simply a bi-product of human over-population organized by global imaginary capitalism.
Imaginary capitalism is now offering the perfect container ship dream staycation. Stop worrying over your leafless life of urban density when you can live in the land of plenty in the ZuckerBerg MetaVerse! So forget worrying what's happening at city hall. That's just old school NIMBYism, after all. Inhabit the limitless possibilities of your MetaVerse Castle in the Sun! Just don't take off those goggles!
Resorting to a dystopian
Resorting to a dystopian vision about cities hardly amounts to a peanut being thrown at urban planners, immigration lawyers and cartoon cutout images of cigar chomping capitalists. Stacks of towered up shipping containers ... Seriously?
Modular homes (no, not trailer park housing or shipping containers) do provide affordable self-contained homes for the poor and disadvantaged when grouped in publicly-funded low-rise forms near transit in Canada's most progressive cities. It works. And the units are arguably a lot better quality than single-room occupancy hotels and decrepit rooming houses.
Somehow I don't think recent demographic analyses indicating the planet's population is starting to stabilize will be cause to break out the Prosecco in your household. We are nearing 8 billion and slowing. The growth rate will top out between nine and 10 billion sometime around 2050. It could go down from there because the birthrates all over the Earth are decreasing as education of women and girls proceeds, and family incomes increase. Yes, even in developing nations, though at very marginal amounts in our bloated consumer eyes.
And the birthrates of industrialized countries continues to plummet below replacement. Your view of immigration doesn't define how it's possible to continue as a viable nation as the population shrinks. Besides, which of us are NOT children of immigrants? Who will volunteer to ban their own relatives from joining them here?
Increasing the density of our
Increasing the density of our neighbourhoods, making small commercial business viable, reducing the dependence on a car, ensuring efficient access to public transit, and keeping the leafy trees! It can be done, but the major revolution required is in our governance, how we go about planning for change. Neighbourhood-level planning, not indifferent city hall planners who bow to the wishes of greedy developers.
One of your reporters should do a story about what Ottawa recently wrought with its new Official Plan. It chickened out in beginning a transformative process at the neighbourhood level, instead prescribes canyons along major corridors and around transit stations to accommodate the increasing population. It's a shame because, given more time, a significant constituency that agrees with densification could have been built upon. But Council wanted the thing done before next October's municipal election.
So Max Fawcett is right: The starting point has to be a new crew at City Hall, of both elected and unelected officials. But it need not be just a "party of renters and the unhoused" -- everybody needs to have stake in the process.
I would take exception to the view that city planners are 100% to blame. In reality, it's nearly always city councils who override planner's ideas and recommendations. The top planners are under contract, meaning they are under council's collective thumbs and usually kowtow. But senior and mid-range planners are often the most progressive and willing to accept good development where it's merited, such as intelligent, gentle infill and reasonable density increases.
The other biggie is that under the constitution, municipalities are under the thumb of the provinces and, so far, not one premier has not been smart enough to promote intelligent, reasonable density increases in low density neighbourhoods because too many of these politicos are SUB-urban i.e. not from the city. Ergo the easy stuff, like leaving everything to a limited number of solutions, like towering up around transit stations, arterials and commercial zoned areas.
A term for this lack of effort is 'chickenshit.'
My problem with decrying
My problem with decrying NIMBYism is that, if you take away the pejorative, what it's basically decrying is local democracy. The basic point is that people living in a place should not be allowed to decide how they want to live, that should be left to experts, ideally outside experts. That makes me distinctly uneasy.
Well, that makes it an
Well, that makes it an insider's game, then. If you're on the inside (homeowner) then screw younger generations (outsiders) from ever owning a home in your neighbourhood for time immemorial. There is a breaking point approaching as the supply shrinks concurrent with expanding demographic demand.
In Metro Vancouver that limit is the supply of land, and this is especially obvious when you look at a map of the city of Vancouver. There is no more fresh land upon which to build more housing. The new land supply has been depleted as homeowners locked in their own backyards long before condo towers became the rage. This egregiously poor planning practice has resulted in 81% of the residential-zoned land being stuck on large lots while accommodating just 30% of all housing. Which translates to 19% of the residential land forced to accommodate 70% of the housing in high-density forms. The only way to maintain this large lot paradigm is to create more. So which developer or politico will be the first to recommend filling in English Bay for more sprawling subdivisions?
Many critics take the easy way and blame rich foreigners and immigrants for Vancouver's stratospheric housing prices. That is a popular but wholesale immature and rather ignorant narrative. The hard part is to admit that it's more a matter of simple supply and demand, specifically regarding land.
Gentle density as infill along with the higher densities already occurring outside of RS-1 zones means that insiders will get to enjoy more services and shops a lot closer, and therein better neighbourhoods. And the leafiness occurs mainly in public boulevards, so the majority of trees are not threatened.
Fawcett's piece is largely on
Fawcett's piece is largely on the money, so to speak, but it's also rather old and stale. Urbanists have been promoting the Missing Middle for decades. Even the Globe's editorial board has promoted intelligent urban planning for years and nailed it when saying affordability is a supply problem. They listened to their own architecture columnist. If you want more affordable housing a then build more affordable housing. Lots and lots more.
Fawcett seemed to relish blaming progressives like Margaret Atwood for killing new development in their own neighbourhood. That may be true some of the time, but there is ample evidence in Vancouver -- the most unaffordable city in the nation -- that the opposite is also true, and is perhaps the prevailing predicament.
The population of the city of Vancouver grew by 13% over the last decade. The census maps indicate with precision that all but a few neighbourhoods accepted their fair share of population growth. It was the most conservative and wealthiest cluster of neighbourhoods that actually shrank in numbers. Yet these areas are also the least dense. Some lots are in excess of 8,000 square feet and $6 million in value irrespective of the condition of the house.
In Vancouver the greatest value is in the land, not in the house. The wealthy districts get most of the attention in the press, but the vast majority of housing and lots in other parts of the city are less laden with excessive value, though that value is still pretty high. And the values have held through a world wide financial meltdown, several recessions and years of anti-speculation and vacant homes taxes.
To economists, that represents a simple price response to some kind of supply shortage, and that shortage ends up not being with housing per se, but with land. The city of Vancouver has run out of land.
The only additional caveat would be to build more housing using less land per house. Ergo infill, gentle density, human scale, Missing Middle stuff.
Fawcett wrongly blames the "single family house." What is desperately needed in the private market is more single family ATTACHED housing. That is, rowhouses or townhouses with independent structures (no shared party walls, foundations or property) developed with a small gap between the sidewalls containing all the privacy, fire-rated and sound attenuation necessary to respect the neighbours. The planning term is zero lot line clearance. Think of stores facing a sidewalk, each with their own load-bearing structure and walls built close together with that magic two inch gap that may be an escape from any attempt to place the lots under strata title.
One block-end lot could become six or more rowhouses. With this geometry it doesn't take a quantum physicist to see the wide architectural possibilities. Zoning for single family rowhouses with rental suites from day one also adds a potential additional income for families. More people in a neighbourhood mean more stores and services within walking distance or a short transit rise away. And more city tax revenue for needed urban infrastructure upgrades and the construction of publicly-funded affordable rentals.
The single family house (on a large lot) is obsolete in an urban nation and decarbonizing century.