The single-family housing shortage is a problem of physics, not politics
In light of the proven popularity of Stradivarius violins, it is an outrage – an OUTRAGE! – that the government allows mass production and/or import of high-quality alternatives to fill market demand.
I hope we all can agree that sentence is ludicrous. Antonio Stradivari died in 1737, having crafted 960 of the finest violins in history. No amount of fancy tax policy is going to inflate that number. So, given continuing demand, if you want a Stradivarius, you are going to have to pay an exorbitant amount of money. Most people seem to understand this.
Yet, there remains a large group who argue that government should bear responsibility for the growing shortage of single-family homes within practical
driving distance of downtown Toronto (or Vancouver). Notwithstanding the limits of physics, these people hold that every middle-class citizen has an absolute right to an affordable fixer-upper in Rosedale – or, at the very least, Mississauga.
This blithe view was on display most recently in front-page coverage of a study from the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development at Ryerson University in Toronto. Senior Research Fellow Frank Clayton has documented that the construction of low-rise homes – especially detached homes – has not kept up with demand. And he blames this circumstance on a 2006 provincial plan that promoted higher-density development to reduce the environmental impact of urban sprawl.
It seems that the provincial government had noted Mark Twain’s immutable observation about real estate: “… they’re not making it anymore.” This finite supply, against a growing demand means that the value of land is going up. If you consume this constrained commodity with large, loosely distributed homes arrayed at the ends of expensive roads and highways, you will lay waste the environment – and still lose the battle against rising prices, as wealthier buyers continue to pay more for homes nearer their place of work (even if those homes are taxed an extra 15 per cent).
No part of resolving this challenge involves blaming government – cathartic as that may sometimes be. The solution to a demand crisis is supply. And, as the market knows, if you can’t supply exactly what people want, you can still do well by selling them what they need – affordable homes, for example.
There is, of course, a parallel conviction about the importance of detached homes, the notion that to raise well-adjusted children, you need, at a minimum, an 1,800-square-foot rancher with a capacious back yard (in which no modern, screen-addicted youngster may ever been seen).
This assumption is wrong – and we have proved as much at UniverCity. Ours is a complete community in the geographic centre of Metro Vancouver, purpose-built on an intentionally small footprint (30 hectares: about half the size of the average under-utilized urban golf course). When Simon Fraser University decided to develop its endowment lands in the mid-1990s, it had a choice of “meeting demand” by covering all 385 hectares with single-family homes or building a compact, walkable and fully serviced community with the same number of housing units in a much smaller area. It chose the latter, donating 320 hectares to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and developing the rest – including shops and services, a LEED Gold elementary school, the greenest childcare centre on the planet and (already in place) the second-busiest transit centre in the region.
People have flocked to the multi-family residential homes on offer, in everything from townhouses to a 17-storey tower. After 15 years of construction, the population has just passed 5,000 – on its way to 9,000-plus. And 38 per cent of UniverCity households have at least one child living at home.
Here’s the important bit: these people are happy in a well-designed, well-serviced higher-density community. It’s true that many are asking our development authority, SFU Community Trust, to build larger units to accommodate growing families. But no one is demanding single-family homes and few are moving away in search of the bigger box.
Toronto and Vancouver have housing affordability problems, no question. And, yes, many people would love to live in a single-family home, 15 minutes from the office. But unless someone finds a way to overturn Mark Twain’s aphorism, we will have to find a good working alternative. We’ll have to bust the demand jam with ample supply of excellent and highly desirable homes.
It can be done with higher density. It can’t be done otherwise. Let’s learn from our successes.
Gordon Harris is a professional planner, an international consultant and the President and CEO of SFU Community Trust.