Big buildings lead to less livable cities
A recent report of the Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force assumes that residents and the planning process are the primary barriers to affordable housing supply, and once both are disarmed, supply will continue. This view is wrong.
If generous zoning and a sparing application of urban design principles could solve our housing affordability crisis, Kitchener should be the leader in housing affordability. In recent years, the city has considered ambitious zoning along the Ion light rail line, approved nearly all core area proposals for large-scale development, and passed a new phased residential zoning ordinance, allowing up to three dwellings on all residential plots. Have these changes improved housing affordability? No. Home price increases in Kitchener are among the highest in Canada.
Why – when zoning has led to a “development tsunami” of high-rise residential buildings along the LRT corridor?
First, high-rise buildings are expensive, with construction costs about two and a half times higher than low-rise buildings. Most high-rise buildings are condos, with pre-sales from investors increasing costs for subsequent residents. Financial risks are higher due to long development times, which creates greater uncertainty about future construction costs, rents and sale prices – so lenders demand higher rates of return.
Zoning also reduces housing affordability through an “increase in land value”. What is that? When my neighbor called to renew his mortgage, the agent said, “Don’t you know that all these houses are going to be demolished to make skyscrapers? »
Investors smell upzoning like sharks smell blood in the water, with similar responses. Expectations for approval of high-density construction cause land prices to be too high for cheaper high-density, low-rise construction to be economically viable. Municipal authorities need to send clear signals about zoning constraints to control land value increases. The report proposes to remove this power.
Dismantling urban design protections such as setbacks, setbacks, and shading guidelines is a terrible idea. While this may result in larger constructions, it will not result in more livable cities. Design safeguards preserve the function, aesthetics and environmental health of cities. If we build dense, poorly designed cities devoid of sunlight and open spaces, everyone who can leave will. Those that cannot leave, like houseplants in a dark corner, will suffer from reduced physical and mental health.
The report claims to champion young families, but these dense, poorly planned urban environments are particularly hostile to children. Instead, it’s widely recognized that families need low-rise, high-density housing with green space. Strangely, the report excludes these forms from their definition of “missing intermediate” housing.
What policies would increase the supply of affordable housing? Allowing more units on residential plots is a start. The planning process for the “missing middle” of low-rise buildings can be simplified, but should not be abandoned, as the report suggests. Instead, I offered to work with developers, municipalities and residents to create generic “missing-middle” site plan templates, the approval of which could be simplified – essentially, the design of the T template quadruplexes.
Reduction or elimination of parking requirements close to transit, as proposed in the report, will help developers use scarce land for housing, not parking. With less parking, new developments will bring in new people, not new cars, moderating opposition to denser developments.
Lenders and conservative investors are targeting housing types they believe are historically profitable, such as high-rise buildings. But lenders are unaware of the “missing middle” of low-rise buildings and, without proof of its viability in the local market, they are reluctant to invest.
Thus, the market needs non-profit financing to demonstrate the viability of more affordable low-rise, high-density housing and to enable developers to finance purpose-built rental housing rather than condominiums.
The Region of Waterloo is a provincial leader in intensification, with 70% of new development in built-up areas. Within the current Planning of major transit station areasthe region should develop policies that facilitate the construction of more affordable low-rise “missing middle” housing, without destroying existing highly functional and relatively affordable neighborhoods.
We can lead the way in providing more affordable missing middle-income housing, demonstrating the leadership, compassion and imagination that the province lacks.