Welcome to my blog on housing, culture, and design, where I explore all the facets of real estate, shelter, and home. I’m Steve Fudge, and I’ve been selling real estate in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for over 30 years. Today I’m continuing my exploration of the topic of affordable housing.
Although housing prices across Canada have certainly moderated – and in many instances declined – in the face of rising interest rates, they are still very high, especially using the metrics of what is considered “affordable”. In Toronto, the cost of housing is still wildly disproportionate to worker incomes. With inflation skyrocketing, and the cost of everything climbing, the challenges continue to mount. Following the pandemic there was plenty of hiring happening; our low unemployment rate fell favourably, much to the delight of our politicians. Now, that stability is threatening to crumble, as those hired workers are unable to live on the salaries they’re being paid, could we be facing another city exodus? Perhaps, though I like to believe we’ll start seeing everyone being paid a living wage.
The depth and breadth of this affordability problem are both substantial; we have been increasingly turning to policymakers for some relief, with measures that have had varied success over the years. Affordability – particularly with respect to housing – was a major platform issue in both the recent Federal and Provincial elections. I summarized all the party positions on housing in these posts: The Housing Crisis In Ontario & The Upcoming Provincial Election and What Toronto Real Estate Buyers & Sellers Should Watch For In The 2021 Federal Election.
One step that is being taken in Toronto is implementing the requirement of ‘inclusionary zoning’ as a strategy to increase the supply of affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning, according to Gowling (with thanks) “is a powerful provincial planning tool that provides municipalities with the statutory authority to mandate, for certain new developments, the inclusion of affordable rental and ownership housing and to maintain this supply for a minimum period of 99 years”. This is a good strategy in theory; it could alleviate some price pressure, but there are potential pitfalls that could even contribute to greater erosion of affordability, as I discussed in Dear Urbaneer: What’s Being Done To Create Affordable Housing In Toronto? In this post, I take a brief look at some of the ups and downs of various metros around the world that have adopted inclusionary zoning. The discussion shines a light on the fact that housing affordability is very much a global phenomenon – and not one limited to our fair city or country.
Creative approaches are being pursued around the world and here at home. This Toronto Star article “How The Beer Store And Five Other Big Retailers” could help solve Toronto’s housing crisis talks about a recent University of Toronto study that suggests that the answer to affordable housing supply may rest with well-known retailers and their large real estate holdings. The study six brands Choice REIT, Sobeys, Metro, the Beer Store, Ikea and Canadian Tire collectively have enough land to build 68,579 homes in Toronto. And even if they designated only 10 percent of those, it would create 7000 affordable homes to add to the supply.
In fact, a 2018 study showed that, out of 200 cities polled around the world, 90 percent were considered unaffordable. (In this case, ‘unaffordable’ is defined as housing prices being more than three times median income.) And let’s remember too that affordability doesn’t just apply to a home’s purchase price; the costs to maintain it must be reasonable as well, thus expanding the oft-narrowed definition of affordability.
And, like in Canada, there are several factors commonly at play in a number of regions that contribute to eroding affordability, including lack of supply, shifting demographics, and scarcity of land.
The UN says that today, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban centres, and by 2050, that number will climb to 68 percent. With the scarcity of land, and available housing stock already unable to keep up with demand in a number of metros around the world, the problem of affordability will only get worse. In North America, the most recent stats show that 82 percent of the population lives in urban areas so clearly, the issue of creating housing for all income levels and household types in urban areas will be an ongoing issue for the unforeseeable future.
In Canada like many places: high home prices, high mortgage rates, substantial inflation… what are we to do? In times like these, it’s natural for us to look outward into the world, and possibly find solutions that have not yet been adopted in our countries and cities.
How do other countries approach housing? Let’s take a look at homeownership, affordability, and some creative solutions being employed around the world.
Mexico: One Room At A Time
Many nations have a buy-now-pay-later approach to housing, where we laden ourselves with a mortgage and then work at paying it down over time. But in some countries, a decidedly different approach to home building and home ownership is taken, where families build and live within their means – quite literally!
In a number of Caribbean countries and in Mexico, a drive along the countryside will reveal homes that look like they’re partially demolished yet also occupied. While poverty is certainly a major issue in a number of southern countries, these modest homes are actually reflective of the slow and steady path towards meeting their household’s wishes, wants and needs. These homes aren’t being torn down, they are being built up. Half-walls and exposed rebars are the marks of a home under construction over time.
Many times, the land owner will start by constructing a single room. They will work and save and build on another room and so on. In some countries, banks will finance partial construction, and homeowners qualify that way. It draws into focus what homeownership is and what it truly looks like to live within their means.
However, it is important to note that Canada is highly regulated when it comes to how we build. Our building code ensures we have one of the highest standards of housing on the globe, but this also means the cost to construct our housing stock is not inexpensive and we require our buildings to effectively be complete to meet the requirements of our building permits. Would we ever be able to build our homes ‘one room at a time’? The planning process is not designed to let our housing evolve unfinished in the manner illustrated here which, looking akin to a construction site has many risks of injury by our standards. Pity, though.
Did you know that Romania has the highest percentage of homeowners in the world? Just over 96 percent of Romanians nation own their own home. This is compared to about 68 percent in Canada, for example, which also represents a high percentage of ownership compared to many other countries.
It’s interesting, because Romania is not one of the more affluent countries in the world, and has a history characterized by political unrest. So how does a country with these challenges boast such a significant proportion of homeowners?
Romania was a former communist country, so when communist rule ended in 1989, the government-owned approximately 70 percent of the apartments. They quickly put these properties on the market, and an entire generation of new homeowners was created rapidly. In many cases, people rushed to buy the units that they currently lived in. Given the fall of the communist empire, the Romanian currency was weak, which helped people afford them at the time.
Although a high homeownership rate seems like a success story, there are problems with this model, decades later. There is next to no rental stock available, which means multiple generations of families have to cram into small existing homes. And although this large group of home buyers was able to afford the initial purchase price, in the years since have been hard-strapped to pay for maintenance and repairs. The housing stock is aging and in disrepair in many areas. In fact, in some places, it is quite dangerous – given Romania’s proclivity to earthquakes.
This underscores the need to approach home ownership not just as a sticker price purchase – but to anticipate costs going forward – not only for the fabric of the cities but also to use housing to grow personal wealth.
New Zealand has had a significant affordability problem, with housing prices rising 130 percent between 2011 and 2021, which greatly outpaced income growth. Meanwhile, the population experienced significant growth during that period, and the housing supply did not keep up with demand. As the portion of household debt to service mortgage debt has grown alongside total household debt, the rate of homeownership has steadily fallen in the country. Sound familiar?
Recently, the government announced sweeping reform to combat housing affordability, which would alter zoning to allow the construction of medium-density housing in a number of cities in the country. This would allow for housing to be three stories high, and three dwellings could be built on all existing residential parcels of land. Single-family dwellings could be torn down and reconstructed into multi-units.
This is significant as it represents a reversal of their former policies, which had long favoured single-family home development, especially in suburban areas.
Click here to read, “New Zealand’s Bipartisan Housing Reforms Offer A Model To Other Countries“.
With a large population, having land to build houses is important, but so is having land to grow food, which was becoming an issue in China, where farmland was being taken over by developers to create more housing.
A pilot program was introduced in 2017 that utilized tradeable land quotas, which allowed developers to build homes on the fringes of urban centres, in exchange for opening up more land for use beyond the city boundaries. As the pilot went along, the policy evolved to support developers in buying land use quotas and paying compensation for the use of farmland. This turned into a revenue stream for the rural provinces, many of which were considerably poorer than their urban counterparts.
For background on the tradable land quota program, click here to read “Balancing China’s Development With Need For Food Production“.
A couple of years ago, California Governor Gavin Newsome launched an aggressive program that would attempt to make meaningful change to reduce homelessness, which is a growing situation, particularly in pricey Los Angeles.
Not only does homelessness contribute to the socio-economic decline, but it also created a whole other set of problems during the pandemic, as the homeless are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks. During the initial pandemic, the government snapped up thousands of motel rooms in the Los Angeles area to house the homeless to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Building on that concept, they are now purchasing many motel units and retrofitting them to make them suitable for longer-term housing. This joint federal and state project could create up to 6000 new units to house the homeless; they plan to draw on the $600 million federal emergency dollars offered to the state.
This initiative is called Project HomeKey, and it is in Phase 2, which is seeing the active conversion of motel units. Newsome recently announced $87.5 million 2 funding awards for the Los Angeles County area, which would see the acquisition of six properties, which would create 269 new units. The project is ongoing.
This is a great example of adaptive reuse of property-and strategic use of available funding to create housing that contributes to the betterment of the health and wellbeing of the city (and state) as a whole. There are calls from analysts and stakeholders around the world to draw on this example and look to things like hotels and office space to create more housing opportunities. Click here to read “Hotel, Office Conversions Could Be Housing Pipeline: Study“.
Here is more background on the HomeKey program in California: “HomeKey Round 2: LA County Converting More Motels Into Housing” and “Troublesome Motel In Anaheim To Be Converted Into Affordable Housing“.
Copenhagen has seen a surge in housing prices in recent years, with the population growing rapidly, as many people from outlying regions flock to the urban centre for work and study. This has resulted in this Nordic city having one of the highest proportions of income being spent on rent and mortgages in the western world, according to the OECD.
The population is expected to continue to rise rapidly, as well, exacerbating an already tight housing supply. And the land is scarce in Denmark. So what is the solution when you don’t have any more room to build? You create more land mass.
They are building an artificial island just off the coast of Copenhagen, which will be close to the city centre, upon which they will build housing units (a proposed 35,000) with 20 percent of their earmarked as affordable housing (under market rent). The Lynetteholmen Island will be a community unto itself with bike paths and outdoor spaces. It will be connected to the mainland with a new subway line and a highway.
Not only will this artificial island help with housing supply and Denmark’s affordability problem, but it will also act as a natural barrier to Copenhagen’s coastline, protecting against rising sea levels thanks to climate change.
Click here to read “The New Island Solving A Nordic Housing Crisis” and “Artificial Island Lynetteholm To Be Built In Copenhagen Harbour“.
England has an affordability crisis as well, much of which is being directed by a lack of supply. Certainly, London is one of the priciest metros in the world, and other cities like Bristol are not too far behind. There are a few creative solutions being pursued in London that are helping to create supply.
In Bristol, there is development underway to convert a former primary school into 161 houses. What’s more, is that this development will offer a mix of housing types and six different types of tenure. This mixed tenure system is a first in Britain, as is the rent-to-buy program which will be part of the program. This development also marks the first time that a housing association, a community investment company, and a private investor have all collaborated.
It was a long process for approvals and was met with delay after delay- in part because of the number and varied interests of numerous stakeholders. It was worth the wait though because the over-arching goal of this development was to create housing that was relevant to the need at hand. The idea was to make this housing affordable and attainable (which is a distinction we are now hearing from our politicians in Ontario regarding our housing crisis).
The housing is intended for locals, but also for public servants (nurses, teachers, etc.) who were getting priced out of housing in the area because of the mismatch between income and housing prices. There will be a variety of options, from renting to co-ownership- rent-to-own to outright purchase.
Click here to read “Why These 161 New Homes In Bristol Will Be A ‘Turning Point For Housing In Britain“.
In London, issues with housing supply are being tackled from a labour standpoint. It’s one thing to find a location and come to a policy consensus to create that housing, but if there is no one on-site to swing the hammers, the supply never enters the stream. Furthermore, when labour is in short supply, premiums must be paid for work done – and those extra costs are passed on, increasing housing prices and hampering affordability even more.
In response, London has created the Mayor’s Construction Academy, intended to train and draw more people to the sector. Not only is a lack of skilled trades hampering construction, but there are also numerous people in lower-paying jobs in London who have been leaving, unable to afford to live there anymore. This program will provide these people with better-paying jobs while increasing the much-needed housing supply in the city.
Public housing is usually segregated by design because it is usually reserved for the neediest of groups. The financial model is not sustainable.
A development in Vienna has shown that doesn’t have to be the case.
The boom in social housing took off post-WWII when the government was tasked with rebuilding large amounts of housing quickly that had been destroyed during the war. Today, social housing in Vienna is typically built by private companies – but on government-owned land. It is open to people of all income levels, combining a cross-section of income levels. Some units are subsidized and some are offered at market rates. This approach is sometimes criticized because it often raises prices even higher – especially in gentrifying neighbourhoods, where these mixed model development are often built.
However, in Vienna, rents are kept fairly steady because of the rate of creation of this type of housing supply. Many of these complexes are built each year, and social housing comprises nearly 40 percent of the overall housing stock in Vienna. Even more important in making these viable and desirable across the income classes is that the Viennese classify affordable housing as a right(1), not an investment, per se.
In Chile, a slow-and-steady approach was used in the creation of this affordable housing. Based on typical row units, empty spaces were constructed between houses, intended for the homeowners to design, build and decorate over time as their budget allowed. Homes were stabilized for seismic durability, electricity, foundations, plumbing (but no fittings), an access stair, and openings for doorways.
At the core of this concept is that a house is an ongoing project. The firm that conceived this development, Elemental, made creative use of the limited funds that they had to create low-income housing to develop the most housing that they could – by essentially building half a house.
Not only does this create affordable housing, but the concept also gives local residents the chance to create housing that really reflects the local culture and climate.
Here’s a more in-depth look: “Half A House Builds A Whole Community: Elemental’s Controversial Social Housing” and “Affordable Housing Solution in Chile”.
Plus, this is an interesting history of affordable housing and activism in the country: A Right to Low-Income Housing in Chile.
(*Title image also courtesy of ArchDaily.)
Looking to read a bit more about housing solutions being employed around the world?
These articles have good summaries of initiatives being taken in various spots around the globe. Read “No Room At The Inn, But World’s Cities Are Fighting“, “Learning From International Examples Of Affordable Housing” and “10 Ways Cities Are Tackling The Global Affordable Housing Crisis“.
Does the high price of housing have you re-think your house hunt strategy? Are you wondering when the best time to sell your home during rising inflation is? With decades of experience, and wisdom to guide you, we are here to help!
Thanks for reading!
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-8000
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