Welcome to this month’s installment of Dear Urbaneer, where I take on real estate questions from my ever-inquisitive readers. This time, I am talking to a reader who – like so many dwell hunters these days – is struggling to reconcile the high price of housing and the dream of homeownership. Together, we take a look back at affordable economical housing in Canada over the generations and look at some of the policy and societal influences over time that shaped – quite literally – the Canadian housing market.
There is so much talk lately about how Toronto housing prices have become unaffordable. Even with the pullback the market is currently experiencing, it seems like housing prices continue to be way out of line with average incomes, and clearly, we need greater attention to the creation of affordable housing. And it got me thinking – what affordable housing options were available to house hunters in years gone by? What did they look like? And do we even build anything similar for buyers today?
Rising Prices Getting Me Down
Here’s my reply:
Dear Mr. Down:
The issue of housing affordability has been profound in Toronto – and many other places in Canada – for years. With scarce supply and rising prices over the past 2 decades, affordability has eroded significantly. The concept of home ownership has also changed, serving not only functionally as a place to live but as a means to make money. In the face of this seismic and long-lasting market shift, the consequences are generationally impacting.
Housing represents so much more than shelter. In the past, I’ve explored how “home” fulfils us in my posts on American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theories on the hierarchy of needs as it pertains to housing for buyers and for sellers. I’ve also written about Housing As A Symbol Of Self, ‘The Value Of Home‘ and The Psychology Of Real Estate, Housing & Home.
Despite the high prices the dream of homeownership still burns brightly. I wrote about the realities of this in my post Why Does Homeownership Remain A Priority For Canadians, Despite The High Costs? while lamenting the current reality in The Affordability Conundrum For Toronto House Buyers: Location, Condition & Costs. Today, solutions that support chasing that dream include relying on the Bank of Mom and Dad and looking at alternative options like co-ownership and multigenerational living.
I want to begin by stating that I believe housing in Canada should be a right and not a privilege, meaning that those who cannot afford to purchase a residence should be able to rent one within their financial means. I also want to acknowledge there are many factors that contribute to how much it costs to build shelter, and many forces at play which determine what the market value of shelter is in different locations across the country. And to understand all the nuances that contribute to this are complex and deeply rooted in land-use patterns, preferences and priorities; urban planning, policy and politics; the design, materiality and unsustainability of our built environment including our reliance on the car and fossil fuels; as well as our destructive attachment to status, power and greed including systemic racism, gender inequality and social inequity. If you want to see who the haves and have-nots are, look at where they live.
As our housing crisis has become amplified I and others working in occupations under the shelter industry umbrella have been accused of being ‘part of the housing affordability problem’. I understand when I look through the lens of the people saying this how it may be systemically true. You may choose to blame me, but until every Canadian has a roof over their head with heat, running water and working sanitation we are all part of the problem.
I also want to acknowledge there are many definitions of what ‘affordable housing’ is that include both renting and owning. Here my focus is specifically on the creation of economical housing, which is a modest cost-effective shelter built on a scale of economy that serves the local buying market. It is not a new phenomenon given the need for a roof over our heads has always existed.
With the rising cost of living, driven in large part because of the high cost of housing, affordable economical housing is always front of mind for society at large. After all, we need a range of housing types for people to climb up and down the property ladder. This natural filtering of housing stock keeps the flow of capital moving. Economical housing has the capacity to reflect changes in technology, taste & trends, materials and social needs – like this recent article in Dwell Magazine called What It’s Really Like to Live in a 3D-Printed Home. The history of the creation of affordable economical housing – and where we are poised to go in the future is fascinating.
Mail Order Housing 1910 – 1932
The concept of shopping from the comfort of home has been around long before the internet because of the mail-order catalogue. But did you know that catalogue shopping played an early role in creating affordable economical housing for Canadians?
Mail-order homes were popular in western Canada. B.C. Mills Timber and Trading Co. of Vancouver, shipped prefabricated houses and commercial buildings. The United Grain Growers, the University of Saskatchewan and the Manitoba Agricultural College also were in the mail-order home business. The biggest suppliers of mail-order homes though were T. Eaton Co. Ltd .and Canadian Aladdin Co. Ltd.
Well-known retailers like Eaton’s offered mail-order homes, where homebuyers could select from plans and materials. This was very popular in the prairie provinces, where Eaton’s served as a one-stop shop for farmers. They could order all their clothing, goods and materials from the catalogue- along with their homestead! The housing portion of the catalogue was available only in the Western region.
The catalogue would display a few model homes for inspiration and advertise free housing plan books. The books provided a comprehensive suite of details around the chosen home, including an artist’s sketch, floor plan and information about lumber- along with guidance on doors, flooring, windows and hardware. Once a customer settled on a home, they could order blueprints to build.
Eaton’s sold 40 different housing plans, from large two-storey homes to smaller homes. In fact, many of these homes still stand today and belong to the fourth and fifth generations.
The most popular model- the one-and-a-half storey called the Earlsfield cost an affordable $696.50, plus freight. Here’s the ad:
The biggest player in the mail-order home landscape was Canadian Aladdin Co. Ltd. Eaton’s operated locally in Western Canada, from the early 20th century until about 1932, whereas Canadian Aladdin Co. Ltd. had offices across the country and extended business into the mid-20th century.
I love this postage stamp from 1998 that commemorates Canada’s prefab housing from that era!
The Aladdin homes were pre-cut at the lumber mill and shipped to the railway station closest to the customer, where they would pick up the materials, along with blueprints and an instruction manual. They assured customers that building a home would be easy. They had a tagline- that “anyone who could swing a hammer could build an Aladdin home”.
Here is a fascinating read on the period of mail order housing in Canada: Fashion to Funishings.
The Bungalow 1920-1940
This popular housing style first appeared in Bengal, India in the 19th century, when India was under British rule. They were very popular because of their small but efficient footprint, which allowed for useable space and comfort from the design in the searing Indian heat (low to the ground, good airflow, central rooms, large verandas with overhanging roofs etc.).
This housing style became popular in Britain and then in the U.S. for the same reason – smart design.
Later, in Canada, the bungalow burst onto the scene In Canada, and in the suburbs, the dearth of this housing type was built just before and after WW II, as housing to rent to those working in war-related industries. Built by the Wartime Housing Corporation, (which became CMHC in 1946) There was an economical choice because of the scale on which these communities were built, getting the best bang for your buck so to speak, as it was affordable and practical, maximining useable space in a smaller footprint. There were cheaper and easier to build, and cheaper for homeowners to maintain.
Most of these bungalows were based on government-approved floor plans. Typically, the design included a low, unfinished basement, a large central living/dining space, a smaller kitchen created with function first, a single washroom along with a single bedroom or two. Some designs feature a steeply pitched roof, which housed an unfinished attic, with the idea that this space could be used for future bedrooms.
Over 46,000 bungalows were constructed during that period – because of smart design and affordability – something that has remained the same for homeowners throughout the generations.
Today, bungalows are a popular choice for those with mobility issues, choosing to age in place. Their compact design also makes them more efficient to heat and cool which is very appealing given the rising cost of living.
I wrote this post Dear Urbaneer: What Do I Do With My Dated Bungalow? (Plus A Brief History On This Housing Type) in response to a client who was wondering about what upgrades might be necessary to his 90-year-old bungalow prior to going to market? This post also features a more comprehensive history of the bungalow in Canada. Check it out!
This post about the history of the bungalow in Ontario is interesting as well.
Victory Housing 1946-1960
As WW II ended, and soldiers returned home focus turned back to family and creating home life. Housing become more accessible to the working classes as the government stepped in to boost the supply for the men and women returning from the war. Legislation aided in the creation of affordable housing around Canada’s major cities, essentially setting the stage for the suburban movement that would take root during the 1950s.
Many of the homes constructed to rent to workers in war-related industries were offered for sale, and more were built.
This housing design was coined the Victory House, with a one-and-half storey layout. So popular in the suburbs of Toronto over the decades, given their age, many developers seek these properties out and demolish them in favour of building more substantial homes.
However, given the smart, compact style of these homes, homeowners are still drawn to the style, as affordability to maintain, as well as energy efficiency and sustainability, are high priorities. As construction of these homes continued after the war, many of the pre-fab processes that helped produce them so quickly during the war remained, like producing lumber to standardized lengths and widths so that similar houses could be built on multiple sites. CMHC offered to sell these homes at an affordable price point of between $6,000 and $7,000. CMHC played a major role in providing these veterans with mortgages and granting them access to homeownership
During the years 1946-1960 around a million of these homes were built across Canada, many of which were in Toronto. In fact, entire Toronto neighbourhoods were comprised of this housing type, and you will still see lots of them today.
One of the most well-known is Topham Park in Toronto. Strawberry-box homes (given their resemblance to fruit crates) dot winding roads, with lots of green space. The design comprised about 1000 sq. ft, with a couple of bedrooms housed in the steeply pitched roof, with four rooms below, including a compact-but utilitarian- kitchen. Windows in the second half-storey tended to be on the sides, rather than dormers facing front with the roof peak. And these homes have staying power. Many of the current residents are descendants of the original owners.
What is notable about this housing movement is that it set the stage for standardized building development that we see in new developments today; it created a benchmark for wood frame construction and for material standards. With the development of these homes and the subsequent expansion of the suburbs, we saw the beginning of urban sprawl, which is something we are still dealing with today.
This Bloomberg article “How Wartime Victory Houses Shaped Modern Toronto” has a lot of interesting background on these homes and the vital role they played in Canada’s housing history – and the widespread beginning of accessible, affordable homeownership.
The Birth Of The Suburb: Production-Based Shelter In Master Planned Communities
The birth of the suburb can be traced back to the Garden City Movement, which came about during the industrial revolution, as urban planners aimed to increase the quality of life, as congestion in the urban cores created pollution and social and health problems. These garden cities were self-contained and were planned in such a way that made the best use of the available rural land, with similar amenities that folks were flocking to the urban cores to access. Swathed with greenbelts, construction would combine residential and commercial properties in the developments. The original goal here was to create affordable housing for the working class.
The same can be said for the suburban movement in Canada. In the mid-20th century, when the war had ended, families were seeking greener pastures, so to speak. That is they were seeking out areas that were affordable, but also provided them with lifestyle-enhancing amenities to help them live conveniently, and also be able to focus easily on family-friendly leisure activities. These master-planned communities were sure to include amenities like shops, restaurants, parks, schools, recreation centres and more.
The big draw for homebuyers was affordability, as developers were able to take advantage of economies of scale to mass-produce housing. Industry followed the population out to the burbs. As the suburbs expanded and expanded, the reliance on the automobile became more prevalent.
Toronto’s Don Mills is a great example of the explosive growth of the suburb and how it greatly influenced housing history in this country. In 1954, Toronto was the fastest-growing city in North America, thanks in part to Don Mills which was the first “comprehensive suburb”.
Whereas an urban centre is designed in a grid pattern to maximize the efficiency of the use of space, suburban streets were meandering and more idyllic, with more space and greenery along the way. The focus of this master-planned community was to foster community and neighbourhoods.
The suburbs have always been popular with families, but saw a resurgence in interest during the pandemic, as we embraced the work-from-home movement. With the freedom to work wherever we pleased, many people were seeking more space, hence the draw to the suburbs.
Suburban development has had some common threads that have been carried back from the garden city movement- that is the creation of affordable housing, with an eye to green space and convenient amenities all with the overarching theme of making the best use of the available land.
Check out this post Exploring COVID-19, Urban Planning And Toronto Real Estate for a brief history of the growth of the suburb and the evolution of urban planning in Canada. This CBC article “Birth Of The Suburbs: Canadians Embrace The Comforts Of Home In Post-War Time” is a great resource too.
Vancouver Special 1965 – 1985
The Vancouver Special is a great example of a mass-produced home that characterized a generation seeking affordable housing. They were built en masse in the 1960s and 1970s mostly to serve the large immigrant population coming to Vancouver, hailing from Europe and Southeast Asia.
Following along with the same idea of making the best use of available land, their design evolved to accommodate the city of Vancouver’s setback and building envelope at the time, which stipulated that the basement did not need to be included in square footage calculations. The design of the home allowed for maximum square footage on a narrow lot in a very cost-effective way. The unfinished lower levels – which were only slightly below grade yet still classified as a basement – were great because of their flexible use, making them perfect for multi-generational families (of which there were many in Vancouver) who converted them into second suites. They were also used as income-offset rentals, making it an even more affordable choice.
Built just below grade, these two-storey homes have a boxy design, with front gables and a shallow-pitch roof built. The second floor has a shallow balcony. The front door is generally affixed to one side of the other of the main floor, making it easy to split into a duplex. The lower floor usually has a brick façade, with stucco on the upper floor.
The lower-pitched roof required fewer materials and was cheaper to build. As more of these homes were built (and there were a lot of them) it became easier and cheaper to acquire materials.
This CBC article “How The Vancouver Special, Once Described As Bland, Holds A Key To Solving B.C.’s Housing Crisis talks about the Vancouver Special and how design took advantage of a zoning loophole in order to provide much-needed housing supply when there was little available (i.e. the basement not counting in square footage). It sounds quite familiar in the sense that zoning issues are a common barrier to the creation of new housing stock today and these lessons could be valuable in today’s marketplace.
Success can be a bit of a double-edged sword though, and because of the vast numbers of the Vancouver Special – and its ubiquitousness – there are many critics of it. In fact, the city passed a law banning the construction of more in 1988 to preserve architectural integrity on the streetscapes of Vancouver.
This post from the Vancouver Heritage Foundation is interesting and has great photos of this iconic home.
The Condominium As Affordable Economical Housing – 1980s
Although the condominium has been in existence in Ontario since the late 1960s, its presence and popularity in downtown Toronto grew in the 1970s and early 1980s, when condos were targeted to the well-heeled seeking ‘houses in the sky’. Modern monolithic towers like Harbour Square (33, 55, 65 Harbour Square) on Harbourfront, Granite Place at 61 & 63 St. Clair West, The Residences at 110 Bloor West and Renaissance Plaza at 175 Cumberland are examples of the new status badges for the rich. Interestingly these types of Toronto domicology were also culturally specific, as I wrote in Housing As A Symbol Of Self.
But in the mid-1980s around 18,000 new condominium units came to market that didn’t cater to the rich. Instead of ‘houses in the sky’ they were efficient economical boxes developed for the exploding demand of first-time urban professional buyers, both single and attached.
It literally reshaped the urban housing market and introduced the idea that this alternative housing type as a means for the first-time buyer to get onto the property ladder. I wrote more about this in my post Gentrification, Densification, And The History Of Toronto Real Estate. Today, the condominium market appeals to many different target markets including Single And Home Hunting In Toronto, Twenty Reasons Your Kid Will Love Living In A Condo and Urbaneer’s Secrets To Successfully Downsizing To Smaller Accommodations. The role of the condominium as affordable economical housing could easily be its own post.
Kelowna Quads – 2018
With the growing need for affordable housing and inadequate supply, Kelowna held a design competition in 2018 with the aim of fitting multi-unit housing in single-family home neighbourhoods. The winner was a quadplex design. It was a smart space that was reasonably inexpensive to build – especially benefitting from an economy of scale. The development of these complexes also made the best use of infill in neighbourhoods near the core of the city, with desirable amenities nearby.
Kelowna redesignated 800 standard, 50-foot wide properties for the construction of these fourplexes. Most of these lots contained 60+-year-old homes that were torn down in favour of denser housing. fourplexes could be built on them. Given the location, the feeling was that by creating denser housing, more efficient use of infrastructure and things like schools and parks in the area.
These home proposals show as well what can happen when levels of bureaucracy work together proactively. The development approval process, which typically took a year or more got fast-tracked to only a couple of weeks. They were able to build 200 quadplexes, resulting in 800 new units coming into the market in a two-year span.
There are plans to develop more of these in other neighbourhoods in Kelowna.
However, the Kelowna Quad faces some of the same backlashes that the Vancouver Special did. While it served a purpose very effectively (i.e., creating affordable housing en masse for a growing population), having the sheer number of the same type of home on the streetscapes detracts from the aesthetic appeal of neighbourhoods. The other concern raised is, how affordable are these new homes? They are sold at a premium because they are new and because demand in the marketplace supports the prices.
For background reading, check out “Fourplexes Add Urban Density To Kelowna“, but come at a cost and “Kelowna Councillors Love The Idea Of Spreading Fourplexes Throughout The City“.
It’s a bit of a dilemma, and hard to find that balance.
Toronto faces similar challenges – and in many cases, the bureaucracy and ratepayer associations slow the development process – contributing to unaffordability, which I have written about here:
For more on how our housing environments are changing in Canada – and more specifically in Toronto, Ontario – check out these posts of mine: How Lessons Learned From COVID-19 Will Change Urban Planning & High-Density Living and Exploring COVID-19, Urban Planning And Toronto Real Estate.
Housing – its history – and its development in response to a need for affordable economical shelter for the homebuying public is a common theme that persists across the country. And it’s become a political hot potato. With the upcoming provincial election, there’s an opportunity to create a fresh policy to support the development of a new housing supply while providing people with economic options poised to grow for the future.
It’s always interesting to consider where we have been to determine where and how we will go forward – which is particularly true when it comes to shelter. Thank you for reading my overview on this topic. And, as always, I sincerely appreciate your Dear Urbaneer questions!
Jumping back to the topic of bungalows, here’s a great example of a 1920’s Toronto bungalow that we recently sold:
Looking To Live On A Quiet But Connected Tree-Lined Avenue, Two Blocks From The New Oakwood Station On The Crosstown LRT?
If the answer is Yes, this 2bed dwelling on Clovelly Avenue represents a great opportunity! Refurbish a character-rich century bungalow or create a custom executive residence; this property is full of possibility!
Thanks for reading!
– Steve & The Urbaneer Team
Now more than ever, if you’re considering purchasing or selling Toronto real estate, speak with us about your housing wishes, wants and needs. Why? Because along with helping you create your personal custom housing matrix, we develop a comprehensive, data-driven, tactical strategy tailored specifically for you and your objectives. This is especially important during changing times when there are so many mitigating factors shaping our economic and socio-political climates (oh, don’t forget the Climate Crisis too!). May we be of assistance to you, or someone you love? Because we’d really like to be your realtors of choice.
The Urbaneer team is engaging, educated, experienced and excellent in client care.
Allow us the privilege to earn your trust, then your business.
The Urbaneer Team
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-8000
– we’re here to earn your trust, then your business –
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