Spark your own housing bubble in Toronto

Toronto’s Board of Health has given approval to a proposal to make all new rental housing units in the city’s downtown core required to have underground parking.

Not only is this excessive. It also threatens Toronto’s rental vacancy rate – the supply of properties that actually makes money – which sits at zero percent, for reasons that are well-documented.

The city’s affordable housing crisis is becoming more acute. We are losing young people to San Francisco, to New York and to Chicago, all leading to the crash of Toronto’s housing market in the first place. If developers building rental units for market rent can’t make a profit, they won’t build them.

I would like to start a mini-movement to help with this one problem. Some of us have said it many times before: buildings for low-income rental housing need to be affordable. Not just to residents, but to investors as well. If a building can’t recoup enough to pay back the cost of rent, then it can’t pay the entire debt. You’d be surprised at how many of these things really do happen. As a result, you have buildings full of maintenance and management fees, and nobody lives there. And all of a sudden, there’s not enough demand for units that you can manage the building for. So you close up, sell off the land, and make a ton of money. In one case we even found out that it was vacant for years. It’s one of the many scams that developers sometimes do to get their fix.

This is particularly troubling when it comes to Toronto, which is losing large numbers of young people for reasons that are also familiar to all other cities of Canada.

But now a group of the architects we lead at Robson Design could show how not to build these kinds of buildings, where high-rises are getting up in the middle of a housing boom, but builders can’t pay back their construction loans. We have recently re-sited one of the newly-built residential towers, proposing a more affordable, more pedestrian-friendly approach to building housing for seniors and first-time homebuyers.

Toronto has an aversion to walkable cities. And this only worsens with a shortage of parking. We have done this by reducing parking requirements, but the country has a low density of parking locations, so increasing densities on sites with parking is not the solution.

There is a solution to this. We can eliminate this overreliance on parking, and in doing so we’ll start to overcome the mistakes of past condominium construction with glass towers on a grid of streets. Instead of requiring tenants to pay to have a car, we can require parking space credits that residents can work out with their building manager. The effect would be what we’ve seen in so many “zero parking” zones in Europe, where you have driveways for specific uses, like schools, but cars are banned from the streets.

Many people in Toronto today are forcing their way into places they want to live. They’re willing to drive and take taxis, they’re spending hours trying to live with the car parking fees and things like that. The most effective solution is to simply put these people right into new buildings with great views, and allow them to live without the hassle.

That’s my suggestion, and maybe we can just take a quick poll to see what people think.

Matt Elliott is the Director of Landscape Architecture and Planning at Robson Design in Toronto, which is known for its development of mixed-use urban spaces.

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