Culture & Society

Priced Out of the Housing Market

Owning a home is becoming a fantasy for all but the wealthiest families. Better urban planning is part of the solution. Adjusting our expectations may be another

When Elena Yunusov, a digital marketer, and her husband, Pulat, a commercial litigator, bought a two-bedroom condo in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood several years ago, they were among very few owners in the building with a small child. The other occupants were mostly seniors, and they doted on the Yunusovs’ infant daughter. Today, the couple also has a two-year-old son, and there are, Elena estimates, about a dozen other families with kids living there.

Elena grew up in an apartment in a small city in Crimea, and doesn’t yearn to own a house with a yard the way that many North Americans do. Yet she is keenly aware of the cons of her own family’s condo: a tiny kitchen, a chronically congested hallway and the complex dance she performs each day to leave an eighth-floor apartment with kids and a stroller in tow.

Looking ahead, she knows her children will eventually need separate bedrooms, but soaring real estate costs make it difficult to envision a move. It’s hardly an unusual story for apartment-dwelling families such as the Yunusovs. As she observes, “A lot of people are stuck where they are, for better or for worse.”

Across Toronto and other successful North American cities, homebuyers increasingly find themselves caught up in what feels like a historic point of inflection. In the postwar period, many working- and middle-class families bought homes in sprawling new suburbs consisting mainly of single-family houses with front and back yards. In recent years, however, a growing number of people with young kids have found themselves priced out of this market. The average selling price of a detached home in Toronto earlier this year was almost $1.3 million – just shy of the record reached in 2017. According to MoneySense magazine, only households earning more than $200,000 a year can reasonably cover the monthly mortgage payments on such a home. 1

The reality is that for a widening swath of society, including professionals ranging from nurses and accountants to teachers, the dream of owning a house with a yard has become unattainable. For some, such as Giulio and Antonia Cescato, who have a two-year-old, the choice to buy a condo in Toronto’s Regent Park flowed easily from their desire to live downtown. Access to cultural institutions, restaurants and transit “was important to us,” says Giulio, an urban planner.

Others have found the experience of raising kids in condos to be constraining. For a recent City of Toronto study on vertical communities, Jane Farrow (BA 1989 Innis), a public consultation expert, interviewed numerous young couples in condos who were juggling kids and careers. Some fretted about eventually sharing their small apartments with teens. “There were people who felt they were without options,” she says.

Illustration of a family in an elevator
Illustration by Raymond Biesigner

The big question hovering over this generational transition is all about city-building, and whether increasingly dense metropolitan regions such as Toronto and Vancouver can figure out how to turn all those newly sprouted forests of highrises into true communities that are both affordable and appealing to the wide range of people who call these cities home.

The wrinkle in this evolving story is that many developers still balk at designing buildings geared to people with kids. Marketing materials for most condos feature seductive images of young people lounging around a rooftop terrace; luxurious lobbies; and chic interiors looking out onto a glittering skyline. Children rarely appear in this fantasy world.

Farrow, who has worked closely with the City of Toronto on urban planning issues, says some developers still promote their projects as “adult communities,” with amenities such as gyms and party rooms. “The marketing companies have a lot of power in creating and maintaining stereotypes about who lives in these buildings,” she says.

Richard Florida, an urban theorist and director of cities at U of T’s Martin Prosperity Institute, is critical of how Toronto has allowed the construction of a kind of vertical monoculture. “We’re building a lot, but we’re building all wrong,” he says. “We need to build more affordable housing.” Fast-growing cities such as Toronto are experiencing what Florida describes as a “phase shift,” transitioning from ground-level residential communities to high-density ones that are closer to transit, aren’t as car dependent and use infrastructure, such as roads and sewers, more efficiently. But he says the form and planning in Toronto leaves much to be desired when it comes to creating vertical communities “that work for everyone,” especially seniors, kids and families with modest incomes.

At the macro level, Florida argues, Toronto simply needs to be investing more in its social and community infrastructure – schools, transit, cycling tracks and public spaces. “The big thing is that we have to grow up. The property tax rates are ludicrously low.” What’s more, affordable housing policies – such as those requiring developers to set aside a certain number of less expensive units in their building – aren’t sufficient, he adds. Toronto lags behind what’s happening in other large, expensive cities such as New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has embarked on an aggressive strategy to build 300,000 new affordable homes – virtually all of them apartments – by 2026. Even accounting for scale, Toronto’s goals are modest. Mayoral challenger Jennifer Keesmaat has pledged to add 100,000 “truly” affordable housing units within a decade. Mayor John Tory promises 40,000 over 12 years.

Digital rendering of Toronto's Canoe Park with it's new multiple level community centre
Canoe Landing Centre in Toronto’s CityPlace will include two elementary schools and a child-care facility. Courtesy of ZAS Architects + Interiors

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Author image: John Lorinc

The challenge of creating highrise neighbourhoods with schools, parks and community centres also entails the formulation of a more comprehensive planning approach. Last fall, the city produced a groundbreaking study entitled “Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities” that offered detailed design guidelines. Highrise communities shouldn’t be planned any differently than traditional neighbourhoods of single-family homes, observes Emily Reisman (MSc in Planning, 2004), a consultant who worked on the report. They should include different home sizes, a mix of rental and for-sale units, public spaces, community amenities and retail stores, she adds. “These principles don’t get thrown out the window when we look at the vertical context.” 2

Toronto in recent years has also embarked on far-ranging planning exercises in high-density areas where a lot of development is happening, such as in the downtown core and around Yonge and Eglinton. The goal, in part, is to create better pedestrian experiences and to direct investment into community amenities – especially additional public spaces, such as the proposed “decked” park over the railway next to CityPlace. With the proliferation of small apartments, the public realm becomes increasingly critical, comments Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning and the interim director of U of T’s School of Cities. “Residents are using the city as their living room and the apartment for storage and as an address.”

Market forces, however, remain a formidable challenge to young families who want to buy into vertical communities. Small apartments have become sought-after investment vehicles, frequently rented either to longer-term tenants or as Airbnb units. And developers have commonly resisted building more family-friendly two- and three-bedroom apartments, insisting they are difficult to sell.

But there’s some evidence that a growing number of builders are taking this step, perhaps sensing the sort of demand expressed by couples such as the Yunusovs and the Cescatos. “The market is out there,” says Reisman. She notes the Growing Up study found that families prefer to have apartments near street level, and some developers are clustering larger units on these lower floors. Also, compared to units in the sky, lower-floor condos typically sell for less, and thus are more attractive to families with kids and lots of expenses.

Planners understand that larger apartments can’t somehow be reserved just for buyers with kids or teens. But Annely Zonena (MSc in Planning, 2006), a senior planner with the City of Toronto, points out that the city’s long-term goal is to ensure that a full range of housing types, at different sizes and prices, are built. According to the planning department’s research, 23 per cent of the city’s households have four or more people, but since 2011, less than 10 per cent of units in new buildings of five storeys or more can properly accommodate families of that size. “We want to ensure that buildings have a variety of units,” she says.

Toronto faces a crisis of housing affordability that threatens the well-being of its people and their ability to achieve the Canadian Dream”

— Prof. Richard Florida, of U of T’s Martin Prosperity Institute

It’s not just the apartments themselves that can be a problem. “Amenity spaces are practically non-existent for families,” observes Farrow, who notes that many condos offer use-specific common areas, such as exercise rooms, where kids aren’t welcome. “Parents can be subject to a great deal of judgment and negative attitude from fellow tenants.” Most buildings also lack spaces where children can rehearse musical instruments or just make noise, as kids do. Giulio Cescato points to a fourth-floor outdoor terrace in his building, which has a rapidly growing cohort of kids. The space includes a quiet “conversation area” that is rarely used. “If there was a play structure instead of stone benches, the terrace could get a lot more traffic.”

There are plenty of examples underscoring the mismatch between what’s designed and how families actually live in these buildings. Reisman recalls noticing in her condo almost a metre of space between the tops of the closets and the ceiling that could have been pressed into service as additional storage.

In some cases, residents are pushing for changes in how common areas are used. Reisman describes how parents in one building identified an abandoned storage area and pitched the condo board with a plan to convert it into a kid zone where they could leave bulky shared toys. “They said to the condo board that there are a lot of families with kids living here,” she says. “That group of families came together and were able to make the condo lifestyle work for them.”

With other locales, architects are attempting to address these design failings proactively. Drew Sinclair (MArch 2007), a partner with SvN Architects and Planners, points to a three-building complex his firm is designing in Etobicoke. It will provide affordable rentals, assisted living apartments for seniors and family-style condos. The design includes a large, open common space linking the three buildings, which contains amenities meant to encourage social interaction, such as a tool-sharing area and a play zone with rubberized flooring. On the grounds will be small vegetable plots and a teaching garden for children. “The landscape design,” says Sinclair, “is for everyone.” 3

In the Yunusovs’ condo, the evolution to a multi-generational community is proceeding apace. A common room once used mainly for seniors’ yoga classes and bridge sessions has been fitted with modern, moveable furniture so the space can be used for birthday parties. And the building’s library, which Elena describes as “much loved,” is also changing. “Now,” she says, “there’s a kids’ books section, which didn’t exist before.”

So while the couple focuses on the practical business of raising two children instead of fretting about their longer-term space needs, one point seems certain: that their building, over time, will become home to more and more Toronto kids. “Where else would families go?” Elena muses. “Everyone’s going to go vertical.”