Anyone who follows local housing discussions will know that certain issues are bound to arise in these conversations. Common issues are affordability, heritage, and urban design. Some of these are considered 'hot-button' issues that can draw in passionate voices on all sides.
This recent Slate article dives into several of these concerns around affordability, aesthetics, and heritage. Beginning with heritage issues, the article refers to a "new wave of housing activists" that argue "the ostensible interest in cornices, mullions, materials, rooflines, massing, and setbacks on new buildings serves as a convenient excuse for neighborhoods to keep everything the same—except for the socioeconomic diversity that once filled their sidewalks."
That's the unfortunate irony of this issue - in an attempt to maintain some of the things we love about 'heritage homes' or districts, we exclude what often made those neighbourhoods so desirable originally - things like walkability, a mix of uses, and the social and economic diversity of the community. "This status quo has preserved the shape of older places, but not the kinds of people who once lived there."
The article says that in more recent times, the preservation coalition's "focus has shifted from protecting the old to policing the new." There seems to be less an emphasis on simply preserving certain buildings, to opposing or demanding changes to anything new that is proposed. The article says, "What was really driving these cities [with conservation districts], from Boise to Nashville to Charlottesville,” says Lemar, “wasn’t about what was ugly, per se. It was concern about density and increasing population.”
We know too that building new housing is expensive - and some of those costs are related not to materials and labour, but to the amount of time it takes to bring housing to market. As the Slate article notes, "Housing is more expensive, and less abundant, in the name of good looks. Not everywhere, but often in the high-opportunity neighborhoods and cities where it would mean the most."
But can't we have affordable and beautiful buildings without density? "Alain Bertaud writes that the decision to build tall or short buildings is not the choice of an architect, developer, or planner, but a natural result of the land values, “purely an economic decision depending on the price of land in relation to the price of construction.” Requiring shorter buildings, as many places do, is tantamount to requiring expensive homes." The article also states, “We have a housing crisis, not an aesthetics crisis,” Bertolet says now. “Giving residents veto power over design will slow homebuilding and make housing more expensive.”
Whatever you believe about how much influence neighbours, developers, councillors, and city staff should have in housing decisions, the slow, drawn-out process we have right now, is not working well for most of us. It adds time and cost to housing developments, and "embitters residents who double down on strict zoning."
Here's what the article's author suggests for a way forward:
"Better zoning laws could avoid these kerfuffles in three ways. First, zoning that actually anticipates what neighborhoods need would give developers and residents a better understanding of what’s expected and permitted, building trust and obviating site-by-site stand-offs. Second, reforming the code around issues like parking and setback requirements would cease to precipitate many of the ugly designs residents say they don’t like. Third, much of what is sometimes considered an aesthetic preference—making sure a project doesn’t include a big, blank street wall, or a cavernous garage opening—can be codified rather than negotiated later."
However, the author notes that won't solve every issue:
"There are drawbacks. The buildings, obviously, look pretty similar to each other. It’s also hard to build a code that vanquishes the back-and-forth. “If you could create a by-right process where you didn’t have the same argument over and over again, I’d be willing to sacrifice diversity in architecture,” said Laura Foote, the executive director of YIMBY Action, a housing-growth group. “But people just want it both ways. Having a giant code and still having a design charrette where people argue—those things are correlated!”
I'd love to know what you think about this - comment below!
I have been working with the CKMS Radio Waterloo newsroom for the last 6 months or so on a show called the Waterloo Region Weekly Round-up. That show takes a bit of a deeper look at local council meetings and discussions, especially on issues around housing, policing, and poverty. I have really enjoyed sharing these issues with listeners. Many of the episodes are on topics that I am also very interested in, especially those on housing and development.
The work can be tedious at times as it involves listening to hours and hours of council meetings and reading through hundreds of pages of staff reports. But, as I said, I often find the information interesting and I am happy to offer one way for residents to more easily access this information.
Recently, I focused on the issue of Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) as Cambridge council was discussing whether the city should move forward on community consultation for two candidate locations for a CTS site in Cambridge. The discussion ended up occurring over 2 different meetings as so many delegates registered to speak to the issue. In fact, my coverage of the discussion extends over 2 episodes because there is a lot to cover.
I did want to say though, that this episode (WRWR ep. 10) has been the most challenging episode to produce to date. I do my best to present what's happening in these discussions without sharing many of my own opinions on any given issue. That proved particularly challenging with this episode as I had to listen to many delegations say thinks about people who use drugs that I found to be inappropriate, not compassionate, and often misinformed. I often found myself thinking "I don't want to listen anymore." Yet, I included quotations from them as I think it is important for us to fully understand these discussions. I was very thankful for those delegations that spoke in support of harm reduction strategies in general, and for a CTS site specifically.
If, like me, you feel that Consumption and Treatment Services are a compassionate and necessary support for people who use drugs, this may be a hard episode to listen to. Perhaps it will help to know that eventually council does vote in support of continuing with community consultation.
As our Region's population continues to grow, we are seeing many more condos being developed. And it seems everyone has an opinion on them, which usually falls somewhere on the spectrum from 'I never want to see another condo built again' to 'Build as many condos as possible, as tall as possible'.
No matter one's penchant or not for condos, I have heard more people calling for larger 'family-sized' condos to be developed. Most development proposals, it seems, are largely 1 and 2 bedrooms. If we want to provide real options for denser living, should we not build larger options so families can remain in condos, even if their family grows larger?
One developer in North York thinks we should. Fan Yang is the general manager for a new condo development which "addresses a major “gap” in housing in Toronto — a shortage of family-oriented units." His personal experience of living in a downtown condo, close to amenities that allowed his young family to walk everywhere influenced his desire for a development that may better accommodate families.
“We found that it’s very difficult to find a family-focused community and a three-bedroom unit in an urban area, because at that time most of the supply in the condo market was mainly one bedroom or one bedroom and a den and most of them are investor driven,” says Yang.
He continues, "We believe this will be very good for the children, very good for the parents and for the whole family, and we also believe this family-focused community will be good for the whole neighbourhood because we think this will make the community more livable, more stable and more harmonious.”
Sounds pretty great, right?
Of course, the question remains, will these units actually sell?
"Jim Ritchie, chief operating officer for major developer Tridel says one reality of the condo market is smaller units just sell faster." And, "Jane Renwick, vice-president marketing and sales for Diamond Kilmer Developments, another significant firm in the building industry, says 10 per cent of the new housing projects that do come to market are providing three-bedroom units, but from her experience that has “exceeded” demand."
But why? If we are hearing calls for these larger units, why don't they sell? It seems to come down to cost. "Larger units, even in a mid-market-priced building, are expensive simply because of their size. You run into fundamental arguments of the bigger the unit the more it costs,” she says.
So where does that leave us? "Developers say families don’t want to live in urban areas, while families say there isn’t sufficient family-focused product there, so Toronto is stuck in a vicious circle, or a “loop,” as Yang calls it." The plan for the North York development is to offer 3-bedrooms that are much smaller but more efficient in their design than what we tend to be used to in the North American market. "M2M also touts its “unique” floor plan: three-bedroom, three-bathroom units that include two master bedrooms at only 1,003 square feet – compared, Aoyuan says, to the more common 800 square foot two-bedroom units in Toronto."
It will be interesting to see what happens as these units go to market. Will there be demand for the 3 bedroom condos? Locally, I would love to see some sort of housing registry that would allow residents to understand what is available on the market currently, which units sell and which don't, along with trends on rental and housing prices.
Do you think larger 'family-sized' condos are needed in Waterloo Region?
(You can read the (pay walled) article here.)
WR YIMBY, a group with which I am very involved, recently announced a gofundme in support of oneROOF. This was driven by a desire to assist oneROOF with legal fees resulting from some neighbours appealing a recent approval for additional affordable housing for youth. A resident from that neighbourhood, hearing of this fundraiser, reached out to me to provide additional context. That neighbour also encouraged me to watch the 3+ hour Committee of Adjustment meeting where over 20 residents spoke out against this proposed expansion. I have watched that meeting (and you can do so as well, here, starting around 1:10:00) and I have a few thoughts.
As someone who watches many neighbourhood and council meetings, I was not surprised by many of the concerns shared by these delegations. There were concerns about density, crime, and oversaturation of similar community services and supports. Many residents said that they no longer feel safe in their neighbourhoods.
As the meeting wrapped up, I couldn’t help but think that there has to be a better way of doing all of this. As someone in favour of building up and not out, I don't often share concerns around height, density, and the like. However, I think all of us want our community to feel safe. And I think most of us see value in organizations such as oneROOF to offer care and resources to our community. Yet, at times, it can feel like we are all fighting against each other on city building issues. It has me yearning for a better way.
With that in mind, I have listed a few potential ways of moving forward that could benefit our community as a whole.
Those are a few of my ideas. I'd love to hear what you think of them, as well as any other ideas you would add to that list. Feel free to comment!