Suburban to Urban – Density for the good of the community
Toronto, having entered the global scene as a major world centre over the last two decades, still needs to mature in many ways. As residents of the fastest growing metropolis in North America, Torontonians have had to embrace change, and have done so reasonably well. However, where we have failed is mirrored across major centres throughout North America, and in many cases, the world. It has been highly publicized that Toronto is a tale of two housing types – the highrise condo and the lowrise single-family home. There is a gap in choice for the residents and new Torontonians immigrating to this city (more than 100,000 arrived last year alone).
The “missing middle” is a housing type that takes the built form of duplex, cottage courts, fourplexes townhouses, stacked triplexes, multiplexes and live/work suites. These are sometimes illegal due to the zoning that governs many of the areas defined as stable neighbourhoods. Also referred to as the “yellow belt,” this area makes up about 70 per cent of the city’s landmass. Still, it also includes a declining population (as those living in the single-family homes continue to age and their kids leave the nest, permanently). In comparison, defined strips of the city (generally downtown and along the Yonge Street corridor) are booming in vertical expansion of condominiums that scrape the sky.
The dichotomy is often not suitable, as it leaves an aging population in homes they may have difficulty aging in. It also relegates young cash-strapped families starting in tiny condos to move out sooner, fleeing the city in search of more house and more land.
With an excess of six million people calling the GTA home today, slated to grow past eight million in 10 years and balloon to more than 10 million in less than 25 years, the great bastion of the “stable neighbourhood,” and the people and property owners within it, must change. If everyone who moved out of a condo in search of an alternate housing type moved to one of the bedroom communities outside the GTA, our North America leading gridlock would only worsen. We just can’t build enough transit to keep up with that solution. In a mega-city such as Toronto and an even more populous group in the GTA, efficiently moving people will forever remain a significant challenge.
But, as we know, change is hard. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about swift change for the entire world. One of the great challenges that has been noticed is the impact of density on the transmission of the virus. Rental rates of condos located downtown are reported to be down close to 20 per cent. While anecdotally, real estate professionals are citing a growing flock of persons cashing in and relocating to communities up to two hours from the city in hopes of finding affordability and physical distancing from others.
With the help of Zoom and similar technologies, working from home is possible, but can also provide strain when working and living with a family within a small condo. The single-family housing type which dominates most neighbourhoods can become more flexible and provide housing for many types of residents, across different life stages and various economic levels.
It makes little sense for a young family to become grossly indebted obtaining a single-family home, have their kids vacate the building in search of their own housing once they’ve grown, leaving two people to remain in a four-bedroom home. When one passes away, it can leave three empty bedrooms and a lot of house to maintain and safely provide for their own care within, all while shutting other families out of the market for longer than necessary.
Suppose we were to reimagine these existing buildings – to convert from a single-family dwelling to a duplex, triplex or fourplex. Or, even allow for the assembly of two to three of these structures for a lowrise, four-storey walkup (with elevators) as was allowed in old Toronto. We could provide for transition options for people to stay in their communities for their entire lifecycle if they chose to.
It would also develop a more accurate societal cross-section (a real “community,” if you will), comprising babies, young children, teenagers, young adults, families and seniors. Each of whom has vastly different housing needs and have varied socio-economic backgrounds. As Ted Knight famously quips in the movie Caddyshack, “The world needs ditch diggers too!” Why must the post-war suburbs be reserved for high-income professionals or those benefitting from generational wealth?
Toronto and its residents know full well that we are in a housing crisis. With only a few thousand legal secondary suites in the city and, an estimated existence of between 70,000 to 100,000 illegal basement apartments, a well-defined and exploited need is outpacing political abilities to make the changes we need.
For our mutual benefit, as we all travel the journey of our lifecycle together, we could be creating walkable communities while rehabilitating the aged housing stock in the process and helping the environment, too. If still unconvinced, spend some time reading from local planners such as Richard Florida, Jennifer Keesmaat, Gil Meslin and Architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. Google terms “gentle and distributed density,” “missing middle” and “flexible housing” to get an idea of how subtle change can make a positive impact for everyone. If you like your community, let’s work together to change it so it will work for you and your family forever.
If you want to design, build or renovate your home for the long term, remember there is real value in working with a professional to design and build the space. Visit renomark.ca, the home of the professional renovator, to start your search when looking to start your project.
Brendan Charters is a Founding Partner at design-build firm Eurodale Developments Inc., the 2020 BILD Renovator of the Year.