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.”
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.
Opinion: "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," @maxfawcett writes for @natobserver. #NIMBYism #density
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.